Ten percent of Americans live with tinnitus – a persistent buzzing or ringing sound that can profoundly change how a person comprehends and interacts with the rest of the world.
There is no known blanket solution for tinnitus, but research and experimentation has inspired several new approaches to managing it, including retraining the brain, using sound frequencies, making nutritional changes, and taking supplements.
Below we discuss how nootropics for tinnitus could help mediate the effects of this maddening condition.
Tinnitus in a Nutshell
Tinnitus is not a new phenomenon. Egyptian papyri dating back to 6000 BC mention tinnitus symptoms and possible solutions.<1>
Today, approximately 60 million people worldwide suffer from tinnitus. Of those 16 million have experienced symptoms acute enough to seek medical attention, and for 2 million people the symptoms are so extreme they cannot even perform normal every day activities.
Bona fide tinnitus is a phantom auditory perception that has no detectable acoustic generator, but it is thought to originate in the cochlea, brainstem, or higher auditory centers in the brain.
Shaowen Bao, asssistant professor at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, UC Berkeley, says tinnitus is usually triggered by hearing loss. Sustained loud noises from external sources like loud music, machinery, or explosives can damage auditory hair cells in the inner ear that detect sounds. And so can some drugs.
“With the loss of hearing, you have phantom sounds,” said Bao, who has tinnitus himself. In this respect, he explains, tinnitus is similar to the phantom limb pain many amputees experience.<2>
Recent experiments have shown that the phantom sound doesn’t originate in the inner ear, but rather stems from brain regions – including the auditory cortex – that receive input from the ear.
According to scientists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, under-inhibition of key neural pathways in the brain's auditory center can trigger a constant buzzing, ringing, or other irritating noise – even without any actual sound.<3>
The American Tinnitus Association says tinnitus is the most common service-related disability among veterans of the middle eastern conflicts.
Tinnitus and the Brain
The most widely accepted theory of causation is Jastreboff’s neurophysiologic model of tinnitus, which suggests tinnitus is a subcortical perception resulting from weak neural activity processing.
But new research from the Health Science Center and the Martha Entenmann Tinnitus Research Center in Brooklyn suggests that all forms of tinnitus share a common pathway through the brain regardless of the initial cause.<4>
This pathway is a GABA receptor in the medial temporal lobe, and it inhibits central nervous system synapse activity. But GABA glitches can lead to convulsions. This correlation provides clinical support for a new theory that proposes tinnitus is an epileptic-like auditory phenomenon.
According to this theory, overly excitable nerve cells instigate both epilepsy and tinnitus. Healthy nerves automatically shut down nerve signaling when they get too excited.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is an amino acid and the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. When GABA transmitters are working properly, they act like a brake on overstimulated neurons by blocking glutamate, the principle excitatory transmitter.
But in some brains, this system malfunctions, and the nerves continue to fire off signals, overloading the system and triggering seizures (epilepsy) or phantom ringing (tinnitus).
Researchers have found that GABA receptor deficiencies may aggravate tinnitus. Scans from single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) show decreased chemical binding and other GABA-receptor irregularities in those suffering severe tinnitus.
Nootropics for tinnitus can help balance brain chemicals for healthy GABA levels.
Clinical studies show that supporting GABA levels boosts the production of alpha brain waves and can relieve the anxiety, stress, and poor mood that often accompany tinnitus.<5>
The brain uses neurotransmitters to communicate between nerve cells and other neurons. Besides GABA, the neurotransmitters acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, aspartate, epinephrine, and norepinephrine are involved in brain cell transmission.
Nootropics for neurotransmitters support healthy brain chemical levels for optimal brain function.
Glutamate controls communication between auditory centers in the brain and the inner hair cells of the cochlea. When these hair cells become damaged by things like exposure to loud noise or ototoxic substances, excessive glutamate is released.
Glutamate exhibits neurotoxic properties in excessive amounts or when inadequately recycled. This malfunction leads to excitotoxicity and can cause neuronal death of auditory nerves.
Too much glutamate opens neuronal sodium channels and stops them from closing, causing the neurons to keep firing.
