Food, Drink, and Medication: What Impacts Your Singing Voice
Camille van Niekerk
Let’s get straight to the point: nothing you eat or drink touches your vocal folds. If it did, you’d cough! The vocal folds sit at the bottom of your larynx, just above your trachea (or windpipe), which leads to your lungs. If you’ve ever felt some water or food “go down the wrong pipe”, you know how unpleasant that is! Everything you ingest travels through your esophagus into your stomach. So why do people say you should drink a certain tea or avoid dairy before singing? Because everything you ingest impacts your body, including your vocal folds! This article covers the most important things for you to consider when it comes to singing and your diet.
The two biggest factors with food are: impact on mucus and acidity. If a certain food thickens or increases your mucus, then the mucus on your vocal folds can become problematic for your singing. You may not achieve “clean” tone with ease, and you might feel the need to clear your throat (see here for more info on throat clearing and healthier alternatives: https://www.nlg.nhs.uk/content/uploads/2019/03/IFP-0845.pdf).
Some foods known to thicken or increase mucus production are dairy, sugar and wheat products. But keep in mind: every singer is different! Keep track of how certain foods affect you, and if you discover a correlation between, for example, sugar and thicker mucus in your throat, then you can plan to avoid sugar before auditions, performances and recording sessions. Your body takes a while to adjust, so experiment with the length of time needed on your “singer diet” to feel your best before performance day.
Acidity is another important factor -though it’s worth noting that acid reflux is “very often over diagnosed due to poor diagnostic equipment and inexperience”, according to laryngologist Dr. Reena Gupta. (See here for a case study on a singer with reflux: https://www.ohniww.org/voice-reflux-treatment-los-angeles/.)
Dr. Michael Johns, III of the USC Voice Center adds that “usually it takes a lot of reflux to cause enough inflammation to injure your vocal cords and change your voice [...] In the absence of having other symptoms, like heartburn and a persistent cough ontop of acid reflux, the likelihood of acid reflux being the diagnosis for someone’s voice change is extremely low” (Source: https://www.keckmedicine.org/is-your-voice-changing-due-to-acid-reflux/).
If you do notice a correlation between acidic foods and vocal irritation, consider avoiding those foods and see if you improve!
Hands down, the most important drink for singers is water. And it’s not just important to hydrate during your warmup or voice lesson; you’ve got to be hydrated all the time! Remember: the water you drink may feel good, but it’s not touching your vocal folds directly. We need time for that water to actually hydrate your vocal folds!
Tea with honey or lemon is another “singer favorite”, and many swear by Traditional Medicinals Throat Coat (not an ad).
Coffee drinkers: you may have heard that caffeine is dehydrating, and you can probably guess what that means for your vocal folds. But remember: every singer is different! I drink coffee every single day, performance and audition days included, and I also drink tons of water. A pro singer friend of mine avoids coffee before important gigs, and another singer friend thinks that the energy coffee provides him outweighs the dehydration he experiences. The bottom line is: see what works best for you.
Alcohol is also a little tricky. Like caffeine, alcohol is dehydrating, and it can also lead to swelling. You might not feel a difference in the moment -and in fact, you may feel betterdue to alcohol’s relaxing effect. But the effects of swelling and dehydration often show up the next day. Stay well hydrated, and your body will thank you!
Medications can have an even more acute impact on the voice, due to their concentration and frequency of use. The following summary comes from the ASHA Journal’s ‘Singing Voice: Special Considerations for Evaluation and Treatment’:
“Medications can be drying to the vocal fold mucosa, leading to increased subglottic pressure requirements to produce the highest notes. Examples of drying medications include antihistamines, Accutane, beta-blockers, diuretics, diet pills, and high doses of vitamin C. Many of these medications can be avoided, or the supervising physician may be able to change the medication to a less-drying alternative” (https://leader.pubs.asha.org/doi/10.1044/leader.FTR.07132002.6).
Inhaled steroids and birth control medications can also impact a singer’s vocal production and range. Speak with your doctor if you’re concerned about your medication’s impact on your voice.
A healthy body supports a healthy voice! Keep track of anything that adversely affects your singing and avoid those items when needed.