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Have Sleep Problems? Your Ears Could Be Involved

Is it possible that your hearing loss could be a sign of a sleep disorder?

 Samuel Dixon/Deposit Photos
Source: Samuel Dixon/Deposit Photos

Few of us like aging, though many of us accept the physical changes that come with it, which often include changes in hearing ability. But what if I told you that your hearing loss could instead be indicative of a sleep disorder?

If you’ve been following me for a while, it should come to no surprise that sleep impacts our health in countless ways, with sleep deprivation tied to poor mental health, heart conditions, and even relationship woes.

Because hearing loss happens to many of us as we age, though, chances are you’ve never considered the connection between insomnia and being hard of hearing.

Here’s how sleep and hearing are connected and how you can manage both your hearing loss and insomnia for better health for you or a loved one.

What Causes Hearing Loss?

Think about age and hearing and you may conjure the image of hearing aids—but aging isn’t the only reason we experience hearing loss.

Hearing loss has many causes, including:

Damage to the Inner Ear

Damage to the inner ear can be caused by physical trauma or exposure to loud noise. If you’re in the habit of blasting your music, especially with earbuds, you can cause damage over time. This is a subtle, but common cause of hearing loss as we age. Working in a loud environment and even birth defects are also linked to damage.

Ear Infections

Ear infections happen in both children and adults and can be caused by bacteria, viruses, and even fluid build-up. Swimmer’s ear, which is contracted from dirty pool water, is also common. The good news is that ear infections are easily treatable, and most hearing loss associated with ear infections is treatable.

Ear Wax Buildup

Yes, we all have ear wax. In fact, ear wax helps protect our bodies from infection, so ear wax in itself isn’t a bad thing. But if you’re accumulating too much, the wax can block your eardrums, making it hard to hear. Again, ear wax is another very treatable cause of hearing loss.

Normal Aging

Normal aging, of course, accounts for the majority of hearing loss. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, Americans aged 60 to 69 experience the greatest degree of hearing loss, due to natural aging. While around 2 percent of adults 45 to 54 have what is called ‘disabling hearing loss,’ about a quarter of adults 55 to 64 do, and half of those older than 75.

Sleep Deprivation

Until recently, not much has been made of the connection between sleep deprivation and hearing loss. With new research coming to light, we now have evidence that hearing loss can be impacted or exacerbated by sleeping too little.

How Does Sleep Affect Hearing Loss?

You know that getting better sleep leads to improved health, and you probably also know that sleep deprivation can lead to health consequences. I’ve written about the connection between sleep and obesity, sleep and diabetes, and countless other chronic conditions.

It also can lead to or accelerate hearing loss in the following ways.

Sleep Deprivation Leads to Mental Fatigue

Countless studies have tracked the connection between reduced cognitive function and sleep deprivation. Think of sleep as the way our body restores itself, from muscle to cell repair. All of us don’t function as well without sleep. There was even a study from researchers at Baylor University that found that medical interns who were sleep-deprived showed significantly lower performance in patient care, which ties into previous studies that show we’re more likely to make more mistakes and have poor judgment when we’re sleep-deprived.

Hearing takes mental power. In order to understand speech, your brain must first shift through and filter background sounds and process information. Your brain’s ability to process that information is when mental fatigue has set in–meaning you may have more trouble hearing or aggravate an existing hearing loss condition.

Less Sleep Means Poor Circulation

Sleep is also essential for our circulatory system. That’s why, when clients say they must be on their smart tablets late at night for work, I urge them to wear blue light blocking glasses to protect against their sleep cycles being disrupted. It’s that important.

In a 2019 study published in Nature, researchers discovered that chronic sleep disorders or insomnia can lead to lower levels of a hormone called hypocretin, which is responsible for regulating sleep cycles. But they also found that sleep-deprived mice developed significantly more plaques in the arteries.

More plaque in the arteries and reduced circulation, meanwhile, has been tied to hearing loss. Your inner ear has a section called the cochlea, which plays a major role in hearing and processing sounds. In order for this to work, your arteries pump blood to this part of the ear. Reduced blood circulation from lack of sleep, we are learning, can account for cases of unexplained hearing loss.

How Do I Reduce My Risk for Sleep-Induced Hearing Loss?

I don’t mean to be all gloom and doom; in fact, by becoming aware of how sleep and hearing loss are related, you can take measures to stop a hearing loss condition from getting worse or possibly even prevent it. Here are my sleep hacks for making sure you’re staying rested and supporting healthy blood circulation.

Use Sound to Sleep–the Right Way

I’ve touched on how environmental noise can lead to hearing loss; that’s also true of sleep. Another way you can use sound is to listen to calming music before hitting the sheets.

Keep a Regular Exercise Routine

If you’ve been skipping your sweat session, now’s the time to add those workouts back in. Even a short walk each day improves your overall circulation and puts you at a lower risk for heart attacks, and potentially hearing loss. If that’s not enough, regular exercise is also tied to better quality sleep and a lower risk for insomnia.

Fuel Your Body to Stay Alert

If you’re relying on caffeine to stay alert, the result will be short-lived–and you could still experience sleep-related hearing loss. To stay alert throughout the day, make sure you’re getting a blend of complex carbohydrates, healthy protein, and fats; eating consistent meals or small snacks can also keep your energy levels from dipping. And if you’re still battling insomnia, consider a small snack an hour or two before bed. I recommend whole wheat toast with just a teaspoon of raw honey to keep your blood sugars from dipping and waking you up.

I’ve told you how hearing loss and sleep are related, but I’ll leave you with this: a sudden, unexplained bout of hearing loss could also, as I’ve hinted, point to a sleep disorder, one you may not even know about. If you’re having trouble sleeping, and you’re hearing less, make sure you consult a medical professional as soon as possible.

Until then, sweet dreams.