No surprise here: smoking tobacco is associated with an increased risk of having tinnitus. But what about many a smoker’s favorite co-habit while enjoying a cigarette: caffeine? Can coffee bring on an episode of tinnitus? Is there at least an association with caffeine consumption and hearing loss or phantom sounds?
Up until recently, researchers weren’t sure. The connection between the coffee and tinnitus had not been well-researched. But a study in the journal, Nutrients investigated the association. The study wasn’t a gold-standard research trial (randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial). Rather, the data was compiled from a nationwide survey in Korea, compiled over three years from 2009-2012.
Nonetheless, the data pooled from the large number of participants–over 13,000–surveyed in the Korean National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, reveals interesting findings.
Participants in the study underwent a medical interview, physical examination, hearing test, tinnitus questionnaire and nutrition examination. The findings undoubtedly run contrary to many people’s preconceived expectations. One would assume that coffee, because it has the potential to raise blood pressure, can induce an episode of tinnitus—or make an existing episode worse. “There is an opinion that caffeine in coffee stimulates ascending auditory pathways or reduces the suppressive effect on the central nervous system, which evokes tinnitus,” the study co-authors write.
However, here’s what the study found: The frequency of coffee consumption had a statistically significant inverse correlation with bilateral hearing loss in the 40–64 years age group. In other words, participants in that age group who regularly drank coffee experienced hearing loss much less often than non-coffee drinkers. In fact, participants who drank coffee every day had 50–70% less hearing loss than rare coffee consumers.
As for tinnitus, the data revealed the same pattern. Regular coffee drinkers ages 19–64 experienced less tinnitus events than rare coffee drinkers. The shocking conclusion of the research study, in the words of the researchers: “These results suggest a protective effect of coffee on hearing loss and tinnitus.”
Health Benefits of Coffee
According to the research in Nutrients, coffee contains over 1,000 bioactive compounds. Many of these compounds have shown anti-inflammatory effects as well as antioxidant and anti-cancer actions. “Coffee consumption has been associated with a decreased risk of cancers, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, liver disease, and cardiovascular disease.”
The researchers note, “Coffee and caffeine are often blamed as a cause of tinnitus. However, the effect of caffeine on tinnitus remains controversial.” In fact, one study shows caffeine in coffee has detrimental effects on recovery from acoustic overstimulation events. But the study was small and was performed on guinea pigs. Caffeine, a major ingredient of coffee, is proved to be an aggravating factor of Meniere’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear that causes dizziness, vertigo and hearing loss. Many otologists recommend avoiding coffee for cases of Meniere’s disease-induced hearing loss.
Why Is Coffee Protective Against Tinnitus?
How does caffeine possibly prevent the onset of ringing in the ears or hearing loss? The co-authors of the Nutrients study reference previous research on this topic. Coming through past studies, the researchers found that caffeine improves transmission in the peripheral and central brain auditory pathways, and lessens the hearing threshold shift and delayed latency of auditory evoked potentials.
Mixed Message About Coffee
While the Korean study suggests coffee consumption is beneficial for those with tinnitus, other research demonstrates that the stimulation from caffeine increases the detection of tinnitus through increased arousal or anxiety. Furthermore, because caffeine is known to interfere with sleep quality, theoretically, it can aggravate tinnitus-associated distress.
But the researchers note that in one study, stopping caffeine did not improve tinnitus symptoms. And like the Korean study, another study reported that higher caffeine intake is associated with a lower risk of tinnitus in women. And yet another study suggested that one cup a day of coffee was associated with a decrease in persistent tinnitus and transient tinnitus.
As for the type of coffee that’s best to consume, when it comes to tinnitus, and like most other things in life, you get what you pay for. Higher-quality, brewed coffee was associated with more positive outcomes than canned, high-heat-processed varieties.