Caffeine is a staple of fast-paced modern living, and many wouldn’t dream of starting their day without a cup of joe. However, if you have tinnitus symptoms, you might be wondering if your caffeine habit is making things worse.
Maybe you’ve heard conflicting information and need some help discerning fact from fiction. Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between caffeine and tinnitus.
What Does the Research Say?
There isn’t much evidence that moderate caffeine consumption causes tinnitus. It’s a complex subject because tinnitus isn’t a single medical condition but rather a symptom with multiple potential causes, including:
- Hearing loss
- Ear and sinus infection
- Side effects of medications
- Neurological disorders
- High blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases
Scientists have investigated how caffeine intake affects tinnitus and hearing loss for decades. The results have been mixed, but a systematic review of the evidence shows that caffeine consumption can reduce tinnitus and hearing loss risk.
However, other research found that caffeine may aggravate tinnitus for people already experiencing tinnitus symptoms.
Some Studies Say Caffeine Might Prevent Tinnitus
While research is limited, a few large-scale studies show that people with higher levels of caffeine consumption are less likely to develop tinnitus and hearing loss.
Caffeine Lowered Tinnitus Risk in Women
The best evidence that caffeine helps prevent tinnitus is a massive long-term study published in the American Journal of Medicine. Researchers tracked the health and caffeine consumption of more than 65,000 women between 30 and 44 from 1991 to 2009.
During the study period, around 5,300 of the study participants developed tinnitus, but those who consumed more than 600 mg of caffeine per day were less likely to report tinnitus symptoms.
Korean Health and Nutrition Study
A national population-based survey conducted in Korea showed similar results, but the sample was smaller and the observation period shorter. Health researchers working for the Korean National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey looked at 13,500 participants from 2009 to 2012.
Like their American counterparts, the Korean doctors found that tinnitus and hearing loss were less common among people with higher caffeine consumption, especially in the 40 to 60 age group.
The types of coffee study participants drank also had an effect. They found that fresh-brewed coffee was more beneficial, whereas canned coffee could potentially make tinnitus.
Researchers speculated that this might have something to do with the heating, freezing, or treatment of the coffee. These methods can affect coffee’s bioactive compounds.
The results of these studies are promising, but more research is needed. Both of these studies were rigorous and involved a large number of participants. However, they focused narrowly on specific demographics.
The first only dealt with Caucasian women of a certain age, while the second only had Korean participants. It’s hard to say if the same results would be reproduced in a study with more age, gender and racial diversity.
Caffeine May Aggravate Existing Tinnitus Symptoms
Excess sugar and alcohol consumption and deficiencies in essential nutrients like Vitamin B12 are linked to tinnitus.
Caffeine has beneficial as well as adverse effects on tinnitus.
Caffeine Intake and Tinnitus Burden
While evidence suggests that caffeine actually reduces tinnitus risk if a person has never had it before, it might make the condition worse if you’re already experiencing tinnitus symptoms.
One study of tinnitus sufferers found that caffeine worsened their condition and increased tinnitus annoyance. Tinnitus symptoms improved when people drinking 150 to 300 mL of coffee daily reduced their caffeine intake.
Caffeine Withdrawal Can Also Make Tinnitus Worse
While reducing caffeine consumption might improve your tinnitus, you probably shouldn’t go cold turkey. An increase in tinnitus annoyance doesn’t justify caffeine abstinence.
On the contrary, the research found that when patients cut out caffeinated drinks altogether, they experienced caffeine withdrawal, severely aggravating their tinnitus symptoms. Tinnitus patients avoided the acute effects of caffeine withdrawal and reduced their tinnitus symptoms by merely cutting their caffeine intake.
Effect on Underlying Conditions
Caffeine has complex acute effects on the human body that can potentially impact the ear in ways that might trigger tinnitus. Research shows that caffeine affects many medical conditions that have been associated with tinnitus. Let’s take a look at a few.
Hearing loss is the most common root cause of tinnitus symptoms.
As we’ve already noted, moderate caffeine intake has been linked with a reduced risk of tinnitus and hearing loss. However, the evidence isn’t all positive.
Research has also found that caffeine may slow healing from noise-induced hearing loss. A study on Guinea pigs showed that caffeine delayed healing from noise-induced injury. At the same time, more research is needed to see if this effect can be reproduced on a large scale in controlled human studies.
Some research shows that caffeine could also disrupt the fluid levels in the inner ear. This might affect hearing for people with balance disorders like Meniere’s disease, who cannot regulate and recycle this fluid.
Blood Pressure and Cardiovascular Disorders
Some cardiovascular conditions can cause tinnitus. For example, pulsatile tinnitus.
Pulsatile tinnitus is a rare type where a person experiences a pulsing sound that throbs in time with their heartbeat. This is caused by turbulent blood flow in the blood vessels around the inner ear.
Hypertension, vascular defects and other cardiovascular conditions are the main risk factors for pulsatile tinnitus. Caffeine can temporarily increase blood pressure and constrict the small blood vessels transporting oxygen and nutrients to the inner ear.
While caffeine generally only has a short-term impact on your cardiovascular system, these acute effects may trigger tinnitus if you already have high blood pressure or another cardiovascular problem.
Excess caffeine intake is linked to night-time teeth grinding, also known as sleep bruxism, which can cause tinnitus.
The jaw attaches to the skull close to the inner ear, so extended periods of teeth grinding can have a direct effect on your hearing mechanism.
While moderate caffeine consumption doesn’t contribute to bruxism significantly, people who drink eight or more cups of coffee a day are 1.5 times more likely to grind their teeth in their sleep. The effect is much greater if people consume coffee close to bedtime.
Insomnia, Anxiety and Stress
Caffeine has positive and negative effects on mental health, and there is a robust association between certain mental conditions and tinnitus.
In particular, insomnia and anxiety are strongly linked to tinnitus.
Fortunately, caffeine isn’t a significant cause of either.
The body metabolizes caffeine quickly, so most people won’t develop insomnia from drinking coffee or other caffeinated beverages more than six hours before sleep. However, people with greater sensitivity should watch their caffeine intake and limit it to early in the day.
While caffeine doesn’t necessarily cause anxiety, it can worsen the condition for people already prone. On the positive side, caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, elevating mood. It also helps manage the adverse effects of stress by blocking specific brain receptors.
There’s little evidence that caffeine abstinence is beneficial for tinnitus sufferers. In fact, some studies suggest that caffeine has preventative properties, and caffeine withdrawal may make tinnitus worse. Still, cutting caffeine intake might improve symptoms for some types of tinnitus, such as those caused by high blood pressure.
The American Tinnitus Association recommends keeping a journal of your symptoms to identify things that trigger and alleviate tinnitus. If you notice your symptoms intensify after you drink coffee, tea, energy drinks or other caffeinated beverages, you should probably cut down on your caffeine intake.
1. Glicksman JT, Curhan SG, Curhan GC. A prospective study of caffeine intake and risk of incident tinnitus. Am J Med. 2014;127(8):739-743. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2014.02.033
2. Lee SY, Jung G, Jang MJ, et al. Association of Coffee Consumption with Hearing and Tinnitus Based on a National Population-Based Survey. Nutrients. 2018;10(10):1429. Published 2018 Oct 4. doi:10.3390/nu10101429
3. Dawes, Piers1,2; Cruickshanks, Karen J.3; Marsden, Antonia4; Moore, David R.1,2,5; Munro, Kevin J.1,2 Relationship Between Diet, Tinnitus, and Hearing Difficulties, Ear and Hearing: March/April 2020 – Volume 41 – Issue 2 – p 289-299 doi: 10.1097/AUD.0000000000000765