It may be all in your head, but it's nonetheless very real – a persistent buzzing, humming, whistling or plain old ringing in the ears that afflicts many older people. And though there's no outright cure, treatment is at hand in the form of vitamins, minerals and herbs.

What is it?

The medical name for persistent ringing in the ears is tinnitus – which is a Latin word meaning 'ringing'. Probably 20% of Australians experience some form of tinnitus at some time in their lives, and many seek medical help for it. In certain people (usually those over the age of 60), the ringing may become so intrusive that it interferes with sleep or leads to depression and anxiety. About 80% of sufferers have some degree of hearing loss.

What causes it?

Most cases of tinnitus probably stem from repeated exposure to loud noises (rock music, gunshots, industrial machinery), which can damage the nerves and tiny hairs in the inner ear that detect sound. Other causes, some of which are easily remedied, include excess earwax, ear infections, too much alcohol, poor blood circulation and the side effects of certain medications, especially antibiotics or aspirin. Recent research indicates that the ringing probably involves some sort of nerve malfunction in the brain – not simply problems within the ear.

What are the symptoms?

  • Persistent ringing, buzzing or humming in one or both ears.
  • Possible hearing loss.
  • Sleep disturbances, distress or anxiety.

Are there any natural therapies?

For the many chronic cases with no readily treatable cause, supplements may be effective. Those listed can safely be used together and usually need to be taken long term, though benefits may be noticed within a month.

Because poor blood circulation to certain parts of the brain may affect the inner ears and cause ringing, the herb ginkgo biloba may relieve some cases, though its benefits may take weeks or months to be felt. For the same reason, the B-vitamin niacin may be useful because it dilates blood vessels in the brain.

Other supplements may help by improving the health of the nerves, including those that lead to the inner ear. Vitamin B6 has beneficial effects on nerve function, as does vitamin B12, which the body uses to make myelin, a fatty substance that covers and protects the nerves and enables them to function efficiently. (Vitamin B12 should be taken with folic acid to prevent deficiencies of either B vitamin.) If your symptoms don't improve after three months, discontinue the regimen of vitamins B6 and B12, olic acid and niacin.

Magnesium also plays an important role in maintaining nerve function and hearing. Low magnesium levels can cause the blood vessels to constrict, inhibiting circulation in the brain. Because the inner ear has a higher concentration of zinc than most other parts of the body, insufficient zinc might contribute to tinnitus. Indeed, even a slight deficiency can worsen the hearing loss associated with ageing. Zinc interferes with copper absorption, so be sure to take a copper supplement as well.

What else can I do?

  • Cut back on caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and aspirin. They can make ringing in the ears worse.
  • Have your hearing checked. A properly adjusted hearing aid may diminish or even eliminate the ringing.
  • Ask your doctor about ear devices that cover up or mask tinnitus. Low-volume 'white noise', such as television or radio static, may also help.
  • Exercise regularly to improve circulation and possibly ease symptoms.
  • Consider acupunture to relieve the buzzing.

Did you know?

Vitamin B12 supplements may be especially important for treating tinnitus in older people, because many of them have trouble in absorbing this vitamin.