Can You Smell Burnout on Someone? Science Says Yes

A small wearable device tracks a patient's cortisol levels in sweat.
Loukia Papadopoulos

We have all experienced stress at one point or another and many of us have actually gone so far as to experience a burnout. This is partially because under duress, we don't always notice the signs that indicate that we are suffering from extreme stress and should slow down or take a break. 

As such, our condition continues unchanged until we finally collapse. But what if there was a way to measure and monitor stress levels to make sure they never get out of control?

Engineers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland have now developed a small wearable sensor that can continually measure a patient's concentration of cortisol, the main stress biomarker, in their sweat.  "Cortisol can be secreted on impulse — you feel fine and suddenly something happens that puts you under stress, and your body starts producing more of the hormone," said in a statement Adrian Ionescu, head of Nanolab.

Cortisol is meant to help us respond to stressful situations and is usually secreted throughout the day according to a circadian rhythm. "But in people who suffer from stress-related diseases, this circadian rhythm is completely thrown off," explained Ionescu. "And if the body makes too much or not enough cortisol, that can seriously damage an individual's health, potentially leading to obesity, cardiovascular disease, depression or burnout."

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EPFL's device is revolutionary because, for the time being, no other method exists for monitoring cortisol concentrations continuously throughout the circadian cycle. "That's the key advantage and innovative feature of our device. Because it can be worn, scientists can collect quantitative, objective data on certain stress-related diseases. And they can do so in a non-invasive, precise and instantaneous manner over the full range of cortisol concentrations in human sweat," concluded Ionescu.

Aggregating that data may mean that scientists can come up with new and better ways to deal with stress levels. And that is music to our ears.

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