Ringing in your ears? Genetics, Tinnitus, and Meniere’s disease

Key Takeaways:
~ Symptoms of Meniere’s disease include vertigo, constant ringing (tinnitus), and nausea.
~ Meniere’s can also cause pressure in the ear and possible hearing loss, most often striking people in their 40s and 50s.
~Tinnitus, or ringing in your ears, can be a problem, even without Meniere’s.
~ Research-backed solutions exist for Meniere’s and tinnitus — and these can be personalized based on your genes.

Members will see their genotype report below, plus additional solutions in the Lifehacks section. Join today 

Meniere’s, tinnitus, and how the ear works:

Many health websites claim Meniere’s is a chronic condition: with no cure and without an exact cause [article 1, Medline]

Recent research, though, paints a different picture, and genetics points to the root causes of Meniere’s and tinnitus.

Let’s start with some background information on how the ear works – and how this ties into balance and ringing.

Your balance is coordinated by the change in motion of the fluid in the inner ear. It is like a built-in accelerometer that knows when you are in motion.

Peripheral vertigo, or feeling dizzy and off-balance, is due to inner ear dysfunction. The sense of balance gets messed up by signals sent to the brain that don’t match reality.

Within the inner ear, a spiral-shaped cavity called the cochlea is dedicated to hearing. Also, the inner ear contains the vestibular system responsible for your balance.[ref]

As you can imagine, something disturbing and pressing on the vestibular system could cause vertigo and impact hearing.

Endolymph is the fluid inside the inner ear. This fluid moves and transmits sounds, movement, etc., to the brain. The makeup of the ions in that fluid is essential for transmitting signals to the brain. The endolymph within the cochlea has a very low calcium (Ca2+) concentration, which allows for better mechanoelectrical transduction with the little hair cells in the cochlea.[ref]

Here is a picture of the ear structure so you can visualize where the inner ear is – with the vestibular area and the cochlea. (Creative Commons License- Wikimedia commons.):

File:1404 The Structures of the Ear.jpg


What is going wrong in Meniere’s disease?

Researchers think too much potassium (K+) in the inner ear causes too much endolymph in the vestibular organ. Any excess fluid is normally stored in an endolymphatic sac.

In Meniere’s, the storage sac is thought to fill up with too much fluid, ballooning and pressing on the hearing parts of the ear, causing hearing loss. A rupture of the membrane in this area can cause severe vertigo.

Often the symptoms in Meniere’s fluctuate, with the vertigo attacks suddenly becoming severe to the point of causing nausea and vomiting. The attacks sometimes may be preceded by changes in tinnitus, hearing, and the ear feeling full.[ref]

The membrane can heal up pretty quickly, leading to a cycle of increasing fluid and eventual rupture. Tinnitus and vertigo can fluctuate during the cycle when the fluid is building back up again.

Digging a little deeper:
So what do potassium and other ions have to do with fluid in the ear? Think back to osmosis experiments in high school science class… fluid can be drawn across a membrane to balance out ions.

The endolymph fluid has a different ion concentration and pH from the rest of the ear. The sodium concentration is higher, and the potassium and chloride concentrations are lower. Researchers think the ion gradient gets messed up (too much potassium), which is then balanced out with more fluid, causing swelling.

The cells surrounding the endolymphatic sac have receptors activated by cortisol and receptors sensitive to aldosterone.

Aldosterone is the hormone that controls the absorption of salt in the kidneys and is important in blood pressure.[ref] This ties Meniere’s to blood pressure and stress (cortisol).

This general explanation of Meniere’s disease may not be the whole story. Researchers note that some people have swelling within the endolymph system and don’t have the symptoms of Meniere’s. They also question whether the swelling can actually cause vertigo.[ref] Questions remain on what triggers Meniere’s.

Theories on the cause(s) of Meniere’s Disease:

The symptoms and progression of the disease vary a lot from person to person, making any single root cause of Meniere’s disease hard to pin down.

