Stress is a normal and important part of life. When our senses interpret danger from the outside world, the amount of a hormone called cortisol rises in our blood. Cortisol is an important regulatory hormone, and when our cortisol levels rise it creates a “high alert” situation inside our body. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase. Normal functions like digestive and reproductive systems, the immune system or even our growth processes can be temporarily suspended or altered in order to focus attention on the task at hand and escape the danger that we sense.
Once we have left the danger zone and there are no immediate threats present, our cortisol levels should return to normal. This allows our body to get back to functioning like normal, focusing resources in healthy proportions toward all the normal processes our body needs to carry out on a daily basis.
If we’re chronically stressed, our alert system stays on and cortisol levels remain high in order to spur us toward action. Chronic stress can lead to anxiety and depression, headaches, heart disease, hypertension, memory and concentration issues, digestion problems, insomnia, weight gain, and yes, even hearing loss.
How Stress Causes Hearing Loss
The tiny organelles that convert the mechanical energy of sound into the electrical energy that our brain interprets as sound are called “stereocilia.” There are around 15,000 stereocilia in each of our ears, and they are each responsible for picking up different frequencies (pitches) of sound. When they vibrate sympathetically with sound coming in from the outside, they produce a charge that the brain can recognize as a tone of a certain pitch and loudness. When all the action of all the stereocilia is combined, the brain puts it all together into a picture of the sound going on outside of us.
Once stereocilia die, they do not regenerate. This is the cause of most sensorineural hearing loss. The goal of keeping our hearing ability intact throughout our lives has to be accomplished by preventing the death of stereocilia, but there are many factors involved in this. Some are genetic and some are modifiable.
Excessive noise, for example, is a well-known killer of stereocilia. That’s why we need to protect our hearing whenever we encounter sound above the 85 dBA (decibels A-weighted) threshold: any time we spend in a loud environment can contribute immediately to hearing loss. Though it might be imperceptible at the time, if we spend enough time around loud sounds it will add up to very noticeable hearing loss. It’s also possible to encounter one sound that is so loud that it causes immediate, noticeable hearing loss, though this is relatively uncommon.
Another cause of sensorineural hearing loss is restricted circulation. The stereocilia are maintained by nutrients from the blood through tiny capillaries. When we have chronic inflammation, heart disease, diabetes, or smoke tobacco regularly, blood flow to the stereocilia is chronically restricted. Over time, this starves the stereocilia of critical nutrients and they expire. There are some audiologists who say that what we know as “age-related hearing loss” or presbycusis is actually an epidemic of hearing loss caused by unhealthy lifestyles.
Chronic stress causes inflammation in the body, which in turn restricts blood flow to the stereocilia. The mechanism at play in this type of hearing loss is the same whether we are chronically stressed, eating fast food every day, smoking cigarettes, or suffering from hypertension. Anything that we can do to promote a healthy body is not only good for our well-being and longevity but also for our hearing health.
Inflammation and Hearing Loss
A study conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that those who ate an anti-inflammatory diet—such as Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) or the Alternate Mediterranean Diet (AMED)—were significantly less likely to have any measurable hearing loss over the course of four years than those who ate a typical American diet.
This suggests that the best things we can do to promote our hearing health are the same things we should do to promote our general good health. We might think of our hearing ability as the “canary in the coal mine” of our bodies: If we’re having issues with hearing, it could be that we need to consider modifying some habits in our life to promote better general health.
Reduce Stress When Possible
If you feel you might be chronically stressed, consider doing some research online to find books or community support groups that may be able to help you reduce stress. Consider exercising, even just for 20 minutes or so, and take breaks from the sources of your stress when possible. Try to find opportunities to smile and laugh. Consider switching to an anti-inflammatory diet to help with bodily sources of stress, and start a meditation practice.
Finally, if you do have hearing loss, make an appointment for a hearing test today and see what can be done to help you hear the world again. Hearing loss, itself, can be a source of stress, potentially contributing to more hearing loss. A good set of hearing aids can help you enjoy the world again, so consider trying out a set to see if they might be right for you!