I was in serious trouble. Despite wearing the most advanced hearing aids on the market, I couldn’t use the telephone. But after years of trial and error, I discovered how to recover my precious sense. Here’s what I think is happening.
THE FIRST SIGN OF ILLNESS was a vertigo attack pinning me to a cold tile floor. It felt like a vicious case of food poisoning, but after hours of turning my guts inside out, I still felt dizzy and sick. Soon after, an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor (ENT) diagnosed me with Meniere’s disease.
Meniere’s is an inner ear autoimmune disease that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Symptoms include violent vertigo attacks which stole my right to drive, stopped me swimming, cycling and doing other things I love.
Goose stepping into my life shoulder to shoulder with nausea was mild to merry-go-round dizziness that might be fleeting or stay with me for the length of a decent summer holiday. Also hearing loss, intermittent but often progressive and permanent for some, and the most annoying of companions, tinnitus.
At its peak, I was having four or five aggressive attacks every single day. The condition was systematically wrecking my life in every conceivable way. Over time, I discovered a series of triggers and could halt completely the vertigo and dizziness; as long as I stuck (stick!) to my set of rules.
‘I went from being extroverted to introverted, from confident to crushed. Thank God I’ve found a workaround.’
I can write for hours one horror story after the other about what Meniere’s did to me, but for this article I’m going to concentrate on the hearing loss, the clues that led me to resolving it and what I think is happening.
I’m hoping someone else may benefit from this account.
Clue number one
Losing the hearing in one ear is an annoyance, losing it in two is life changing. It wasn’t until 2016 that my hearing loss worsened, jumping from one ear to two.
Typically, my hearing was worse first thing in the morning, gradually improving through the day but coming and going seemingly out of my control. But after months of this yo-yoing, I noticed something.
My hearing cleared after I went to the loo. To confirm it, I started taking psyllium husk to get things moving first thing in the morning. This movement rescued my sense earlier in the day. The difference between before and after was astounding.
Before a trip to the loo, I could barely hear someone talk. But ten minutes after washing my hands, I could hear well enough to carry on as normal. The same happened with the incessant standing trips to the smallest room in the house, although the improvements were not as profound compared to the seated version.
Clue number two
I jumped into the passenger seat of a mate’s car for a weekend walking in Snowdonia. I could relax and enjoy the weekend. What a relief, my hearing was good.
Sitting in traffic, I threw a handful of peanuts into my mouth. Within fifteen minutes, my hearing went AWOL. Over the entire weekend, it was so bad I couldn’t hear my friend inside our tent in a silent Welsh field without cupping my hands behind my ears and ageing myself forty years.
Tinkering around with my diet and tracking everything I ate revealed certain food triggers. Nuts of all kinds and chocolate, the darker it was, the worse the effect, choked my hearing off almost immediately. Certain other foods exerted their effects overnight, typically clearing a few days later, as long as I didn’t repeat the mistake. I compiled an ever-growing list of foods that affected my hearing and began to strictly avoid them.
Clue number three
By this time, my common sense had dragged my ego to the ENT. I begrudgingly accepted one hearing aid for the right ear. Within months, I had another for the left. For a time they helped, but this prop weakened my resolve to keep the diet strict enough to benefit my hearing. Things continued to worsen, getting on top of me. I gave up avoiding the trigger foods. It’s easy to forget tough, inconvenient diets even when they help.
Eventually, my hearing became so poor the ENT told me I should get a cochlear implant, at least on the right side. I resisted because I knew I could crack it, but upgraded my NHS hearing aids to the best ones on the market.
Despite these super-duper bits of technology, which connect directly to my iPhone, the clarity of my hearing stopped me from making calls. I used subtitles on Skype, or more often, just stopped talking to people. My business has yet to recover.
After spending £4000, including a series of diagnostic tests with a private functional medicine doctor in London, I discovered one critical thing. I was loaded with oxalic acid.
‘Hearing loss is stressful. It’s not just that your world becomes quieter; everything about your interactions with people change. It degrades your ability to talk with friends and previously enjoyable scenarios, like a bustling pub, become a nightmare.’
Oxalic acid (oxalates) is an organic compound found in differing amounts in many plants, including fruits and vegetables. They act as a chemical protection for plants defending against toxins in the soil and preventing insects and animals from eating too much of the plant for it to recover.
The body also makes small amounts during normal metabolic processes. For what it’s worth, I believe fungal gut floras form oxalates, adding considerably to the body's burden and contributing to disease and dysfunction. There’s little evidence of this because it’s not being investigated, but the fungus aspergillus Niger secretes calcium oxalate crystals inside the lungs, causing deadly disease.
Anecdotally on Meniere’s forums, I’ve seen many people discussing fungal infections that their diet, certain drug side effects, or their environment have precipitated. My issues multiplied by a thousand after my bedroom became mouldy in 2011/12.
There is much debate about the safety of oxalates; it’s a rabbit hole down which I don’t wish to take you too far. Currently, I think they’re damaging to some people and not to others based on amount and where they end up, which is determined, in part, by how the body deals with them inside the gut.
