Caffeine and Tinnitus: Can Your Daily Dose Affect Your Ears?

Cup of coffee with steam coming out

Millions of Americans enjoy coffee or tea to jump-start their day, and in moderation, caffeine can be part of a healthy diet. If you’re among the 20-25% of adults who experience a persistent ringing in their ears, you may wonder if your caffeine habit is helping or hurting your tinnitus symptoms. While caffeine has its known benefits, researchers are still exploring the health connection between caffeine and tinnitus.

What Is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus, often described as a ringing, buzzing, hissing, or whooshing in one or both ears. While it is extremely common, everyone’s experience with tinnitus is different. The perceived volume can vary, and is known to be influenced by stress, anxiety, and health conditions.

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The primary causes of tinnitus are also varied, but most cases are related to hearing loss. Age-related hearing loss, noise-induced hearing loss, head injuries, infections, ear wax or ear canal blockages, and certain ototoxic medications may contribute to the perception of phantom sounds. 

In some cases, blood flow and cardiovascular conditions can cause or worsen tinnitus. For this reason, caffeine, known for its impact on circulation and heart rate, has attracted the attention of some researchers looking for ways to prevent or treat tinnitus.

Understanding The Origins Of Caffeine

Variety of mugs containing different caffeinated beverages

Most of us are familiar with caffeine and its ability to perk us up in the morning, but there’s more to it than that. Caffeine is a naturally occurring chemical that’s typically found in the seeds, nuts, and leaves of coffee, some types of tea, cacao, and other plants. 

Caffeine is a stimulant drug that belongs to the methylxanthine class, and as many as 85% of Americans consume caffeinated beverages every day. It is often added to soda and energy drinks for its energy-boosting effects on the central nervous system (CNS), making caffeine the most widely taken psychoactive stimulant in the world.

Positive And Negative Effects Of Caffeine

Caffeine affects everyone differently, and these effects can vary greatly depending on your age, size, weight, and health. The effects can also change depending on whether or not you’re taking other drugs or medications, and how much caffeine you consume at a time. Caffeine can also have a much more pronounced stimulant effect among people who are not accustomed to it.

Low to moderate amounts of caffeine – for example, one or two cups of coffee – can increase alertness, energy, and your ability to concentrate without causing serious side effects, and some studies even show that caffeine also has antioxidant properties. The American Heart Association points out that there are conflicting reports of caffeine’s effect on cardiovascular health, but when consumed in moderation, caffeine is generally considered safe.

However, excessive caffeine consumption can lead to negative side effects like jitters, trouble sleeping, anxiety, and rapid heartbeat. If you’re experiencing more severe symptoms like tremors, ulcers, or fainting, your doctor will likely recommend you cut down or completely eliminate caffeine from your diet, as these side effects could become serious. Children, people who are pregnant, and people with anxiety, heart problems, or other risk factors should limit their caffeine intake, since stimulants could have adverse effects on health.

What Is The Relationship Between Caffeine And Tinnitus?

The relationship between caffeine and tinnitus is complex and varies from person to person. For some people, caffeine may be associated with tinnitus symptoms like increased anxiety, irritability, and agitation, so cutting back can help. For others, increasing caffeine can support blood flow and heart health, which may quiet tinnitus. There have been several scientific studies and conversations exploring this link.

Does Caffeine Intake Increase The Incidence Of Tinnitus? A Systematic Review

Caffeine is known to have a wide range of effects on the human body, and too much can cause negative effects, some of which increase nerve activity. Since tinnitus is often related to hearing damage and stimulation of the auditory nerve, a recent medical review searched for answers as to whether or not caffeine caused or worsened tinnitus.

This study was unable to conclude whether caffeine had an effect. However, it did discover that in some people, caffeine prevented bothersome tinnitus among people who did not originally have tinnitus symptoms. This study recommended further exploration of this topic. 

The Role Of Diet In Tinnitus And Hearing Health

The American Tinnitus Association (ATA) is a well-respected organization that studies the impact of tinnitus. The ATA conducted an interview with an expert, Dr. Christopher Spankovich, PhD** , to discuss the importance of a healthy diet, lifestyle, and coffee consumption as it relates to tinnitus symptoms and tinnitus treatment. 

** Dr. Spankovich recently joined Dr. Ben on The Tinnitus Relief Podcast to discuss his research and “demystify tinnitus”. You can watch the interview by clicking here.

Man drinking a cup of coffee

The ATA acknowledged that there are no foods that directly cause tinnitus, but some people have worsened symptoms with an overindulgence in salt, caffeine, or alcohol. Dr. Spankovich recommended moderation and understanding your body’s reactions to certain dietary factors. “A cup of coffee or a glass of wine (not the whole bottle) is not likely going to lead to sustained changes in tinnitus perception,” he said. “For people who do experience a spike in tinnitus with coffee (caffeinated coffee) or alcohol, they need to make a choice. I can enjoy my delicious cup of coffee in the morning and deal with the tinnitus spike or can skip the coffee and not have the spike.”

