We drink alcohol to celebrate, to release inhibitions and to relieve stress—however, it’s a delicate balance between celebration and one too many drinks. While some people can have a drink or two and call it a night, many have an allergic reaction, which manifests as an addiction. For alcoholics it is difficult to stop once you’ve had your first drink, leading to habitual tendencies, poor choices, and long-term health complications such as High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems. In addition, excessive alcohol consumption can make us dizzy and affect our balance, however, did you know that this is caused by the impact of alcohol on your inner ear rather than your brain? One more devastating effect of excessive alcohol consumption is hearing damage which can last a lifetime.
Alcohol’s Effect on Our Hearing
We collect sound with our ears, but the process of hearing is not completed until sounds can reach our brains where they are interpreted as speech or noises in our environment. To achieve this, sound waves must be amplified by the eardrum, tiny vibrating bones called ossicles and then be sent to the cochlea. This snail-shaped tiny organ is filled with fluid and contains tiny hair-like cells which transform sound waves into electrical impulses which can be received by the brain. Drinking can affect multiple stages of the hearing process, which can mean that alcohol causes hearing loss in several ways, all at once.
Impaired Auditory Processing
Once sound reaches the brain it is processed within the auditory cortex. The auditory cortex is the part of the temporal lobe that processes auditory information such as speech and identifying sounds. Once the speech and sounds are deciphered, we react to them in less than seconds. One way that alcohol affects hearing has an impact on the auditory cortex. Excessive consumption of alcohol can atrophy parts of the brain including the auditory cortex, affecting the speed and effectiveness in which we process sound. For instance it often becomes difficult to separate and prioritize sound in crowded environments, leading to a hearing loss which often isn’t diagnosed by standard hearing exams. This is because even though the functions and structures of the ears may be fully functional and intact, the hearing loss is occurring in the brain, causing what is known as a hidden hearing loss.
Damage to the Inner Ear
Within the cochlea are tiny hair like cells called stereocilia and they are essential to completing the process of hearing loss. These fragile cells are irreplaceable and prone to damage. They cannot be grown back or repaired and rely on a constant and ample supply of oxygenated blood to stay strong.
Injury or destruction of stereocilia is the leading cause of hearing loss. Referred to as sensorineural hearing loss, it comprises 90 percent of all reported cases of hearing loss due to exposure to sound, certain medications, impact to the head or advanced age.
Another cause of sensorineural hearing loss is excessive alcohol consumption. Alcohol is an ototoxic chemical, meaning it can damage the stereocilia. Often high blood pressure or heart issues instigated by alcohol use can constrict blood vessels and cause the cells of the inner ear to be more susceptible to damage.
Tinnitus and Alcohol
Have you ever had a heavy night of drinking and experienced a ringing in your ears? It’s far too common. This is known as tinnitus, an issue closely related to sound processing. When our stereocilia become damaged, they may emit a sort of unintentional feedback to our auditory cortex which is interpreted as the sounds of tinnitus. Because drinking alcohol is well known to impact blood pressure, it may bring on the symptoms of tinnitus—a health issue that may seem benign at first. However, when it feels chronic and inescapable it can increase stress, interrupt sleep, and impair concentration during the day, adding up into a serious and debilitating issue.
Dealing with Hearing Damage
If you feel like you struggle with alcohol and are looking for a reason to stop all together, here is an important thing to consider— damage due to alcohol consumption is often permanent and can alienate you further from friends, family work and even your significant other. The good news is that we are here to help you find solutions. The first step is to contact us today to schedule a hearing exam and find out more!