As a health professional, I often see people who suffer from troubling health issues. Tony, a 59-year old patient of mine, was in good health overall; however, he did have tinnitus, which is ringing in one’s ears, often perceived as an incessant, high-pitched whistling. Few physical symptoms are as upsetting as tinnitus, and Tony was particularly distraught by the onset of a shrill tone in his left ear that had begun a week earlier and hadn’t relented since.
Tony’s family doctor had done all of the standard diagnostic tests and physical exams, and had run out of ideas. In our initial consultation, as he speaks, he jams an index finger into his ear and jiggles it around, as if trying to dislodge whatever might be causing his distress. Tony wants to know if naturopathic medicine can provide his ears with some much-desired relief.
An Australian study found that over 30% of adults aged 49 and older have experienced moderate to severe tinnitus. Most episodes last 5 minutes or less; however, the older we get, the more likely it is that symptoms will persist for weeks or even months. Over 8% of older American adults have reported symptoms of tinnitus that are severe enough to affect the quality of their sleep.
Common Causes of Tinnitus
My first step for helping to relieve tinnitus is to determine the cause. Tinnitus, like many common health complaints, is a symptom, not a disease. It can be the result of a dysfunction in any bodily system. Having said that, the most common cause of tinnitus is age-related hearing loss. As we age, tones are lost in the inner ear, the result of neurons dying. As those nerve cells die, sounds are lost and in their absence the brain produces a ringing sensation.
Tinnitus, like many common health complaints, is a symptom, not a disease.
Other causes of tinnitus include physical blockages, such as the accumulation of earwax, or issues with the nervous system: chronic stress, inflammation or vitamin deficiency, for example.
Meniere’s disease is a condition characterized by tinnitus, vertigo (the sensation of the room spinning) and hearing loss. A vestibular schwannoma, or growth of the nerves in the ear, must also be ruled out, as well as tight muscles of the head, neck and jaw, which may cause nerve impingement from the compression of trigger points, and are often associated with migraine headaches. Finally, there are over 130 medications that have been reported to cause tinnitus. These medications range from antibiotics to anti-depressants.
When Tony sits down with me, we have a conversation about his health. We talk about his cardiovascular and digestive systems. I ask him about his energy levels and the quality of his sleep. I ask him if he’s experiencing pain, headaches, and any numbness or tingling. Finally, we do an assessment of his diet and go through his most recent blood work.
Once Tony and I have created a comprehensive picture of his current health, we are ready to assess potential treatments. Our goals are to address any underlying nutrient deficiencies, support his health with antioxidants and strengthen the functioning of his nervous system.
5 Natural Remedies for Tinnitus
1. Vitamin B12 for Tinnitus
The first nutrient I assess in older adults who are experiencing nervous system-related symptoms is vitamin B12. Deficiency is quite common in older adults because stomach acid, crucial for B12 absorption, often declines with age. I ask Tony about his digestive health, and he admits to feeling gassy and bloated after meals. Tony is not a vegetarian, a common risk factor for low B12 as this vitamin occurs naturally in animal products.
B12 deficiency can be very serious, affecting the health of the nervous system. It’s characterized by fatigue, headaches, anemia, memory loss, and numbness and tingling of the hands and feet. Treating vitamin B12 deficiency can effectively treat tinnitus and reduce hearing loss.
2. Magnesium for Tinnitus
Headaches, jaw pain, muscle tension, broken sleep and constipation are all common symptoms of magnesium deficiency. Magnesium is an essential nutrient responsible for over 300 chemical reactions, including DNA repair. Magnesium deficiency is common in older adults due to low dietary intake, decreased digestive absorption and increased kidney excretion.
One study showed that blood magnesium levels were lower in people with tinnitus. Obtaining magnesium by eating at least two cups of green vegetables like spinach or Swiss chard is ideal, but many older adults may need to use magnesium supplements as well.
3. Zinc for Tinnitus
Zinc, like magnesium, may be poorly absorbed in the digestive systems of older adults. I ask Tony about his skin, energy levels, immune functioning and testosterone levels. One placebo-controlled study showed that when patients with tinnitus were given zinc, almost half reported an improvement in their symptoms.
4. Antioxidants as a Treatment for Tinnitus
Making sure that older adults have an adequate intake of the main dietary antioxidants, vitamins A, C and E, is important for preserving the health of the nervous system, preventing hearing loss, and improving symptoms of tinnitus. Evidence on the use of antioxidants as a treatment for tinnitus is conflicting, but antioxidants are essential for reducing inflammation, preventing free radical damage to cells, including nerves, and preserving the health of the inner ear.
Melatonin, the sleep hormone, is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to decrease the severity of chronic tinnitus. It’s common for older adults to struggle with insomnia, as melatonin declines naturally with age. CoQ10 is another antioxidant that enables our cells to make energy. Naturopathic doctors often prescribe CoQ10 to preserve heart health, improve cognitive function, and boost energy in older adults. A pilot clinical trial showed that CoQ10 improves tinnitus.
5. Acupuncture for Tinnitus
Acupuncture can be used for the treatment of tinnitus to release muscle tension in the head and neck. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, tinnitus is a result of the age-related declining “Kidney Essence.” Research into acupuncture for the treatment of tinnitus is still in its initial stages.
At the end of our session, Tony and I came up with an individualized treatment plan based on my assessment of his symptoms, health risks, medication use, laboratory test results, and his diet and lifestyle. We decided on a few key supplements aimed at treating the root cause of his tinnitus, while also improving his health overall. I made a few dietary recommendations to improve the health of his nerves and we also talked about stress reduction and ways to improve his sleep.
If you suffer from tinnitus, talk to your medical or naturopathic doctor about which treatments may be appropriate for you.
Editor’s Note: Tony’s name was changed to protect his anonymity.