“Although there is little concrete proof about causation of tinnitus, be aware of what things seem to bring on the ringing or help stop it. Everyone may have different experiences at different times. Make sure you pay attention to what conditions are best for you to avoid tinnitus.” - Drew Sutton, MD, Board-Certified Otolaryngologist
Tinnitus is a condition that is characterized by a phantom ringing in the ears that is not caused by a sound in the immediate environment. It can differ significantly, with some people having a permanent ringing in the ears and others with the intermittent ringing of the ears.
For those with tinnitus, certain triggers can be controlled to help mitigate its severity. Medications, stress, and a high sodium diet may all affect tinnitus-related symptoms, and making changes to your day-to-day could help.
Caffeine is a molecule that many people are all too familiar with. It can be found in your morning cup of coffee, afternoon tea, and evening soda beverage with your dinner.
People that find some tinnitus relief with lifestyle modifications may wonder if their caffeine habits can contribute to an increase in tinnitus symptoms. Below is a closer look at the science behind caffeine and tinnitus, as well as everything you need to know to help you manage your tinnitus symptoms.
Caffeine is able to cross the blood-brain barrier and interact with the receptors in the brain to reduce fatigue, increase alertness, and essentially trick the brain into being more alert and awake. The small molecule also can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which increases your overall alertness and activates the fight or flight response.
Below is a closer look at the two ways that caffeine affects the body.
The main mechanism of caffeine is that it interferes with a neurotransmitter in the brain. Specifically, caffeine interferes with the neurotransmitter adenosine within the brain.
Caffeine competitively binds to adenosine receptors in the brain, which inhibits adenosine binding.
Adenosine plays a significant role in helping the transition to sleep, and when its binding is inhibited, the body feels more alert. While useful in the short term, frequent consumption of caffeine can create a reliance where the body needs caffeine to even have a baseline level of alertness.
Luckily symptoms of dependence are quickly resolved in a week or so.
Another way that caffeine impacts the body is that it stimulates the central nervous system and causes the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system, also referred to as the fight-or-flight response, is a biological response to stress.
When the body perceives a threat, it leads to the secretion of the hormone adrenaline, which increases cardiac output, alertness, respiration rate, and much more.
If you have ever had a really strong cup of coffee or have overdone it with your caffeine intake, you have most likely experienced the caffeine jitters. The jitters are caused by the increased buildup of adrenaline and represent an upper extreme of the effects caffeine can have on your sympathetic nervous system.
Tinnitus consists of a constant ringing of the ears that is not caused by outside stimulation. Tinnitus has many different ways it presents itself and has a large number of other potential causes.
The ears are highly specialized organs that let you perceive sound, and while they do a great job, they ultimately can have problems just like any other part of the body. Conditions such as tinnitus, conductive hearing loss, and sensorineural hearing loss all represent how the auditory system can falter.
Below is a specific look at some potential causes of tinnitus and what can be done about them. Understanding the biological basis for tinnitus can allow you to better understand what is at fault and how treatments work.
The process of hearing is quite complex, but it can be broken down into two simplistic categories: the ear and the brain. In order to hear, your ear needs to be able to sense sound, and that then needs to be perceived by the brain as something other than silence for you to hear.
Hearing loss typically has to do with a diminished ability to sense sound. As sound begins to get more muffled and difficult to understand, the brain essentially tries to pay closer attention and increase its sensitivity to neural impulses from the ear.
It is thought that the increased sensitivity in the auditory cortex may be a contributing factor to the development of tinnitus as its baseline is continually decreased to a point where silence registers as a certain pitch within the brain.
Taking care of hearing loss with hearing aids can help with tinnitus symptoms as the amplification of sounds makes it easier for the ear to clearly differentiate sounds which allows the brain not to adapt as significantly.
If the cost of traditional hearing aids is too much of a plunge to potentially help your tinnitus, you should consider the Audien EV1, which has all the same great technology as traditional hearing aids without the exorbitant audiologist pricing.
Damaged Cochlear Hairs
A common understanding of tinnitus is that it can be caused by exposure to loud environments and intense sound waves. Repeat exposure to loud sounds can place wear and tear on the inner workings of the cochlea.
The cochlea can be thought of as the main hearing organ, and it is responsible for converting the physical aspect of movement and sound into neural impulses. This is achieved by the presence of tiny hairs lining the inner surface of the cochlea. Each hair is responsible for detecting a certain pitch, and when that pitch occurs, the hair bends and relays that as a neural signal that the brain then interprets.
When you expose your ears to intense sound for prolonged periods it can damage the hairs and subsequently damage your hearing.
Tinnitus may even form due to cochlear damage as a hair could be damaged in a way to which it is continuously firing even after the sound itself is gone.
A great representation of this is in action movies when an explosion goes off near an individual, and a high pitch ring sound effect is utilized immediately following the explosion. This Hollywood exaggeration is actually somewhat accurate and helps to illustrate the point.
Another aspect that can contribute to tinnitus is blood flow. The ears are highly sensitive, and they typically can ignore internal noises, but in some cases, internal movement and sounds can be detectable and cause tinnitus.
A rare form of tinnitus known as pulsatile tinnitus can be caused by blood flow and pressure disturbances. Pulsatile tinnitus is different from typical tinnitus because rather than hearing one continuous tone, those with pulsatile tinnitus experience rhythmic sounds that can often align with the heart’s beating.
The Relationship Between Caffeine and Tinnitus
Understanding that hearing involves the brain and knowing that caffeine interacts with the brain, it is easy to think that caffeine may be a contributor, but there is little to no data to support this.
In fact, a study in 2014 assessed over 60,000 women and found that higher caffeine intake was actually associated with a lower incidence of tinnitus. This finding is not definitive but points to caffeine and tinnitus are most likely not linked in terms of caffeine worsening tinnitus.
While this study proved otherwise, it is widely believed that caffeine may trigger pulsatile tinnitus due to caffeine’s effect on cardiac output and blood pressure. While there are no studies surrounding caffeine and pulsatile tinnitus, you may find it helpful to experiment with your specific tinnitus and avoid caffeine to see if it is of any help with your particular tinnitus.
What Can You Do For Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is often a condition that sticks around for a while.
Due to its persistent nature, some people may find that their tinnitus is impacting their everyday life by decreasing the ability to focus, and making it harder to fall asleep.
Aside from hearing aids, one of the best things you can do for interruptive and impactful tinnitus is to undergo cognitive behavioral therapy or tinnitus retraining therapy. These therapies focus on helping those with tinnitus come to peace with their symptoms and help to change the way you think and view tinnitus symptoms.
With successful completion of these therapies, it can effectively mitigate the impact tinnitus has on your day-to-day life.
Although current evidence suggests that caffeine is not a causative agent of tinnitus, this isn’t to say that caffeine cannot impact tinnitus. Each case of tinnitus is unique and figuring out what works best to mitigate your specific treatments is the best way to help.
Caffeine can potentially impact blood flow-related tinnitus such as that experienced with pulsatile tinnitus, but in general drinking, your morning cup of coffee is likely of little concern.