Some scientists postulate that Meniere’s is an autoimmune condition due to elevated antibody titers and higher levels of circulating immune complexes. People with autoimmune diseases are also more likely to have more severe Meniere’s disease.[ref][ref] Certain HLA serotypes are associated with an increased risk of Meniere’s disease, adding to the evidence that it is autoimmune related.[ref]

Other researchers point to Meniere’s being multifactorial, with causes including adrenal insufficiency, hypothyroidism, narrowing of the inner auditory canal, trauma, and allergies.[ref]

Genetic mutations and a familial aspect of Meniere’s disease are other lines of investigation.[ref] The genetic variants linked with Meniere’s point towards the body’s immune and inflammatory response as well as potassium regulation.

All of these, when taken together, point to a system that is out of balance.

Conditions that overlap with Meniere’s:

Meniere’s disease is linked to an increased risk of both migraines and motion sickness.[ref]

Migraine prevalence in Meniere’s is double that of the population in general.[ref]

People with rheumatoid arthritis have a (slightly) increased risk of Meniere’s disease.[ref]

One study found that Meniere’s patients who didn’t respond to diuretics were more likely to respond to medications used to prevent migraines.[ref]

A study of 35 patients with Meniere’s disease found that 12 were clinically hypothyroid. Treating them with thyroid medication improved Meniere’s symptoms in all of the hypothyroid patients.[ref]

Allergies and histamine intolerance are also linked to Meniere’s

What if it is ‘just’ tinnitus, not Meniere’s?

Tinnitus is a sensation described as ‘ringing in the ears’ or a constant buzzing pitch.

In addition to being a symptom of Meniere’s disease, tinnitus can also accompany other hearing loss diseases or can occur spontaneously.

It is thought to affect up to 15% of adults at some point in their lives, affecting both their quality of life and mental health.

Is tinnitus genetic?

Genetics is partly to blame. Genetic variants do play a role in susceptibility to tinnitus, but environmental factors – such as lifestyle factors that cause inflammation – also are important here.

Researchers often study twins, siblings, and adoptees to determine whether a condition, such as tinnitus, is ‘heritable’ or has a genetic component. In a large study in Sweden, researchers discovered that adoptees with a biological parent with tinnitus were over twice as likely to have tinnitus, showing the link to genetics. The researchers also noted no association between tinnitus in an adopted parent and the adoptee, thus making the environment a less likely factor.[ref]

What causes tinnitus?

Researchers think ion regulation – specifically potassium transport – could be at the root of tinnitus.[ref]

Other research points towards inflammation.

New studies using animal models of hearing impairment show that neuroinflammation may be a part of the picture for tinnitus and hearing loss. Blocking TNF-α prevents neuroinflammation and tinnitus in a mouse model.[ref]

Other studies point to IL-1B (interleukin 1 beta), a proinflammatory cytokine, as a risk factor.[ref]

Human studies show that inflammatory markers are important in tinnitus. A 2019 study in Portuguese adults found that IL10 was lower in tinnitus patients. IL-10 (interleukin 10) is an anti-inflammatory cytokine limiting your body’s inflammatory response. Thus, low IL-10 levels can lead to higher inflammation. Accordingly, the researchers found that IL-1a, an inflammatory cytokine, was higher in participants with tonal tinnitus.[ref]

People with periodontitis, inflammed gums, are statistically more likely to have tinnitus.[ref] Research shows that genetic variants linked to higher inflammatory cytokines are strongly linked to periodontitis and gingivitis.

Related article: Gum Disease, Inflammation, and Genetics

Salicylates and tinnitus:

In animal research, sodium salicylate, the sodium salt of salicylic acid (aspirin), is often given to animals to create tinnitus. Higher doses of aspirin can cause (or worsen) tinnitus in some people. Animal studies have shown that salicylate blocks a certain type of calcium channel in the inner ear. It could then cause decreased GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, in the inner ear.[ref]

The thought here is that not enough inhibition = constant firing of the neurons and tinnitus. GABA inhibits excess firing, while glutamate can increase the neuron’s firing potential. Thus, alternatively, the salicylate could increase the neurons’ firing rate in the auditory nerve complex.[ref]

Brain involvement in tinnitus:

While tinnitus may be caused by changes in ion channels or neuron firing in the auditory canal, another possibility is that something is going wrong in the brain. GABA is the inhibitory neurotransmitter, including in the cortex in the brain. In mice, reducing GABA production in specific areas of the brain can induce tinnitus, and similarly, enhancing GABA can eliminate tinnitus. Thus, researchers think that loss of cortical GABA inhibition is a cause of tinnitus.[ref]

Meniere’s and Tinnitus Genotype Report:

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The following genetic variants have been associated with Meniere’s or tinnitus in research studies. Note that a lot of the research is fairly new, and hopefully, there will be more research coming out in the future on both topics.

