New Insights on Tinnitus

Thursday, February 03, 2011
By: Byron J. Richards,
Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist
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Several studies published this month offer a new understanding and hope to those suffering from the ringing in the ears known as tinnitus. This condition affects up to 40 million Americans, including 10% of senior citizens and 40% of military veterans. While tinnitus has been associated with previous injury to the hearing apparatus, that appears to be only part of the problem. The source of the problem for many may lie within nerves, where improvement is possible.

In the first study1 researchers used state-of-the-art imaging technology to evaluate the auditory system and subconscious brains of individuals with tinnitus. As expected, moderate hyperactivity was present in the auditory structures, as these structures struggled to make proper connections. However, far more hyperactivity was present in a key sensory processing region of the subconscious brain (nucleus accumbens).

The scientists explain that when hearing of certain frequencies is lost due to loud noise exposure, an accident, or aging then the subconscious brain generates sound in an attempt to fill the void. Unfortunately that compensatory sound turns out to be the unpleasant ringing called tinnitus. In other words, it is the failed effort of the brain to correct the loss of hearing that is actually causing the problem. Interestingly, the part of the brain involved, is processing many types of input linked to human behavior, emotions, and multiple senses. This means that any overload in life may flare up the weakness in the auditory system via the subconscious brain.

In a second study2 researchers used noise-exposed rats to create tinnitus. Next they exposed the rats to vagus nerve activation paired with sounds of varying frequency. This treatment eliminated the tinnitus in the animals. Think of this as giving the sensory nerve input to the brain a relaxing massage along with sound, which must have calmed the hyperactive aspects described in the first study above. The researchers believed their nerve workout boosted plasticity in the nervous system. This allowed the nerves to get over the struggle to make connections, and therefore not generate the noise of tinnitus.

The vagus nerve is involved with relaxing nerve activity (parasympathetic activity) of most major organs, especially with breathing and digestive function. It is highly involved with translating sensory input from around the body back to the brain. This is further evidence that stressful input, including pain and inflammation anywhere in the body, is likely to “heat up” these nerve signals and at some point this sum total of stress aggravates the weak spot of previous auditory injury to the point wherein tinnitus manifests. 

This information has immense clinical application potential. I should comment that the vagus nerve research used a medical implant that generated electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve, a device currently approved for resistant epilepsy and some forms of depression. The device causes sleep apnea in humans, so it is unlikely it will gain wide approval. I consider it highly problematic and not the best way to address the problem.

I should also point out that I have had fairly good success helping individuals improve tinnitus over the years. I have frequently employed arabinogalactan to help move lymph stagnation that backs pressure up on the hearing mechanisms within the ear. Interestingly, that nutrient, by relieving pressure next to the brain stem is also likely to turn off inflammatory signals entering the subconscious brain. I have also used grape seed extract and R-alpha lipoic acid to help improve circulation to the ear. Once again, both of these nutrients have nerve-related anti-inflammatory properties. I’ve had various working theories as to why tinnitus occurs, and have seen some improvement for some (not all) following basic nutrient use. However, this new understanding of tinnitus opens up many new practical application that are likely to be of benefit.

First of all we know that we can train better nerve input by improving the health of the sensory signals going to the nerves. In the case of the vagus nerve this means we can improve input by enhancing breathing, general oxygenation, digestive function, and by better management of stress and inflammation. 

On a physical basis this means better posture for better breathing and aerobic exercise – along with music input to help train the nerves. Exercise should be relaxing and oxygenating.  Music should be an enjoyable type to the individual at an appropriate volume.

Improving any co-existing digestive problems would be a top priority as would reduction of stress and inflammation of any type. 

There are now many nutrients that could be employed along with these exercise and life strategies to help promote nerve plasticity, offset the demands of stress, and help clean up injured nerve cells. 

It appears that tinnitus is a problem of general brain aging or significant brain inflammation, manifesting in individuals who have previous audio-related injury as a weak spot. The good news is that there are a lot of things that can be done to help this problem now that we better understand what it is. 


Referenced Studies:
  1. ^ Tinnitus is Associated with Disturbed Nerve Function  Neuron,  Amber M. Leaver, Laurent Renier, Mark A. Chevillet, Susan Morgan, Hung J. Kim and Josef P. Rauschecker. 
  2. ^ Brain Training May Improve Tinnitis  Nature  Navzer D. Engineer, Jonathan R. Riley, Jonathan D. Seale, Will A. Vrana, Jai A. Shetake, Sindhu P. Sudanagunta, Michael S. Borland, Michael P. Kilgard. 

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