How High Stress Can Lead to Hearing Loss
Stress can be a major factor in hearing loss. It is not uncommon for people to attribute their difficulty hearing to an age-related issue when in reality it is caused by stress and anxiety. Stress affects the body on many levels and may cause damage to auditory organs such as the cochlea or vestibular apparatus of the inner ear, which results in hearing loss.
The more chronic one's exposure is to high-stress levels, the greater risk there is for permanent changes within these sensory organs due to ongoing damage from elevated cortisol (stress hormone) production. When we have stressed our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstreams that affect all parts of us – including our ears! If you notice that your ability to hear sounds is often reduced when you are under high levels of stress, then this is most likely due to cortisol affecting the inner ear. Studies have found that people tend to experience a temporary reduction in hearing ability when they're under high levels of stress. The bad news is that this problem can become chronic and cause permanent damage to your inner ear tissues.
The good news is that intervening early with lifestyle changes, dietary improvements, and maybe even a few supplements can help you reverse this situation.
What's the Link?
The body's main mediator of the stress response is cortisol. Cortisol has also been shown to interfere with the conversion of sound waves into nerve signals in a manner that raises the hearing threshold for a short time following a loud noise. This is a temporary hearing loss that lasts for only a few minutes and occurs when the level of cortisol in the blood system remains high. For those who are exposed to loud noises at work, this hearing loss may develop into a permanent hearing loss as workers age.
This is another reason why individuals under chronic stress should consider wearing earplugs or muffs when exposed to high noise levels.
Two other functions of cortisol – salt and water balance and the inflammatory response – also affect the inner ear. If cortisol is deficient, salt and water balance becomes disrupted, leading to an increase of fluids in the inner ear which can result in vertigo (dizziness). Additionally, if one does not produce enough cortisol, inflammation goes unchecked which may lead to an infection of the middle ear or even Sudden Deafness (sensorineural hearing loss, permanent). The takeaway: proper cortisol regulation helps to protect your ears.
What Can You Do to Prevent It?
So if you're interested in protecting your ears from the damaging effects of stress, there are a few things you can do.
- Make time for leisure activities like reading or watching TV (without headphones). These activities will help reduce the number of stress hormones circulating in your body and make it easier to relax when it comes time for bedtime.
- Get enough sleep every night by creating an evening routine that prepares your mind and body for restful sleep. This means turning off electronics at least an hour before bedtime, as the blue light they emit can interfere with your sleep cycle. Finally, make sure to avoid caffeine and alcohol within an hour of going to bed as both substances can disrupt a restful night's sleep.
- Exercise regularly. Physical activity has been shown to lower levels of stress hormones in the body and improve overall health. While any type of physical activity can help reduce stress, yoga is especially effective in teaching you how to relax and quiet your mind.
- Cut down on screen time. Studies show that the blue light from electronic devices such as TVs and computers can cause physical reactions in the body when exposed for prolonged periods. This includes muscle contractions, increased blood pressure, and increased cortisol (stress hormone) levels. To avoid these reactions while still enjoying the benefits of your electronic devices, try downloading an app such as f.lux or Twilight to change the light's frequency on your computer and phone.
- Meditate. Mindfulness practices like meditation help control breathing and heart rate while relaxing muscles. However, even if you aren't a meditator, breathing steadily and slowly for just a few minutes can cause physical changes in the body that lead to stress relief.
- Get enough sleep. By now we all know that getting enough sleep is important for both our physical and mental health. One of the most common side effects of sleep loss is high levels of cortisol. Not getting enough sleep regularly can ultimately lead to hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis.
- Eat a healthy diet. While it's important to eat healthy, being too health-conscious can be stressful. Some things are especially worth worrying about when it comes to eating healthily, including ensuring you have enough thiamine (B1) and magnesium in your body for good nerve and muscle function (including in the ears).
- Avoid caffeine and other stimulants. Caffeine can act as a stressor because it activates the fight-or-flight response. Just like cortisol, caffeine causes the release of adrenaline, which could lead to tinnitus and hyperacusis over time (especially in people with certain neurological conditions).
- Try not to obsess about your tinnitus or hyperacusis. This ties in with the previous points. When you spend all your time feeling anxious or stressed, it changes how you feel physically, emotionally, and physiologically. For instance, try not to go over what happened when your sound sensitivity started again and think of other things instead.
- Learn relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises (such as 5-7-8 breathing), progressive muscle relaxation, and meditation. Yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi are also great ways to relax. Deep breathing for just two minutes is enough to calm you down, release tension and improve your health in general!
- It never hurts to play it safe: avoid loud sounds as much as possible. Whether this means avoiding busy roads, concert venues, or if you're DJing for a crowd that's too big - do not underestimate the damage loud noise can do and protect your hearing as much as possible.
The next time you are feeling stressed, try to take a break. If that isn't an option for you right now, there are ways of managing your stress levels with breathing exercises or meditation techniques. It's important to remember how high stress can lead to hearing loss and balance problems so it doesn't happen again!