"Finally ... relief from those awful ear noises!" promises the Web site for Serenity Tinnitus Relief. But can a dietary supplement relieve a problem medical science hasn't cured?
Tinnitus is a ringing in one ear, or sometimes both, that can be intermittent or incessant. The manufacturer of Serenity claims it "addresses both the symptoms of the tinnitus itself and the associated stress, anxiety, and depression," at a cost of $32 for a month's supply. The Web site cites several studies showing that ginkgo biloba and zinc may reduce the ringing for some people and that St. John's wort may lessen depression.
But the Web site ignores the bulk of the scientific research, which shows inconsistent or no benefit from ginkgo or zinc for treating tinnitus. And while St. John's wort may likely be effective for treating depression, it also has a wide range of potentially hazardous drug interactions. Ginkgo has some known risks as well, including a risk of bleeding.
"While it might be a well-intentioned product, all of the studies that show a benefit are very preliminary," says Philip Gregory, Pharm.D., editor of the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, a partner of Consumer Reports. "There is not strong enough evidence for either one to recommend it for tinnitus."
Tinnitus can be brought on by hearing loss, but it can also be caused by serious conditions, including Ménière's disease—an abnormality of the inner ear that also causes hearing loss and vertigo—and rarely by a neuroma, a benign nerve tumor.
More than 200 drugs—including aspirin, alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine, along with some antibiotics, diuretics, and cancer drugs—may cause or worsen the condition. Some cases of tinnitus can be addressed by treating the underlying cause, if one can be found. "If somebody has tinnitus," Gregory says, "there's a whole bunch of things they'd want to do before they start taking a supplement."