This continuous firing allows free radicals and inflammatory compounds to rapidly accrue. These compounds then attack mitochondria – the energy-producing core of neurons. When mitochondria become depleted, the neuron shrivels and dies.<6>
There are two basic ways to correct this imbalance.
- Activate GABA receptors to stop glutamate-induced firing. Anti-anxiety supplements that activate GABA receptors can help regulate glutamate levels and protect mitochondria from instigating cell death.
- Avoid food and other substances that contain excitotoxins – especially monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG is a highly concentrated salt form of glutamic acid linked to multiple health problem that can exacerbate tinnitus. And avoid oxotoxic chemicals and substances that can interfere with proper neurotransmission and cause excess glutamate to build up in the brain.
Protecting the blood-brain barrier and ensuring proper cerebral blood flow can further protect neuronal cells from cell death and may help reduce symptoms of tinnitus. Nootropics for tinnitus can improve cerebral blood flow and oxygen for better protection.
Excitotoxins that may lead to excessive glutamate and worsen tinnitus include:
- MSG (also labeled under these alternate names)
- Aspartate/aspartame – acts like glutamate and triggers NMDA receptors that initiate cell death
- L-cysteine – artificial flavoring made from human hair and poultry feathers easily penetrates the blood-brain barrier, used as a dough-conditioner and color preservative for fresh fruit
- Domoic Acid – prevalent in farm-raised seafood and linked with the development of epilepsy, particularly in the elderly.<7> Eat wild-caught fish to get Omega-3’s without toxicity
- Casein – naturally present in cheese, flavor additive, and often added to provide protein in fitness supplements, it increases glutamate overload.
While there are double blind studies that suggest these chemicals are safe, many of these studies are flawed. In one study testing glutamate toxicity in MSG, the placebo contained aspartate, a chemical that has been shown to produce the same destructive reactions as MSG.<8>
Noise Plus Chemical Exposure
"Tinnitus drowns out music, television, co-workers, friends and family, and it profoundly changes how the patient perceives and interacts with the world." – Dr. Thanos Tzounopoulos
Hearing loss is considered the main cause of tinnitus, and millions of people are exposed to excessive workplace noise every day. It is well known that uncontrolled noise exposure may cause tinnitus and even permanent hearing loss.
But research shows that exposure to ototoxic chemicals may also damage hearing, regardless of noise exposure. Pesticides, solvents, and other substances that contain ototoxicants can impair auditory functions, causing hearing problems.
Though ototoxins can negatively impact hearing alone, the risk of hearing problems increases when workers are exposed to these chemicals in conjunction with elevated noise levels.<9>
This combination frequently causes impairment in workers from many industries, from farmers to firefighters.
Avoiding these ototoxic substances could help with tinnitus. And supplementing your diet with the right nootropic vitamins and minerals can help protect your brain from damage caused by toxins and free radicals.
Retraining the Brain
Neural plasticity allows different parts of the brain to take up tasks that other brain regions are usually responsible for if those brain cells die or are otherwise impaired.
Excess glutamate can damage hair cells in the inner ear, preventing auditory centers in the brain from receiving the full range of frequencies available with normal hearing.
Each individual hair cell resonates at a different frequency, and when hairs become damaged, the lost cells leave a gap in hearing, typically at specific frequencies. The brain attempts to compensate for the absent frequencies by spontaneously firing, resulting in the phantom auditory phenomenon that is the hallmark of tinnitus.
One way to manage tinnitus is to train different cells to process new input in order to reduce spontaneous firing. Enhancing the response to frequencies close to the lost frequencies can entrain the brain to reorganize when it loses sensory input.
But rather than reorganizing how frequencies “map” to the auditory cortex, reorganizing the cortical map so the nerves get some input and cease tinnitus activity can be more effective.
“We argue that reorganizing the cortical map should be the goal, so that the nerves get some input and stop their tinnitus activity,” he said. “You don’t want to leave these cells without sensory input.”
