Illini Hearing - Champaign and Mahomet, IL

Child reaching for a tempting cookie from a plate on the table.

Does diet play a role in the development of tinnitus? Typically, when a doctor sees a patient complaining of ringing in the ears, the first thing they might do is order a hearing test. Tinnitus tends to signal damage to the tiny hair cells in the inner ear and a loss of hearing. That is not the only possibility, though.

Tinnitus itself is not an illness, but a symptom of something bigger. An underlying condition triggers this phantom noise, and the most common problem is hearing loss. Tinnitus can also be a sign of something else, though, like a change in blood sugar levels or more specifically hyperinsulinemia. Understanding how sugar intake affects your body might be the first step in controlling that annoying ringing in your ears.

What Causes Ringing in the Ears?

Tinnitus means a person hears phantom noises, typically ringing but patients also complain of:

  • Buzzing
  • Roaring
  • Clicking
  • Hissing

The noise isn’t really there, but it does sound real.

There are two types of tinnitus:

  • Subjective — Meaning a sound only you can hear
  • Objective — A sound caused by a faulty blood vessel. The doctor may also hear this noise during an examination.

The most common of these two forms of tinnitus is subjective. It is a condition that affects approximately 40 million people in the U.S.. For 10 million people with tinnitus, the noise is loud enough to interfere with their daily activities. Most importantly, severe tinnitus can get in the way of a good night’s sleep and that affects overall health.

What is Hyperinsulinemia?

Hyperinsulinemia is the medical name for too much insulin in the blood. Insulin works a lot like a key that opens the membranes around cells to allow sugar to enter.

All cells utilize sugar (glucose) for energy. When there is too much sugar inside the cell membrane, it causes damage. This is why membranes are locked. They only open when the body determines there are high levels of sugar in the blood. To combat the high blood sugar, it produces insulin to unlock the cell membranes and pull sugar inside. The cells then metabolize the sugar to create fuel.

So, what happens to the blood when a person eats too many sweet treats? The blood sugar level rises and insulin is released in response. This is critical because too much blood sugar is harmful to tissue, specifically the veins, arteries and nerves. This is the reason individuals diagnosed with diabetes tend to have problems with the circulation in the legs and feet and don’t heal well.

In order to level out blood sugar after eating something sweet in excess, the body produces more insulin and dumps it into the blood causing hyperinsulinemia, or higher than normal blood insulin levels. It’s not just chocolate and other sweets that increase blood sugar, either. Complex carbohydrates like muffins and bread have the same effect.

Hyperinsulinemia can also occur due to a metabolic disorder that results from the insulin resistance often associated with type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance is like changing the locks on the cell membranes. The insulin doesn’t work to open them to sugar or it takes much more of the hormone to get the job done.

Hyperinsulinemia is a vicious cycle. The pancreas attempts to make more insulin as it tries to regulate the level of sugar in the blood. When the cell membranes fail to open, sugar has nowhere to go and the levels keep rising. The higher the blood sugar, the more insulin the body makes.

Hyperinsulinemia and Tinnitus: What is the Connection?

At least one 2004 study found that somewhere between 84 to 92 percent of people with tinnitus have hyperinsulinemia, too. It may be related to the development of Meniere’s disease — a condition caused by changes in inner ear fluid pressure.

What medical science does know is that the inner ear needs a constant supply of oxygen and glucose to work properly. When those levels fluctuate, ringing in the ears gets worse. Over time, untreated high blood sugar levels will damage the nerve that controls how the brain interprets sound and interfere with the blood supply to the inner ear but even a little extra sugar changes the electrolyte balance of the fluid in the inner ear.

What Does This Mean For People Who Love Those Holiday Cookies?

Certainly, modern consumers understand that the simple sugars found in cookies and candy are not good for the body. Now, they add hearing problems and tinnitus to the list of reasons to manage sugar intake. For most people, the tinnitus that might come from the occasional sweet treat is harmless. If you do overindulge, there might be a funny noise in your ears. If you already suffer from tinnitus, though, the noise will get much worse.

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