Ringing in the ears, also known as tinnitus, has impacted at least 50 million people in the U.S., according to a report in the August 2010 issue of “American Journal of Medicine.” Characterized by the sensation of ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling or clicking when no external sound is present, tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. The American Tinnitus Association estimates that over 200 conditions have tinnitus as a symptom, including disorders linked to insulin resistance or impaired insulin action. Consequently, prediabetes and diabetes, conditions characterized by high blood sugars, can be a cause of tinnitus.
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Causes of Tinnitus
If you suffer from tinnitus, it’s important you see your doctor to determine the underlying cause. Sometimes the cause is obvious, such as exposure to loud noises, age-related hearing loss, trauma to the ear or surrounding area, accumulation of earwax or a medication side effect. If the cause is not obvious, your doctor may do more testing to determine if your symptoms are related to a medical condition. Abnormal handling of carbohydrates in the body, including diabetes and the presence of insulin resistance, is the most common metabolic disorder linked to tinnitus, according to a June 2004 study published in the “International Tinnitus Journal.”
The Blood Sugar Link
The inner ear requires a continual supply of oxygen and glucose, or sugar, to function. According to the authors of the June 2004 study, elevated blood sugars can cause tinnitus in at least 3 ways. First, long-term high blood sugars can damage the eighth cranial nerve, which is the nerve that transmits sound and balance data from the inner ear to the brain. Second, high blood sugars can also damage the blood vessels that supply the ear with oxygen and nutrients necessary for proper inner ear function. Finally, even mildly elevated blood sugars can interfere with the functions of the sodium-potassium ATPase pump, which is responsible for creating the optimal potassium and sodium concentrations in the inner ear fluid -- something required for balance and proper hearing.
Blood Sugar Management Matters
A study published in the September 2009 issue of the “Brazilian Journal of Otorhinolaryngology” discovered that 87.7 percent of the study's participants, adults with peripheral vestibular disorders including tinnitus, had disorders of blood sugar and insulin metabolism. If elevated blood sugars are the cause of tinnitus, improving blood sugars may offer symptom relief. The report published in the “International Tinnitus Journal” studied 80 people with tinnitus and elevated insulin levels -- a characteristic of insulin resistance. The treatment group was counseled to limit fatty foods, coffee and alcohol, avoid refined sugar, eat every 3 hours, and drink more water. The mean time of following this diet was 5.65 years. Partial symptom relief was achieved by 76 percent of the treatment group, and 15 percent of those following the diet had complete resolution of symptoms.
Precautions and Next Steps
Ringing in the ears or other tinnitus symptoms can be a minor annoyance or severe enough to impact your quality of life. If you suffer from this symptom, see your doctor for an evaluation, treatment options and support. There are many causes of tinnitus and resolution of symptoms is not always achieved. If your tinnitus is caused by insulin resistance or high blood sugars, work with your doctor on strategies to improve your blood sugar levels through diet modifications, increased physical activity and if necessary, medications.
Reviewed by: Kay Peck, MPH RD