Professional vocalists, freelance singers, podcasters, public speakers and even people who just enjoy karaoke once in a while can all enhance the way their voice sounds by eating a healthy diet and avoiding foods, drinks and lifestyle choices that can harm vocal health.
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This article can help singers improve their vocals by providing information about the foods, drinks and lifestyle choices that are good (and bad) for vocal health and singing.
Read on to learn the best foods for a "vocal diet" — what singers should eat or drink before singing.
Anatomy of the Human Voice
Prior to learning how to improve vocal health so you can be a better singer, it's helpful to understand the mechanics of singing.
"The sound of your voice is produced by vibration of the vocal folds, which are two bands of smooth muscle tissue that are positioned opposite each other in the larynx," writes the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). "The vocal folds snap together while air from the lungs blows past, making them vibrate. The vibrations produce sound waves that travel through the throat, nose and mouth, which act as resonating cavities to modulate the sound."
"The sound of each person's voice is determined by the size and shape of the vocal cords and by the size and shape of the throat, nose and mouth," writes Cedars Sinai. One of the most common vocal cord disorders, they note, is laryngitis, which "causes a raspy or hoarse voice due to swelling of the vocal cords. It can be caused by using your voice too much, infections, breathing in irritants, or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux)."
As Oregon Health and Science University explains, vocal folds are also known as vocal cords; they are located in the voice box (aka larynx), which is topped by the epiglottis.
The epiglottis basically acts as a lid, preventing food and drink from going into the lungs. It also prevents liquids from touching the vocal cords directly — which is why drinking honey and water (or any other beverage) right before or during a performance won't immediately moisten dry vocal cords.
The Singers' Diet: What to Have
The NIDCD and other voice experts say that staying hydrated is the number one thing vocalists should do. The classic recommendation of eight glasses of liquid a day is simply not enough for vocalists.
As previously mentioned, when drinking liquid, it feels like the vocal cords are being hydrated directly. But they're not: Liquid actually goes down the esophagus to the stomach, not down the opening that leads to the vocal cords.
Therefore, liquid must be carried to the vocal cords through the bloodstream, which takes time. This is why vocalists should drink lots of liquid throughout the day — not just before performances.
Vocal cords are fragile and vibrate at a very fast rate when singing. Keeping them moist by drinking lots of water will go a long way toward protecting them from long-term voice problems.
There is one practice that actually does moisten vocal cords directly, and that is steam inhalation. "Inhaling steam helps the voice box stay moist and can be very soothing to irritated vocal folds," explains the Duke University Voice Care Center. "Breathe the steam through your nose for three to five minutes, two or three times per day." Their recommended methods include:
- Breathing shower steam
- Running hot water into a basin and inhaling the steam
- Breathing in the steam from boiled water
- Running a washcloth under hot water, wringing it out, holding it over your mouth and nose and breathing in
According to the NIDCD, the best diet for a vocalist is one that promotes overall good health, limits or omits fatty and fried foods, and keeps mucus membranes moist.
As a vocalist, your regular diet should include plenty of fruit, whole grains and vegetables — especially those rich in vitamins A, C and E, which help keep mucus membranes healthy, according to the NIDCD.
Per the National Institutes of Health (NIH), sweet potatoes, spinach and carrots top the list of low-fat, nondairy sources of vitamin A.
Red and green bell peppers, kiwi and broccoli are all rich in vitamin C, according to the NIH. They also tend not to cause voice-damaging GERD.
The NIH lists wheat germ oil, sunflower seeds and almonds as the top three vitamin E foods. However, some singers avoid eating nuts prior to performances because small bits can be left behind and irritate the throat. Nut butters and oils may be a safer bet.
"A healthy voice requires a strong body with generally good muscle tone and endurance," notes St. Olaf College. That's why it's so important for singers to eat lots of whole grains.
Barley, brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur, millet and oatmeal are all good whole-grain choices, according to the Mayo Clinic. They advise making at least half of the grains in your daily diet whole grains, and the other half enriched grains that are fortified with B vitamins.
The Singers' Diet: What to Avoid
Alcohol is notoriously dehydrating. It can also diminish vocal control by causing constriction of the blood vessels in vocal tissue, according to research published by The Ohio State University.
Per the NIDCD, mouthwash that contains alcohol or irritating chemicals should also be avoided, as it can harm vocal health.
Acid Reflux Triggers
Avoid eating anything that you know causes you to experience acid reflux, as this condition sends stomach acid into your esophagus, per the NIDCD. This may cause inflammation of the vocal cords, which can damage your voice and singing ability.
Chocolate, fried foods, mustard, citrus juices, peppermint, vinegar, spicy food and tomato products such as ketchup are all common triggers of acid reflux, according to Baylor Scott & White Health in Dallas, Texas. Monitor your intake of these items, especially before a performance.
Medications that Cause Dry Mouth
"Dry mouth, or xerostomia, happens when you don't make enough saliva (spit)," observes the Cleveland Clinic. "Dry mouth symptoms include discomfort, sore throat and swallowing problems."
A singer needs a well-lubricated instrument, and in this case, that instrument consists of the mouth, throat and vocal cords. Medications that lead to a dry mouth can make it more difficult to sing, and should therefore be avoided.
Antihistamines and decongestants are two prime examples, but many other medicines — including certain antidepressants and pain medications — can also result in dry mouth, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
If you sing for your supper (so to speak), consult a nutritionist or your primary care physician. Review your daily meal plan and medications carefully — especially if you have an upcoming performance.
More Tips for a Healthy Voice
Vocalists, podcasters and public speakers must take special care of their vocal tissue to ensure long and successful careers. Here are a few final tips from the NIDCD:
- Rest your voice occasionally several times during the day. (They call this taking "vocal naps.")
- Avoid cigarette smoke whenever possible. Exposure to even secondhand smoke can irritate vocal cords and cause cancer of the vocal folds.
- Prevent exposure to laryngitis-causing colds and viruses by washing hands frequently.
- Don't strain your voice by yelling or trying to talk above noise.
- National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders: "Taking Care of Your Voice"
- Cedars Sinai: "Vocal Cord Disorders"
- Oregon Health and Science University: "Voice & Swallowing — Anatomy"
- National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin A — Fact Sheet for Health Professionals"
- National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin C — Fact Sheet for Health Professionals"
- National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin E — Fact Sheet for Health Professionals"
- Mayo Clinic: "Whole Grains — Hearty Options for a Healthy Diet"
- St. Olaf College: "Nutrition — Eating and Singing"
- The Ohio State University: "Vascularity and the Hormonal Cycle in Female Classical Singers"
- Baylor Scott & White Health: "Treatment Options — Lifestyle Modifications"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Dry Mouth (Xerostomia)"
- Duke University Voice Care Center: "Vocal Health Information"