“We changed our (brain training) strategy from one where we completely avoided the tinnitus domain to one where we directly engage it and try to redifferentiate or reactivate it, and we seem to be seeing improvement,” says neuroscientist MichaelMerzenich.<2>
Binaural beats can mitigate the effects of tinnitus through brainwave entrainment. Beats that stimulate theta brain waves are optimal. But beta beats "may exacerbate the reaction to tinnitus."<10>
Nootropics for flow state might help increase theta activity for even better results.
Mind Lab Pro® Nootropics for Tinnitus
GABA has a profound effect on tinnitus, and while GABA alone does not cross the blood-brain barrier, a good carrier agent can help it cross over and be absorbed by the brain.
If a direct GABA supplement doesn’t work for you, supplements that influence GABA activity may help safely – without unwanted side effects.
Improving cerebral blood flow can also help GABAergic supplements work more efficiently and can protect the brain from excitotoxins, ototoxins, and other damaging influences.
These nootropics for tinnitus can help with some common tinnitus symptoms.
L-theanine is an amino acid that naturally occurs in green, black, and oolong tea. Like GABA, L-theanine inhibits glutamate uptake, preserving GABA levels in the brain.<11>
L-theanine’s molecular structure is similar to glutamate, so it can act as a glutamate antagonist.
- Glutamate and GABA are competitive neurotransmitters, and L-theanine increases GABA concentrations, helping to keep glutamate in check.
It may also help protect neurons from damage, blocking some of glutamate’s damaging effects on mitochondria and preserving nerve cell function. This could help preclude tinnitus from worsening or stop it from happening in the first place.
Bacopa Monnieri is an adaptogen herb and a precursor to the GABA-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin, and it appears to upregulate GABA binding sites with consistent, long-term use.
Bacopa supports dopamine and serotonin production, which is good for GABA. But more importantly for tinnitus control, it can upgrade neural communication.
Studies show Bacopa can boost serotonergic signaling, with results showing normalized receptor kinetics under the influence of 150mg Bacopa Monnieri.
- Studies show Bacopa can "upregulate expression of a certain type of presynaptic glutamate receptor, mGluR 8, which are thought to protect neurons from excitotoxicity, and their downregulation is concurrent with hyperexcitation."<12>
Aside from auditory symptoms, tinnitus can intensify anxiety, stress, and depression. Bacopa may increase the effects of key mood-boosting neurotransmitters including serotonin, acetylcholine, noradrenaline, and dopamine, helping you achieve a sense of calm and maintain mood balance.
But Bacopa takes time to work, and studies that are too short may not show accurate results. But longer studies show that improvements are much more noticeable at 8-12 weeks than they are at 4-6 weeks.
Folate is important for proper nerve cell function, and it reduces homocysteine, a nerve toxin that naturally occurs at low levels in the brain and body.
- But high homocysteine levels are associated with an elevated risk of developing hearing problems, especially age-related hearing loss.
Folic acid stabilizes the nervous system, providing an explanation for the mechanisms behind anecdotal evidence reporting B9 supplementation can help alleviate tinnitus in people with folic acid deficiency.<13>
A pilot study examining tinnitus symptoms in people with cobalamin (B12) deficiencies.
- The results of this study “showed significant improvement in mean tinnitus severity index score and visual analog scale (VAS) after Vitamin B12 therapy.”
This evidence sheds light on the therapeutic role of B12 for tinnitus in people who don’t get enough cobalamin through diet.
Taking B12 may help reduce tinnitus symptoms, however, larger studies are required to establish a direct relationship between tinnitus relief and B12 supplementation.<14>
Mind Lab Pro® nootropics for tinnitus balance brain chemicals to protect nerve function and support healthy hearing.
- Mind Lab Pro® can help balance neurotransmitter levels and defend brain cell integrity from toxic levels of brain chemicals that can damage hearing-related brain functions.
Hearing is one of our most fundamental tools of perception. Hearing problems can lower quality of life and impair our ability to make good choices and interact with the world around us.
By supporting healthy chemical levels and brain pathways, Mind Lab Pro® provides whole brain support that could help protect or improve hearing problems like tinnitus and promote optimal cognitive function.