Remember the old tale of Johnny Appleseed? In elementary school, you may have been taught that he migrated across the United States, bringing the gift of healthy apples to every community he visited (the moral of the story is that apples are good for you, and you should eat them).
That’s only partially true. The real Johnny Appleseed (whose real name was John Chapman) did in fact introduce apples to many states across the country around the turn of the 19th century. But apples were very different hundreds of years ago. They weren’t as sweet or tasty. In fact, they were mostly only used for one thing: creating hard cider.
That’s right. Johnny Appleseed was bringing booze to every community he visited.
Humans have a complicated relationship with alcohol. On the one hand, it’s terrible for your health (and not just in the long term–many of these health impacts can be felt immediately when you spend the early morning hours dizzy, vomiting, or passed out). On the other hand, humans generally like feeling inebriated.
This is not new. Humanity has been imbibing since, well, the dawn of recorded time. But if you have hearing problems–including tinnitus–it’s possible that your alcohol consumption could be creating or exacerbating your symptoms.
In other words, it’s not just the loud music at the bar that’s bad for your hearing. It’s the beer, too.
Drinking causes tinnitus
Most hearing specialists will tell you that drinking causes tinnitus. That shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to believe. If you’ve ever imbibed a little too much, you may have experienced something called “the spins.” That’s where you get really, really dizzy and the room feels like it’s, well, spinning (especially when you close your eyes).
The spins will occur because the alcohol is interfering with the part of your body responsible for balance: your inner ear.
And what else is your inner ear good for? Hearing, of course! Which means that if you’ve had the spins, it’s not surprising that you may have also experienced a ringing or buzzing in your ears that’s characteristic of tinnitus.
That’s because alcohol is an ototoxic substance
Now there’s an intimidating word: ototoxic. But it’s really just a fancy term for something that damages the auditory system. (This includes both the auditory nerves and the inner ear–basically everything that connects your whole auditory system, from your ears to your brain.)
There are a few ways that this plays out in practice:
- Alcohol can damage the stereocilia in your ears (these are tiny hairs that let you sense vibrations in the air–vibrations that your brain later translates into sound). Once those tiny hairs are damaged, there’s no coming back.
- Alcohol can also reduce blood flow to your inner ear. This in itself can become a source of damage, too (most parts of your body don’t particularly enjoy being starved of blood).
- Alcohol can impact the neurotransmitters in your brain that are responsible for hearing. This means that, while the alcohol is in your system, your brain isn’t functioning correctly (clearly, decision-making centers are impacted; but so, too, are the parts of your brain responsible for hearing).
Drinking-related hearing loss & tinnitus isn’t always permanent
So if you’re out for a night on the town or getting some drinks with some friends, you might notice yourself developing some symptoms. While you’re distracted by your fun night out, you might develop tinnitus symptoms–or even hearing loss.
The good news is that these symptoms (when they are caused by alcohol intake) are usually temporary. As your body chemistry returns to normal, you’ll likely start to recover some of your hearing and your tinnitus will wane.
Of course, the longer alcohol is in your system, the longer it will take your ears to return to normal. And if this type of damage is repeated consistently, it may become permanent. In other words, it’s entirely possible (if not likely) that you can cause both permanent tinnitus and hearing loss by drinking too much and too often.
A couple of other things are happening too
It’s not just the booze, of course. There are a couple of other factors that make the bar scene a little inhospitable for your ears.
- Noise: The first is that bars tend to be, well, loud. That’s part of their… uh… charm? (Look, if you’re 20 it’s great; if you’re 40 it’s a bit much.) There’s loud music, there’s loud people, there’s lots of laughing. All of that noisiness can, over time, cause damage to your hearing.
- Alcohol causes other problems: Even when you put the hearing loss element aside, drinking is pretty bad for you. Alcohol abuse can lead to health issues such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. And all of these issues can ultimately be life threatening–as well as contribute to more severe tinnitus symptoms.
In other words, the combination of the environment and the alcohol make those late night bar trips a potent (and hazardous) mix for your ears.
Does that mean it’s time to stop drinking?
Of course, we’re not suggesting that drinking alone in a quiet room is the solution here. It’s the alcohol–not the socializing–that’s the root of the problem. So if you’re having trouble moderating your alcohol intake, you could be causing significant problems for yourself–and for your hearing. You should talk to your doctor about how you can seek treatment–and start on the road to being healthy again. So, yeah, it might be time to show Johnny Appleseed the right way to get healthy: drink less alcohol and eat more apples.
In the meantime, if you’re a heavy drinker and you’ve noticed a ringing in your ears, it might be time to schedule an appointment with your hearing specialist to check for tinnitus.
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