Are you experiencing laryngitis, a hoarse voice or some other unwanted vocal symptoms? I’m constantly hearing about weird and wonderful voice remedies and winter is the time for them to come out of the pantry. So before you grab that jar of manuka honey, here’s the science about natural remedies:
Part of learning any instrument involves knowing how to take care of it. Singers are no different. Taking care of your voice is known as vocal health or voice hygiene. Many of us don’t give much thought to this topic until we are experiencing problems.
Common voice problems include sore throats, laryngitis, hoarseness, huskiness, a tired voice (vocal fatigue), a sudden change in voice quality, or a reduced vocal range.
Common causes of vocal problems include a cold, virus, chronic overuse or abuse of the voice, infections, and certain medical conditions such as gastric reflux. In some cases, we can’t be sure what’s causing our problems.
Assessing the voice
Unlike other instrumentalists, we can’t take our voice out and assess what’s not working. We can’t clean and polish the instrument and put it back into our throats. Looking at your voice can only be performed by an Ear, Nose & Throat specialist (ENT doctor) using an endoscope.
If you’ve never seen an endoscope performed, here’s a quick demonstration:
Treating the voice
Going to a specialist doctor for an examination like this is generally the last resort when everything else fails. So what should you do if your voice is not feeling or sounding good? Your vocal health is a reflection of your body’s general health. The foundations of all good health are sleep, hydration, diet and exercise. So if your voice is feeling off colour, ensure you are taking good care of your body and make any adjustments to these areas. Also, rest your voice and give your body a chance to repair the damage.
Many urban myths are passed around among singers about natural voice remedies rumoured to help the voice or help it recover faster. We have to be careful to ensure the advice we are getting comes from a valid evidence-based source. The problem with not being able to see or touch the voice is that we can imagine that all sorts of things are helping when they are not.
Nothing you eat or drink can touch your vocal folds! Your body won’t allow it. It’s simply an issue of plumbing. Your vocal folds are located in the larynx just above the trachea (windpipe). They are protected by the epiglottis. Every time you swallow, the epiglottis covers the larynx, windpipe the windpipe and preventing food or drink from entering your lungs where it could potentially kill you. Any remedy you eat or drink (no matter how weird and wonderful) cannot touch the vocal folds, but rather works on the body as a whole system.
I’m sorry to say that the bottle of water you just gulped, that throat lozenge, or that spoon of manuka honey is not lubricating your vocal folds by direct touch – not unless you’re dead! However, your body uses the fluids you ingest to create a thin mucus that does eventually coat the vocal folds. That process requires several hours. Similarly, while we are busting myths, there is no scientific study that links dairy to increased mucus production. You can read about that in my blog post here. Neither is that cup of coffee drying out your vocal folds – not unless you are drinking it in excess.
A natural voice remedy that does come from a scientific base is steam. Unlike food and drink, steam vapours are able to reach your larynx. Steaming your voice is a soothing treatment you can use to help clear mucous build-up.
Boil water and pour into a bowl or the bathroom basin. Cover your head with a towel and lean over the bowl. Inhale deeply for 5 minutes, both through each nostril individually and your mouth. Avoid burning mucous membrane by inhaling steam gently, slowly and not deeply for about 5 minutes.
You can also use a personal steamer like the example below.
Do not speak or whisper for about 10 to 15 minutes afterwards. If it’s cold outside, definitely wait at least 30 minutes prior to exiting the house.
Often, we don’t realise how much we rely on our voices until something goes wrong and we start experiencing voice problems. If you’re in the midst of laryngitis, a cold, or a sore voice, it is natural to want to help things along and get better quickly. We might go searching on the internet for answers or ask a colleague or friend for suggestions. Most of the natural remedies thought to help the voice do not come from a reliable scientific source. Moreover, the body is designed to protect the throat and vocal folds from food and liquids. So if you enjoy your herbal tea with a squeeze of lemon, by all means, do it. Just understand that it’s not a direct hit!