There are many possible causes of hearing loss, ranging from wax in the ear canal to problems with the nerves that receive sound and transmit it to the brain. Two of the most common causes are age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) and noise-induced hearing loss. The treatment for hearing loss depends on its cause, and for that reason medical consultation is essential.
In this article, we discuss a few herbs and supplements that have shown promise for various forms of hearing loss. See also the article on tinnitus for hearing problems that involve ringing in the ears.
Two natural treatments have been evaluated in double-blind, placebo-controlled trials for the prevention or treatment of hearing loss.
Long-term exposure to loud sounds, such as gunfire or rock music, can cause permanent hearing loss. A 2-month, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 300 military recruits found daily supplementation with magnesium helped protect the ear from noise-induced damage.1 The dosage used in this study was quite small—only 167 milligrams (mg) of magnesium daily—but tests showed that even this amount was sufficient to raise magnesium levels inside cells and apparently protect the ear from damage. Soldiers who received the magnesium were less likely to experience permanent hearing damage than those in the placebo group, and when they did experience hearing damage, it was less severe.
It is not clear how magnesium might protect hearing. Studies in animals suggest that magnesium deficiency can increase the stress on cells involved with hearing and thereby make them more susceptible to damage caused by intense noise.1 However, human magnesium deficiency is believed to be rare, so it is possible that supplemental magnesium acts in some entirely different way.
At present, only the use of noise-reduction devices (e.g., headsets that block sound) have been proven effective for preventing noise-induced hearing loss, and this study does not indicate that magnesium supplements can replace this tried-and-true approach. However, this study suggests that a safe, low dose of magnesium may add an additional level of protection.
For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the full magnesium article.
Some people develop hearing loss suddenly, usually in one ear. This condition is called “unilateral idiopathic sudden hearing loss.” Its cause is unknown, but problems with circulation may play a role in some cases. The herb ginkgo biloba is thought to increase circulation, and for that reason it has been tried as a treatment for this condition.
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 106 participants with a carefully defined form of sudden hearing loss were given either a full dose of ginkgo extract (120 mg twice daily) or a low dose of the herb (12 mg twice daily).2 The lower dose was chosen in the belief that it couldn’t possibly offer any benefit, and would therefore serve as placebo. However, researchers were surprised to find that most participants in each group recovered by the end of the 8-week trial. There are two possibilities to explain this: low-dose ginkgo is effective, or many people with sudden hearing loss recover on their own anyway.
Because both groups improved to such a great extent, the overall results of the trial did not prove ginkgo effective. An exploratory look at the data provided some tantalizing hints that high-dose ginkgo may have helped ensure full recovery, but for statistical reasons these tantalizing hints can’t be taken as proof.
Another double-blind study compared ginkgo to pentoxifylline, a circulation-enhancing drug used in Germany for the treatment of sudden hearing loss.3 The results indicate that ginkgo was at least as effective as the medication. However, because pentoxifylline is not a proven treatment for this condition, the results prove little.
Additional research will be necessary to discover whether ginkgo is actually effective for sudden hearing loss. For more information on this herb, including dosage and safety issues, see the full ginkgo article.
Free radicals are naturally occurring substances that cause damage to many parts of the body, including the ear. Antioxidants are substances that fight free radicals. Antioxidant supplements have shown promise for preventing various forms of hearing loss, including age-related hearing loss and hearing damage caused by medications.6–9 Commonly used antioxidants include the following:
Other natural treatments sometimes used for various forms of hearing loss, but which lack meaningful scientific support, include folate, manganese, myrrh, potassium, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and zinc.
1. Attias J, Weisz G, Almog S, et al. Oral magnesium intake reduces permanent hearing loss induced by noise exposure. Am J Otolaryngol. 1994;15:26–32.
2. Burschka MA, Hassan HA, Reineke T, et al. Effect of treatment with Ginkgo biloba extract EGb 761 (oral) on unilateral idiopathic sudden hearing loss in a prospective randomized double-blind study of 106 outpatients. Eur Arch Otorhinolaryngol. 2001;258:213–219.
3. Reisser CH, Weidauer H. Ginkgo biloba extract EGb 761W or pentoxifylline for the treatment of sudden deafness: a randomized, reference-controlled, double-blind study. Acta Otolaryngol. 2001;121:579–584.
4. Seidman MD, Khan MJ, Bai U, et al. Biologic activity of mitochondrial metabolites on aging and age-related hearing loss. Am J Otol. 2000;21:161–167.
5. Karlidag T, Yalcin S, Ozturk A, et al. The role of free oxygen radicals in noise induced hearing loss: effects of melatonin and methylprednisolone. Auris Nasus Larynx. 2002;29:147–152.
6. Blakley BW, Cohen JI, Doolittle ND, et al. Strategies for prevention of toxicity caused by platinum-based chemotherapy: review and summary of the annual meeting of the Blood-Brain Barrier Disruption Program, Gleneden Beach, Oregon, March 10, 2001. Laryngoscope. 2002;112:1997–2001.
7. Henderson D, McFadden SL, Liu CC, et al. The role of antioxidants in protection from impulse noise. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1999 Nov 28;884:368–380.
8. Seidman MD. Effects of dietary restriction and antioxidants on presbyacusis. Laryngoscope. 2000;110:727–738.
9. Rybak LP, Whitworth C, Somani S. Application of antioxidants and other agents to prevent cisplatin ototoxicity. Laryngoscope. 1999;109:1740–1744.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
Last Updated: 12/15/2015
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