Meniere’s Genotype Report:

NFKB1 gene: codes for part of the nuclear factor-kappa beta (NF-κB) protein, which regulates inflammatory response. NF-κB is activated by cytokines and causes an increase in inflammatory markers.

Check your genetic data for rs3774937 (23andMe v4; AncestryDNA):

  • C/C: faster progression to hearing loss in Meniere’s[ref]
  • C/T: faster progression to hearing loss in Meniere’s
  • T/T: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs3774937 is .

Check your genetic data for rs4648011 (23andMe v4 only):

  • G/G: faster progression to hearing loss in Meniere’s[ref]
  • G/T: faster progression to hearing loss in Meniere’s
  • T/T: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs4648011 is .

Between Genes Region: An intergenic region that likely impacts tumor necrosis factor pathways and induces the translation of NF-kB.[ref]

Check your genetic data for rs4947296 (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • C/C: 2-fold risk of Meniere’s, related to inflammation, higher NFKB1 levels[ref]
  • C/T: increased risk of Meniere’s
  • T/T: typical

Members: Your genotype for rs4947296 is .

KCNE1 gene: codes for a potassium channel protein that regulates the influx of potassium ions into a cell

Check your genetic data for rs1805127 (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • C/C: typical
  • C/T: somewhat increased risk of Meniere’s (fairly common variant)
  • T/T: increased risk of Meniere’s disease[ref][ref], associated with kidney disease in Meniere’s patients[ref]

Members: Your genotype for rs1805127 is .

KCNE3 gene: another potassium channel protein

Check your genetic data for rs2270676 (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • A/A: typical
  • A/G: somewhat increased risk of Meniere’s
  • G/G: increased risk of Meniere’s disease[ref]

Members: Your genotype for rs2270676 is .

HRH4 gene: genetic variants in the histamine receptor 4 (HRH4) gene have been implicated in an increased risk of Meniere’s. The rs id (rs77485247 ) is not found in 23andMe or AncestryDNA data, but this genetic connection does explain a connection between histamine and the immune system in Meniere’s disease.[ref]

IL1A gene: codes for interleukin-1A, a proinflammatory cytokine that increases inflammation

Check your genetic data for rs1800587 -889C/T (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • A/A: typical/lower risk of hearing loss
  • A/G: increased risk of sudden sensorineural hearing loss
  • G/G: higher risk of sudden sensorineural hearing loss[ref]

Members: Your genotype for rs1800587 is .

Tinnitus Genotype Report:

ADD1 gene: codes for the adductin-1 protein, which is important in blood pressure regulation

Check your genetic data for rs4961 G460W (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • G/G: typical
  • G/T: increased risk of tinnitus. increased risk of hypertension
  • T/T: increased risk of tinnitus[ref], increased risk of hypertension[ref]

Members: Your genotype for rs4961 is .

IL1A gene: codes for interleukin-1A, a proinflammatory cytokine that increases inflammation (NOTE – this overlaps with the IL1A variant in the Meniere’s genes section)

Check your genetic data for rs1800587 (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):

  • A/A: typical/lower risk of tinnitus
  • A/G: somewhat increased risk of tinnitus
  • G/G: increased risk of tinnitus[ref]

Members: Your genotype for rs1800587 is .

Lifehacks: Natural solutions for Meniere’s and Tinnitus:

The rest of this article is for Genetic Lifehacks members only. It contains information on supplements and tinnitus solutions. Consider joining today to see the rest of this article.

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About the Author:
Debbie Moon is the founder of Genetic Lifehacks. Fascinated by the connections between genes, diet, and health, her goal is to help you understand how to apply genetics to your diet and lifestyle decisions. Debbie has a BS in engineering and also an MSc in biological sciences from Clemson University. Debbie combines an engineering mindset with a biological systems approach to help you understand how genetic differences impact your optimal health.

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