Who gets sick from oxalates is yet to be established, but evidence points to gut dysfunction, including a lack of the specific bacteria that degrades them—recent research has shown a causal role of antibiotic use and kidney stones. Eighty per cent of these painful stones are combined calcium and oxalic acid. Excessive intestinal permeability, a thiamine (vitamin B1) and/or B6 deficiency, liver inflammation — a two-way street — including other causes.
Supplementing these two B vitamins can also help ease the symptoms. But, removing oxalates from the diet is much more powerful. You cannot supplement your way out of bad (subjective) diet.
I believe I’m forming calcium oxalate stones inside my inner ears which bung them up preventing me from hearing well. I think this may be because of the interaction of calcium inside the inner ears, a rich store of the mineral, and fungal species producing oxalic acid as a by-product of their sugar fermentation.
Rattling inner ears
Scientists have shown in a murine model (rodent) that calcium oxalate crystals can form inside the inner ears because of a genetic issue. In humans, crystals form then break free rolling about inside the inner ear causing vertigo and dizziness. During an attack, some people can turn their heads in a certain direction, stopping the vertigo almost instantly.
This has worked for me a handful of times during milder attacks. But, the clobberings which feel like an invisible world champion wrestler has taken a dislike to me, leave me unable to turn my head or help myself in any way. Like the time I became pinned for twenty minutes to a railing just yards from my front door in South London. Or the time I couldn’t lift my head from a shin-height coffee table in a cafe for two hours. Frightened and vulnerable doesn’t come close to describing how those episodes made me feel.
Let’s recap the three clues and see if they’re supported scientifically.
Clue one: My symptoms improved quickly after going to the loo. This is still the case, but only if I’ve been consistently careful for weeks. We remove oxalates via the bowel and kidneys, so this makes sense.
I took the fibre psyllium husk to help move things along. Fibre binds to oxalates in the bowel and carries them out. Also, frequent urination is a symptom of high oxalates and one way in which the body gets rid of them.
Clue two: Certain foods trigger my hearing loss. The severity and speed of my hearing loss are directly proportional to the amount of oxalates I’ve eaten.
Lowering dietary oxalates restores my hearing and has done every single time I’ve done it. I fall off the wagon sometimes, hence why it needs to be repeated. Typically, it takes three weeks of a very low oxalate diet to experience serious improvement.
In 2020, I improved my hearing on the left by 70 decibels, 15 on the right. To give you an idea, that’s the difference between not being comfortable using the phone beamed via my hearing aids to wearing none at all and being able to communicate just fine in most environments. I prefer to use one in the right ear because it improves my overall hearing and my ego doesn’t find wearing it a big issue anymore.
Clue three: Two separate tests showed my oxalates were sky high. At the time of the tests, my hearing was awful. Three weeks after lowering my dietary oxalates, I restored my hearing.
In support of the fungal theory, I’ve found antifungal drugs to be by far the most therapeutic option. However, they’re toxic to the liver and, after a few rounds, no longer work. After the first few times taking antifungal drugs—Fluconazole, Terbinafine worked brilliantly, Nystatin didn’t work at all*—my hearing restored and the other symptoms vanished within two weeks.
I remain on an antifungal (very low carbohydrate) diet in order to manage Meniere’s. It works every time. Within days of eating sugar, which I admit to eating very occasionally, my symptoms return with a crash.
To me, this was all the proof I needed.
*Nystatin only works inside the gut. The other, more powerful drugs I’ve mentioned could tackle a fungal infection inside the inner ear.
I can’t be the only person
Hearing loss is stressful. It’s not just that your world becomes quieter; everything about your interactions with people and places change. It degrades your ability to talk with friends and previously enjoyable scenarios, like a bustling pub, become a nightmare. A constant stream of, ‘eh?’, ‘what?’, just nodding along or trying to lip read but really getting more and more fed up—get me the hell out of here! I went from being extroverted to introverted, from confident to crushed. Thank God I’ve found a workaround.
It’s important to me you don’t think I’m peddling a cure of any kind. I don’t think a low oxalate diet can restore people’s hearing unless they happen to share the same problem as me. But I can’t be the only person in the world with these issues.
For those people with Meniere’s disease or a similar condition, this might be worth a try. After all, lowering oxalates in the diet isn’t dangerous. However, it should be done gradually to avoid unpleasant side effects—if I go too fast, I get very sore skin, bright red and itchy as the body dumps the vicious little crystals into the blood for removal.
The diet also needs to be done consistently. I’ve discovered the hard way that just a few squares of dark chocolate, or a capsule of milk thistle, or too much vitamin C, or some other less obvious source, is enough to derail the process keeping things in play and robbing me of success. I had to stick to my guns.
This galvanised compliance is why it was such a rollercoaster ride for me, and why things continued to get worse even after I had established the trigger.
The story here is a small part of the crap that I’ve been through in the last decade. My poor health is the reason I’m a registered nutritionist now; because dietary changes have been the most powerful therapy available to me, outstripping anything conventional medicine has offered for Meniere’s and other chronic conditions—for which they have almost nothing.
I hope that someone else will benefit from this post and get their hearing and quality of life back. If you try it, please let me know how you get on.