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

Will diet play a role in the ringing that comes with tinnitus? Often when a doctor diagnoses tinnitus in a patient, the first step is to call for a professional hearing test. Tinnitus is a symptom that can indicate damage to the delicate hair cells found in the inner ear, which is at the heart of many kinds of hearing loss. Inner ear issues are not the only possible cause of tinnitus, though.

The ringing associated with tinnitus is not a medical condition itself, but a sign of a bigger problem like a significant hearing loss. Tinnitus may also mean there is an expected change in sugar levels in the blood or an increase of the production of insulin, a condition called hyperinsulinemia. Learning how the sugar you eat can change insulin levels may be the best way to turn the ringing off this holiday season.

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 just a fancy way of saying the level of insulin in the blood is higher than normal. Insulin works like a key that unlocks the membranes around cells to allow sugar to enter.

All cells in the body use sugar (glucose) as energy. Too much sugar inside the cell is a bad thing, though, so the membrane is locked until the body senses an increase in blood sugar levels. When that happens, it releases the hormone insulin from the pancreas to “unlock” the membranes and allow glucose to flood the cells. The cells metabolize the sugar and get energy from it.

So, what happens when you overdo it on those holiday sweets? Your blood sugar level rises naturally, and insulin helps bring it down. That is an essential process because too much blood sugar will eventually cause damage, especially to the cardiovascular and nervous systems. This is why people with diabetes often suffer from a condition called peripheral neuropathy.

To stabilize the blood sugar after eating something high in sugar, your body increases it’s production of insulin, leading to hyperinsulinemia, or higher than normal blood insulin levels. It’s not just candy and sweet treats that cause this condition, either. Any carbohydrate like bread will 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 not a 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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