When asked to describe me, my friends and family often use the word “busy.” I’m not really sure what it is that I’m doing that keeps me so “busy,” but I often notice a sneaking tightness in my chest as I’m rushing from drinks meetings to nail appointments to the airport for an impromptu trip. Most people would recognize this as stress and readjust, but I enjoyed my naïveté—that is until I tried an at-home stress and sleep test that left me, well, stressed.
As stress and sleeplessness go hand in hand, I guess it’s not a total surprise that I’m not a great sleeper. I get anywhere from six to seven hours of a sleep a night and it usually takes me an hour to fall asleep. It also doesn’t help that my attention-seeking cat likes to be let in and out an average of five times a night, so an uninterrupted night’s sleep is basically nonexistent in my household. Even though I’m a well-informed person who knows that blue light is bad before sleep, I’ll admit to either reading from an iPad or watching Family Guy before turning out the lights. Retrospectively, maybe I didn’t need an at-home stress and sleep test to tell me that I need to sort out some priorities.
The EverlyWell stress and sleep kit ($249) arrived in the mail in an inconspicuous package that included instructions, a green rubber cup, specimen collection papers, a handy little bag for the specimens and a return envelope. I was surprised to learn that the cup and collection papers were for, ahem, urine collection. (Nope, no 23andMe saliva beakers here.) I would have to collect said bodily fluid four times in one day, record the time of day on the sample’s label and send them off to be tested.
Easy enough, right? Not for this gal. I somehow messed up the collections because, truthfully, I’m usually in too much of a hurry to read directions (counterintuitive, I know). My first round of results were inconclusive because for some reason the lab couldn’t read my collection times, so I had to repeat the process all over again, which—you guessed it—stressed me out and was a little gross.
About a week after sending samples back for the second time, I received a text explaining that my results were ready. Hoorah! I couldn’t wait to learn how zen my stress and sleep hormones are. (Spoiler alert: That isn’t quite how it worked out.)
EverlyWell breaks down test results into four categories: cortisol, cortisone, melatonin and creatinine levels. It’s been a while since high school science class, so I asked Dr. Alex Lickerman, MD, author of The Ten Worlds: The New Psychology of Happiness, for a refresher. In a nutshell, cortisol is the main stress hormone your body secretes. “Cortisol is secreted throughout the day at different levels,” he told me. “In general, it engages all the body’s mechanisms that enable it to manage stress. It’s supposed to go up when we’re stressed either emotionally or physically.”
Similar to cortisol, cortisone is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland. It helps regulate our metabolism. Creatinine is a waste product our bodies produce that’s derived from normal wear and tear on the muscles. And, last but not least, Dr. Lickerman described melatonin as “a hormone secreted at different levels throughout the day that is responsible for regulating sleep according to our circadian rhythm.”
Now that we’re all informed…guess what? All four of my markers were out of range. My cortisol and cortisone were too high and my melatonin and creatinine markers were too low. It may not be surprising for you, dear reader, given my “busy” lifestyle, but I was shocked to learn that I was hormonally stressed. I do, after all, hold a yoga teacher certification and have been known to meditate.
Being both type-A and kind of dramatic, the test results really got to me. I oscillated between feelings of woe-is-me and a sinking feeling that I needed to make some major changes before I keeled over and just died of stress (that’s not a thing, don’t worry). I started meditating and doing yoga again religiously, decided I should probably retire from public life and devote the extra time to relaxing and informed my household that I would no longer cook, clean or do laundry. I had my poor stressed heart and my depleted melatonin levels to think about!
Concerned that medical intervention might be in order, I reached out to EverlyWell and Dr. Lickerman for some more answers. Because I took the samples at different points throughout the day, an EverlyWell dietitian was able to detect that my stress hormone levels rose at about 4 p.m. Given that I usually work New York hours but live in L.A., that’s typically the time I finish up work and start my second job: keeping my house and pets in order. I found it interesting that this portion of my day seemed to stress me out more than my actual job and attempted to use it as evidence supporting my ongoing mission to hire a housekeeper. My husband, conveniently, did not find this data to be conclusive.
Interestingly enough, neither did Dr. Lickerman. “We know that chronic stress can raise cortisol levels,” he explained. “And that even in the absence of abnormally high levels of cortisol, mildly elevated levels of cortisol may add to the general wear and tear on the body (though exactly what mildly elevated levels of cortisol do isn’t known).”
His expert medical opinion? “Measuring spot urine melatonin, like measuring spot urine cortisol, tells you nothing of value whatsoever.” He insisted that I shouldn’t be concerned about my stress test results, as they don’t indicate any threat to my health. Despite the fact that I’m not minutes away from a heart attack—as I first feared when I saw my results—Dr. Lickerman did explain that mindfulness and exercise are always a good idea as far as stress is concerned.
The question remains: Would I try a stress and sleep test again? Honestly, I’m not sure it’s worth the money if the learnings aren’t really founded in anything concrete. But will I buy it for my dad for Christmas in hopes that he’ll be convinced to stop stressing? Maybe.