He couldn’t hear his music well enough to sing. That’s how artist Huey Lewis describes his experience with Meniere’s Disease, a disorder which causes sudden “attacks” of extreme vertigo, ringing in the ears, and progressive hearing loss. It forced the beloved rock-and-roll singer to cancel 40 performances earlier this year. He has shined a spotlight on more than half a million Americanswho struggle with the same debilitating disease. Each year, 45,000 new cases of Meniere’s are diagnosed in the U.S.
Meniere’s Root Causes and Diagnosis
Although the causes of this illness are unknown, there are many theories.
Symptoms are brought about by an increase in fluid pressure in the inner ear, which regulates both hearing and balance. Some researchers think that narrowing of blood vessels to the area may be involved. Others have suggested Meniere’s could be a consequence of head injury, viral infections, allergies, or autoimmune reactions. Many women suffering with Meniere’s notice that attacks are more likely in the week before their menstrual cycle. A genetic predisposition may also be a risk factor. Smoking, drinking, and having an overload of stress and other chronic diseases also put you at risk for developing Meniere’s.
Diagnosis of Meniere’s Disease is based on presentation of symptoms, unique for every individual suffering with the disorder. Doctors may perform many different tests, including audiometric studies to test hearing, and CT scans and/or MRI of the brain. Other ailments which can cause similar symptoms should be ruled out, such as an acoustic neuroma, labyrinthitis, hypertension, carotid artery disease, multiple sclerosis, anemia and more.
Treating Meniere’s with an Individualized Approach
There is no cure for Meniere’s Disease today, but symptoms can be controlled with whole-person treatment, including lifestyle changes. Often, doctors prescribe pharmaceuticals, vestibular rehabilitation therapy and, as a last resort, surgery. Medications recommended for long-term treatment include diuretics to decrease fluids in the body, antihistamines, and sedatives. For those who suffer over time with unrelenting and incapacitating vertigo, surgery in which the labyrinth on the affected side is permanently destroyed does relieve symptoms, but comes with a hefty price tag: irreversible and total hearing loss.
I have treated nearly thirty patients with Meniere’s over the past 30 years as a licensed naturopathic doctor. No two patients experience Meniere’s in exactly the same way, and because of this, I find that patients do better with a highly individualized, natural medicine approach that addresses underlying causes and other chronic complaints that exacerbate the condition.
Individualizing the treatment plan is essential. A full review of bodily systems (e.g., digestive, musculoskeletal, urinary, etc.), helps to place Meniere’s in context of its many risk factors and contributing causes. Addressing and treating those instigators is an important part of the reversal of Meniere’s. For example, addressing other chronic diseases, especially diabetes and hypertension, can help improve the symptoms of Meniere’s.
I always ask the patient: What is the worst thing about having this problem? One of my recent Meniere’s patients answered this question in a way that I did not anticipate. “I’m embarrassed. When my balance is off, I fear that people will think I’m drunk,” she replied. “My father was a messy alcoholic and this brings up a tremendous amount of shame for me.” The stress of those emotions was exacerbating her symptoms. It ultimately helped guide the treatment plan to include a referral for talk therapy and support while the patient did some reckoning with her upbringing.
Manage Meniere’s Naturally with These 10 Strategies
Beyond this, a toolbox of natural medicines can support the body’s innate healing capacity when it comes to Meniere’s. My top 10 recommendations are:
- Limit sodium intake, which can increase fluid retention that makes Meniere’s symptoms worse. Set a top end at 1000-2000mg spread out through the day. This requires reading labels and being especially mindful when eating out.
- Limit or exclude all caffeine, because it may make tinnitus louder.
- Quit smoking. Nicotine narrows the small capillaries to the ear, which in turn impacts hearing.
- Discontinue or reduce alcohol intake. It changes the composition and volume of fluids that impact the inner ear.
- Avoid refined sugarsbecause they increase the fluctuations of bodily fluids which in turn may increase symptoms.
- Address allergies. Research has shown that addressing allergies can decrease Meniere’s symptoms. A bioflavonoid like Quercetin can help any allergic component and decrease inflammation.
- Listen to calming sounds.Sound therapy studies show that listening to relaxing sounds, often from nature, helps to decrease tinnitus.
- Joining a vestibular support group.There is a national organization that helps people connect with others suffering in similar ways, which can decrease stress associated with Meniere’s
- Consider acupuncture,which shows promise with the vertigo aspect of Meniere’s in particular
- Take natural supplements and herbs.I recommend B-complex vitamin (50-100 mg per day) The herb Ginkgo bilobahas been shown to be as effective as commonly prescribed medication for the treatment of Meniere’s.
With these natural treatments, patients consistently report fewer episodes of dizziness and reduction of ringing in the ears, as well as a partial or complete return to normal hearing.