A Comprehensive Review Of The Effects Of Caffeine On The Auditory And Vestibular Systems

The effects of caffeine on the auditory system have been thoroughly studied under multiple scenarios, ranging from normal medical conditions to pathological conditions, like loud noise exposure, certain drugs, auditory neuropathy, vestibular disorders, and more. A recent study showed that people who drink caffeinated coffee seem to have a lower risk of experiencing hearing loss and tinnitus. Caffeine appeared to speed up the brain’s response to sound in hearing tests, and another study showed that caffeine improves transmission in the brain’s central auditory pathways. However, it’s important to note that the findings showed that caffeine doesn’t seem to have a strong influence on the auditory and vestibular systems – instead, caffeine’s effects are almost exclusively limited to the central nervous system.

A Prospective Study Of Caffeine Intake And Risk Of Incident Tinnitus

Women’s risk of tinnitus increases during and after menopause, but symptoms can occur at any age. A years-long study of women aged 30-44 included over 65,000 participants who completed questionnaires about caffeine use, tinnitus, and their hearing. This prospective study found that women who had a higher caffeine intake had a lower risk of tinnitus than women who did not consume much caffeine.

The Effect Of Caffeine On Tinnitus: Randomized Triple-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial

A triple-blind study tested whether caffeine can influence tinnitus by randomly giving placebos or caffeine pills to chronic tinnitus patients. Participants were asked to document their mood, their perception of tinnitus, level of tinnitus-related annoyance, distress, and other notes. Interestingly, there was a positive change in mood after caffeine consumption. However, the caffeine itself did not seem to cause significant changes to their tinnitus, even during electroacoustic measures.

Association Of Coffee Consumption With Hearing And Tinnitus Based On A National Population-Based Survey

This study noted that using caffeine to treat or manage tinnitus is controversial, and that there is an opinion that caffeine in coffee stimulates auditory pathways or reduces the suppressive effect on the central nervous system, which causes tinnitus. Other studies have argued that the stimulant effect can increase anxiety, which in turn can worsen tinnitus-associated distress.

Still, this nationwide population-based survey found that people who drank caffeinated coffee had less hearing loss than people who drink coffee only rarely. The effect is highly dependent on age, stress, and the amount of caffeine the people consumed. Ultimately, these results suggest that coffee may actually protect against hearing loss and tinnitus.

Tinnitus Features According To Caffeine Consumption

A study from 2021 noted that consumption of high amounts of caffeine has been historically associated with tinnitus worsening. But this seems not to be true: caffeine may actually improve tinnitus distress. This study showed that there’s no reason to reduce caffeine consumption as a way to treat tinnitus or minimize symptoms, but this topic needs more research before coming to a conclusion on its benefits.

Caffeine Abstinence: An Ineffective and Potentially Distressing Tinnitus Therapy

Since there is an opinion that caffeine can contribute to tinnitus symptoms, some doctors may recommend that tinnitus patients stop drinking coffee or other caffeinated beverages altogether.  A 2009 study found that doctor-recommended “caffeine abstinence” was an ineffective treatment for tinnitus. The study also showed that caffeine withdrawal symptoms could be emotionally and physically distressing, which could even make tinnitus worse. People who consume a lot of caffeine or have become habituated to the stimulant effect can experience caffeine withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop.

Bottom Line: Does Caffeine Help Or Hurt Tinnitus?

Coffee beans

Can caffeine affect hearing loss and/or tinnitus symptoms? Over the years, research results have been mixed. But perhaps surprisingly, most of these studies indicate that people with higher caffeine consumption have lower levels of tinnitus. Some tinnitus patients have reported improved tinnitus-related annoyance and symptoms when cutting back on caffeine. This is great for those individuals, but it’s important to keep in mind there is no research based evidence that cutting back will reduce tinnitus. In fact, it may have the opposite effect and make tinnitus worse.

In the end, caffeine isn’t shown to be an effective treatment for persistent tinnitus, but drinking coffee is generally considered safe and not harmful for people who already experience tinnitus. If you find that your daily cuppa is helping with symptoms, there’s no reason to cut it out of your healthy diet. But if you discover that caffeine or energy drinks worsen the ringing in your ears, you may be among the group of people who should cut back on your caffeine intake. Remember that moderation is key!

Most people find success with targeted tinnitus management techniques like tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT), sound therapy, hearing aids, and lifestyle modifications to reduce stress. Whatever your symptoms, finding the right technique that works for you is key to quieting that ringing in your ears.

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