Don’t Believe The Ads: Dietary Supplements Don’t Cure Tinnitus

Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, is a hallucination. The sounds can’t be heard by anyone else; they are illusory sensations produced by the brain. For some, it is only a minor annoyance; for others, it interferes with sleep and quality of life and sometimes causes severe suffering. There is no cure. Nothing will stop the noise, but there are measures that can reduce the distress, such as distraction, reassurance, improving sleep, cognitive behavioral psychotherapy, sound masking, anti-anxiety drugs, and hearing aids.

There are many dietary supplements on the market with enticing names such as

RingZen, Tranquil Ear, Tinnifree, Ringstop, Silence, etc. Ringstop is sold at Walmart, Target, and other major outlets. It contains Chinese herbs, vitamins, and minerals. Its full list of ingredients is extensive, but the amounts are too tiny to expect any effect. It is a homeopathic remedy! Lipoflavonoid is advertised as the number one recommendation of doctors. That’s a lie. I wrote about it for the Science-Based Medicine blog. Most supplements are mixtures of ingredients that have never been evaluated with clinical studies.

The ads claim amazing success, even 100 percent cures, but the scientific evidence for dietary supplements puts such claims in question. A recent review in the American Journal of Audiology surveyed 1,788 subjects who took dietary supplements for tinnitus. The vast majority, 70.7 percent, reported no improvement; 19 percent reported improvement; and 10.3 percent reported worsening of symptoms. Side effects were reported by 6 percent, including bleeding, diarrhea, headache, etc. The researchers concluded that subjective improvement should be interpreted cautiously due to suggestion, expectations, and placebo responses. They said dietary supplements should not be recommended, although they might have a positive effect for certain tinnitus reactions and might improve sleep in some people.

The Stylecraze website lists twenty-four natural home remedies for tinnitus but offers no evidence that any of them actually work. The rationales described don’t make much sense; they address bogus causes that are not known to cause tinnitus. Here are some examples:

  • A glycerin and salt solution sprayed in the nostrils will decongest the nose and relieve the noises caused by extra fluid in the sinuses (!?)
  • Pineapples are a rich source of the enzyme bromelain, along with vitamins A and C. These have anti-inflammatory properties to treat the inflammation caused by tinnitus.
  • Apple cider vinegar can fight underlying infections.
  • Gingko biloba can help combat underlying infections and improve blood circulation.
  • Mistletoe tea lowers blood pressure and improves blood circulation so that more oxygen and nutrients can reach your ears.
  • Onion juice has antioxidant and antibacterial properties.
  • Yogurt is rich in many nutrients that may be deficient in some patients.

Essential oils can be applied behind the ear or on the earlobe. Don’t bother. They don’t work.

Ayurveda recommends basil extracts and onion juice in the ear canal, eating pineapples regularly, and eating seven to eight almonds followed by a glass of warm milk.

Andrew Weil recommends cranial therapy to “take the pressure or irritation off the auditory nerves.” This is nonsense. It doesn’t do that, and that isn’t what causes tinnitus. Cranial, or craniosacral therapy, is a pseudoscientific treatment based on false assumptions about anatomy and physiology. It has no benefits other than perhaps relaxation.

Purveyors of dietary supplements and alternative remedies are salesmen trying to get you to buy their wares. They are willing to distort the truth and misrepresent the facts to make a sale. Sometimes they just make stuff up. Consulting Dr. Google often leads people astray. Are your ears ringing? You would be better off consulting a science-based mainstream medical specialist who can examine you, rule out a treatable disease, assess the need for a hearing aid, and offer evidence-based measures to reduce your distress. You can’t believe everything you read—but you knew that! Just remember: desperation can lead even the staunchest skeptics to try dubious treatments because they want to believe they will work. And sometimes they do “work” for a time because of placebo responses. And of course, any distraction helps, and there is satisfaction in having taking action to help ourselves.

On a personal note: I have tinnitus. As a retired flight surgeon, I was awarded a 10 percent VA disability because of my exposure to loud noises on the flightline. I knew what caused my tinnitus and always knew it was harmless; I never worried about it being a sign of anything bad. I am one of the lucky majority who adapt and manage to ignore the ringing. It’s always there if I pay attention, but unless I think about it, I’m not aware of it at all. When I do think about it, I’m just glad it isn’t a phone ringing and I don’t have to answer it. One of the great pleasures of retirement for me is no longer being on call. Now, when my home phone rings, it doesn’t mean I will have to respond to an emergency, and the adrenaline doesn’t kick in. I know I won’t have to put on my flight suit and go climb into a helicopter. These days it’s likely to be just a robocall. We still get lots of those despite being on the national Do Not Call registry. Robocalls bother me far more than my tinnitus does.

This article was originally published as a SkepDoc’s Corner column on the  CSI website

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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