Plus my simple, 5-step plan for protecting both
A few weeks ago, I sat down with the Insiders’ Cures editorial team to map out some ideas for upcoming issues. One thing we realized we haven’t devoted much attention to is the important topic of hearing, which in the medical world is part of the specialty practice of ear, nose, and throat—or simply referred to as “ENT.”
Hearing and ear function is, of course, critically important for the perception of sound (related to speech and language). But did you know the ear also has other vital functions that are strongly associated with longevity?
I’m not just referring to hearing issues, which we all know become more of a problem with age. In fact, hearing loss is consistently one of the top three complaints of older Americans.
Instead, I’m also talking about the inner ear’s crucial role in helping you maintain your balance—and the surprising effect it has on your life span.
The inner ear plays a critical role in helping you maintain spatial awareness and balance.
In turn, balance is a key to your gait—otherwise known as the ability to walk steadily, efficiently, and quickly on a daily basis. And, as I’ve written before, studies show that gait is the single best predictor of longevity.
So any steps you take to keep your ears healthy will not only protect your hearing, but also help you live a longer, more vibrant life.
What you put in your stomach goes to your ears
Just like any other part of your body, your ears benefit from a balanced diet, a healthy lifestyle, and daily doses of nutritional supplements.
And there are also some unique nutrients that have the particular ability to support good hearing, especially as you get older.
In a moment, I’ll tell you all about the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that have been shown in scientific studies to support ear health—and improve longevity.
But first, I want to touch on why I haven’t discussed ear health very much in Insiders’ Cures.
Nothing “special” about this medical specialty
It’s not that I’m not interested in the ear, nose, and throat. Rather, it’s the over-specialization of medical practice that doesn’t impress me—an opinion I formed early, during the sub-specialty rotations required by my medical school. These rotations encompassed a few days of “observing” half a dozen different medical subspecialties.
But the fact is, there’s nothing special about these specialties in terms of science, physiology, or medical concepts. They are all about the applied technology of using tools and procedures that are artificially and arbitrarily restricted to a subset of subspecialty doctors.
And ENT is no exception.
In my case, I’d already completed my medical courses, graduate courses, and overseas field research (for my MD, and master’s degrees in biostatistics and epidemiology, and Ph.D. in anthropology). I’d chosen to go on to hospital training in general pathology, and eventually forensic pathology. I was about to leave medical school for a real job in the hospital, but my school’s chairman of ENT, Dr. Lewis Lowery, said, “Not so fast.”
Dr. Lowery found out that I hadn’t completed all the required days of observing ENT procedures. He insisted I come back and do the whole rotation again, or he would hold up my graduation. I went back through the days with limited enthusiasm.
As you can imagine, I was not a fan of ENT after this experience. And an incident I had a few years later, when I was working as a young medical examiner (ME) in Miami, compounded that feeling.
My daughter had just been born, and I intended to visit her and my wife in the hospital as soon as I got off work. But a more senior ME insisted at the last minute that I take his overnight call, since he wanted a good night’s sleep before he had to testify the next morning about a police shooting of an unarmed black man.
The whole city was on lockdown, expecting another Miami Riot, including the area around the hospital. I ended up driving around the city to investigate the scenes of four different homicides during the heightened tensions of that long night. Handing out cigars to the homicide investigators was the closest I got to observing the birth of my daughter.
I’ll warn you, the next bit of this story takes a gruesome turn. One of the homicide victims I performed an autopsy on that evening had been shot in the face four times with small-caliber bullets. And one bullet was stuck somewhere inside an ear, nose, or throat sinus cavity. It took me hours to locate that bullet that night. More time away from what should have been one of the most joyous occasions of my life…
So, thanks to my personal experiences with the ENT sub-specialty I may have subconsciously been avoiding the topic.
Of course, that said, you know I always follow the science. And when research emerges that you should know about, I do my best to report it—personal issues aside.
But the truth of the matter is, despite the effect of the ear on human health and longevity—not to mention the problem of hearing loss in our rapidly growing older population—researchers have been slow to study the effects of nutrients on ear health.
Fortunately, that’s beginning to change.
Vital nutrients for ear health
The shifting tide in research began a few years ago, in 2014, when the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a new study on nutrients and hearing.1
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 information on nutrition and health in the U.S.
The beneficial effects of magnesium as well as vitamins A and C were found at both normal speech and high-frequency ranges. And, interestingly, the impact of all three nutrients acting together was stronger than the individual effects of each of the nutrients.
There are other experimental studies showing magnesium’s impact on hearing. And animal trials have also found that vitamins A and C, along with vitamin E, have a positive effect on hearing.
A, C, and E are considered antioxidant vitamins, and are thought to reduce the number of harmful substances that can damage nerve tissue in the inner ear.
Researchers believe magnesium helps restore blood flow to the cochlea after damage from excessive noise. It’s well known that magnesium can help prevent headaches and migraines, likely because of its effects on blood flow in the brain. So it makes sense that it could have a similar impact on your ears.
There’s also experimental evidence that vitamin B can help prevent noise-induced hearing loss.2 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.
My “sound” dosages for healthy ears
Of course, it’s difficult to find NR on supplement shelves (it is, after all, a derivative of the “dreaded” nicotine).
You can, however, protect your hearing with a good vitamin B complex that contains at least 50 mg of B3 (niacin).
Along with this daily vitamin B dose, 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 little data on the optimal safe human doses of vitamin A, so I recommend getting it from a diet rich in 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 provitamin A carotenoids), and green-leafy vegetables for other carotenoids such as lutein—which has also been shown to be important for brain and eye health.
In fact, the ear is made up of neural tissue derived from the same embryological tissue as the eyes, brain, and nerves.
So many of the same natural substances that support your neural and optical tissue can also help to conserve and preserve your hearing.
And conversely, many of the nutrients I recommend for ear health (refer to the sidebar) have a great deal in common with another vital function for optimal health and longevity: your vision.
In fact, stay tuned for next month’s issue of Insider’s Cures where I’ll discuss the latest research on keeping your eyes healthy, preserving your vision, and preventing and reversing age-related macular degeneration.
My daily natural protocol for optimum ear health
Follow this supplementation plan to keep not only your ears, but your entire body healthy and sound.
- Vitamin A—from dairy, fish, meat, red-orange fruits and vegetables, and leafy greens
- Vitamin B complex—a high-quality daily supplement should contain: 50 mg each of thiamine, riboflavin (B2), niacin/niacinamide, B6, and pantothenic acid, plus 400 mcg 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
1“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.
2“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.