Our aging population and increasingly noisy environment means that hearing loss is all too common these days. In fact, hearing problems have become a major health issue, affecting about 48 million people—20 percent of all American adults.1
And the statistics get even more dire the older you get. By the time you reach age 65, you have a one in three chance of becoming hard of hearing.
Shockingly, that ranks hearing loss as the third largest public health issue in the U.S.—just behind arthritis and heart disease.
And interestingly, scientists are discovering that our ears appear to be sensitive to environmental stresses such as oxidation and inflammation, and are also vulnerable to nutrient insufficiency.
So that means hearing loss may actually act as an early indicator of inadequate nutrition and a toxic environment—like the proverbial canary in a coal mine.
Hearing loss presents other serious health problems as well. A new study shows that people with hearing loss also have reduced cognition, which is associated with dementia.2 And another large study found that hearing loss can cause physical impairment, including a 31 percent increased risk of disability that could result in the need for nursing care.3
But hearing problems don’t have to be an inevitable part of growing old. In fact, new research shows that boosting your consumption of a few basic vitamins and minerals can dramatically improve your hearing.
The secret to a long, healthy life, deep inside your ears
The ear is a fascinating organ that is actually responsible for two important senses—hearing and balance. Loss of hearing results in deafness, and loss of balance results in vertigo.
Let’s start with the balance aspects. The inner ear is important for maintaining proper orientation in space. It works with the eyes and the muscular-skeletal system to keep us oriented, upright, and walking correctly.
This is important as we age because maintaining balance and having a good gait are two of the strongest predictors of longevity—probably because they combine muscular-skeletal strength and abilities with central nervous system processing and coordination.
The other function of the ear—hearing—is also important, of course. This part of the ear is known as the cochlea (or shell—like a seashell, whose convolutions follow the natural ratio phi, also known as Fibonacci’s number). Aside from listening to spoken words, music, and the sounds of nature, our ears’ perception of sound waves is also a key component in the innovative healing fields of Acutonics, music therapy, and sound therapy.
Simple nutrients may help stave off—even reverse—hearing loss
The presence of free radical chemicals in the inner ear is a key factor in hearing loss,
suggesting that antioxidants may play an important role in prevention and treatment.
And indeed, some animal experiments have shown that the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E do have an effect on hearing.
Experimental studies have also shown that magnesium may be important in reducing hearing loss as well. It’s thought that this versatile mineral helps restore blood flow to the hearing apparatus of the ear following damage by excessive noise.
Plus, we know that magnesium can help prevent headaches and migraines, probably because of its effects on blood flow in the brain. So it makes sense that it could also have a similar impact on our ears.
But despite these provocative findings, epidemiologists have been slow to study the effects of nutrients on human hearing.
That is, until last year—the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a new study on nutrients and hearing.4 The researchers found that higher intakes of vitamins A and C and magnesium were associated with better hearing in nearly 2,600 participants, ages 20 to 69. This data came from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey—the single best source of data on nutrition and health in the U.S.
The beneficial effects of A, C, and magnesium were found at both normal speech ranges and high-frequency ranges of sound. Furthermore, the impact of all three nutrients acting together was stronger than the individual effects of each of the nutrients acting alone.
There is also experimental evidence that vitamin B supplementation can help prevent noise-induced hearing loss.5 And nicotinamide riboside (NR), a precursor to vitamin B3, appears to protect the nerves that transmit sound input to the brain. Research shows that NR may be particularly effective for people regularly exposed to loud noises.
Of course, it’s difficult to find NR on supplement shelves (it is, after all, a derivative of the “dreaded” nicotine). But you can protect your hearing with a good vitamin B complex that contains at least 50 mg of B3 (niacin).
Drugs don’t sound like the answer
When it comes to drugs that help hearing, there are very limited treatment options. However, there are many drugs that can cause hearing loss, from antibiotics to popular pain relievers, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen (Tylenol).
Studies on these drugs using high-tech audiometric measurements are curiously lacking. But a new review of research involving more than 92,000 people does show that people who took NSAIDs had increased risk of self-reported hearing loss.6
Specifically, those who regularly took ibuprofen had a 13 percent increased risk of hearing loss, and acetaminophen consumption was associated with a 21 percent larger risk.
So for good hearing, it’s best to stay away from drugs and go back to the basic A, B, Cs of good nutrition. Think of the ear as nervous tissue. These nutrients benefit the brain and peripheral nerves, so it makes sense that they appear to help hearing as well.
Along with the vitamin B dose mentioned above, I recommend supplementing your diet with 500 mg of vitamin C twice per day, 50 IU of vitamin E daily, and 200 mg of magnesium. There’s no good data on the optimal human dose of vitamin A, so I recommend getting the vitamin from dairy, fish, and meat. All of these foods contain essential fats, which is key because vitamin A is fat soluble.
You should also include lots of red-orange fruits and vegetables in your diet (for carotenoid vitamin A precursors), and green-leafy vegetables for other carotenoids such as lutein. Lutein has been shown to be important for brain and eye health, and I suspect it benefits hearing as well. You can now also get the carotenoid astaxanthin together with liquid vitamin A. I recommend 5,000 IU of vitamin A plus astaxanthin daily.
Follow this plan and it will help keep not only your ears, but your entire body, healthy and sound.
Optimal nutrition, optimal hearing
Here is a quick recap of the nutrients your body needs for optimal hearing:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B complex—50 mg each of thiamine, riboflavin (B2), niacin/niacinamide, B6, and pantothenic acid, plus 400 micrograms of folic acid/folate, 12 mcg of B12, and 100 mcg of biotin.
- Vitamin C—500 mg twice per day
- Vitamin E—50 IU per day
- Magnesium—200 mg per day
1Hearing Loss Association of America. Basic Facts About Hearing Loss. http://www.hearingloss.org/content/basic-facts-about-hearing-loss. Accessed January 26, 2015.
2Bush AL, et al. Peripheral Hearing and Cognition: Evidence From the Staying Keen in Later Life (SKILL) Study. Ear Hear. 2015 Jan 13.
3Chen DS, et al. Association of Hearing Impairment with Declines in Physical Functioning and the Risk of Disability in Older Adults. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2014 Dec 3. pii: glu207.
4Choi YH, et al. Antioxidant vitamins and magnesium and the risk of hearing loss in the US general population. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jan;99(1):148-55. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.068437.
5Brown KD, et al. Activation of SIRT3 by the NAD+ Precursor Nicotinamide Riboside Protects from Noise-Induced Hearing Loss. Cell Metabolism, Volume 20, Issue 6, p1059–1068, 2 December 2014.
6Kyle ME, et al. Impact of Nonaspirin Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Agents and Acetaminophen on Sensorineural Hearing Loss: A Systematic Review.
Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2015 Jan 5. pii: 0194599814564533.