There's an old saying for singers, "If you want to sing clear you gotta pee clear." And it's true. Right up there with sleep is the importance of staying hydrated. You can be slightly dehydrated and not even know it. In this blog post you’ll learn what your vocal cords are made of, what happens to them when they’re dried out, and how you can help them to stay hydrated so you can sing your best.
The Layers of Your Vocal Cords
The vocal cords (or vocal folds — those two terms are interchangeable,) are made up of five layers. The top layer is the epithelium - the "skin" of the vocal cord. It has a consistency similar to the lining of the mouth, pharynx, and trachea; it’s a little slimy.
The next layer, the lamina propria, is actually made up of three layers — the jelly-like superficial layer, the elastic, rubber band-like intermediate layer, and the deep layer.
The final layer is called the vocalis muscle. It's the main body of the vocal fold and is very stiff.
When you're dehydrated, all the layers of your vocal folds are affected, but especially the top three. The vocal folds need to be able to stretch, contract and vibrate easily when you sing. If the top three layers are dehydrated, it's like leaving a rubber band on the dashboard of your car in direct sunlight for a few weeks. The stretch gets baked right out of it.
So what causes dryness in your vocal cords?
Smoke (Cigarettes/Air pollution)
If you're a singer, you're likely to find yourself in environments that are less than optimal for your voice. Overly air-conditioned hotel rooms, dusty performance halls, smoky bars, or air pollution are rough on your entire body but can be especially hard on your voice. Environmental irritants are hard to control, but there are ways to lessen their effects. We'll get to those in a moment — so don't despair!
Other substances that can dry out the vocal folds are things that we ingest:
Caffeine (tea, coffee, chocolate, energy drinks)
Vitamin C (in large doses — 2,000 ml or more)
Medications and Herbal Supplements
With some of the things on this list — like alcohol and caffeine, we can lessen their drying effects by drinking more water. Personally, I'm not about to give up my coffee in the morning, or that occasional shot of vodka that I indulge in. I just make sure that when I've got a cup of coffee or cocktail in one hand, I've got a glass of water in the other. (This means that I'm not fun to travel with since I'm continually looking for a restroom. But peeing all the time is better than trying to sing with dried out vocal cords!)
The side effects from prescriptions or over the counter medications can also harm your voice. Before you take a medication or herbal supplement, do some research. Find out if dryness or dry mouth is one of the side effects. Here's a helpful webpage from the National Center For Voice & Speech that has a list of common medications and their impact on the voice.
So, what can you do to stay hydrated?
How To Keep Your Vocal Cords Hydrated
One of the ways you can fight back against the external causes of dryness is by using a humidifier.
A humidifier can be beneficial when you live in a dry environment, especially in your bedroom. If you don't have one, there are other ways you can raise the level of humidity in a room. You can do things like:
Place bowls of water around the room.
Place a bowl of water in front of the heat source or on top of your radiator. As the water evaporates, it will emit moisture in the air.
Keep the bathroom door open when you take a shower.
Spray your curtains with water. When the sun comes up, the heat will evaporate the water into the room.
For more ideas, check out Livestrong.com How to Humidify A Room Without A Humidifier.
To stay hydrated internally, you need to drink enough water. Sounds simple enough, but how much water does your body need?
It depends. Do you live in a warm climate? Exercise frequently? Eat lots of veggies and fruits with high water content? How much water you need depends on other factors too, like your age, and body size.
Experiment. For three days, aim for drinking 64 ounces (eight 8 ounce glasses of water a day.) If you drink a caffeinated beverage or alcohol, add the same amount of water to your overall allotment. If you sweat when exercising, drink even more water and make sure you're getting some electrolytes too — especially if you're a woman.
Notice how your body and your voice responds. Is there a difference between day one and day three?
If your mouth still feels dry, and the water you're drinking doesn't seem to be helping, try squeezing a little lemon juice into your glass. Just one or two drops should do it. A small amount of ascorbic acid can help your body absorb the water you're drinking more easily. Be careful that you don't add more than a few drops though. Too much ascorbic acid will dry you out even more.
Sidenote: Always drink water without ice when singing. Ice water can cause the surrounding muscle tissue to tighten.
You Are What You Eat (And Drink)
What's your diet like? Eating healthy foods can be a challenge when you're managing all the different aspects of your career or traveling. But it's not impossible. (And it's definitely easier to do than it was in the 80s when I was a vegetarian and touring!) When you eat fresh, raw, organic (if possible), whole foods, you're also helping your body to stay hydrated.
Here's a list of foods with high water content:
Lettuce (especially iceberg)
Cultured dairy (kefir/yogurt)
These foods are helpful in another way; they contain high amounts of electrolytes like calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and chloride. Electrolytes are essential for nerve and muscle function, blood acidity and pressure, and rebuilding damaged tissue; necessary stuff for a body that's being asked to perform. They also help you to stay hydrated.
But what if you drink enough water, eat well, yet still feel dry?
There's another substance that will help your vocal folds to rehydrate — an over the counter medication called Guaifenesin.
Guaifenesin is obtained from a tree bark extract called guaiacum. It's the active ingredient in Robitussin, Mucinex and other over the counter expectorants that help to liquefy mucus. Guaifenesin is helpful to singers because it makes the cell walls in your body permeable to all the water you're drinking, so the vocal cord tissue is more easily hydrated. Remember, those top layers of the vocal folds are mucosal layers. Guaifenesin helps to keep the mucosa viscous so that your vocal cords can vibrate and stretch with greater ease.
Guaifenesin is also one of the safer drugs to take regularly. According to the Physicians Desk Reference, it's OK to take with almost all other medications and has very few possible side effects.
Because of medication I'm on that is drying, and because I'm post-menopausal (which makes me dryer than I used to be), I take 200 mg of Guaifenesin a day. To find out what dosage is right for you, make sure and read the directions carefully. I usually recommend half the usual dosage to start out if you are lightweight or female. Every-body is different though, so experiment until you find a dosage that wets the vocal folds up enough for you.
VERY IMPORTANT! When buying Mucinex or Robitussin over the counter, make sure Guaifenesin is the ONLY active ingredient. Cold remedies often have decongestants and antihistamines in them — which are extremely drying. Also, make sure and drink a full glass of water when you take the medication. Guaifenesin without enough water will also make you drier.
(In over 20 years of recommending this medication to students, I've only had one person complain of side effects. However, I am not a doctor. If you're concerned about the safety of this or any other medication, please consult with your health practitioner before taking.)
Speaking of health practitioners, your Laryngologist or ENT (ear, nose and throat doctor) can prescribe Humibid, the prescription form of Guaifenesin. Your doctor can also help you figure out which medications you're taking that are drying and help you find replacements that won't negatively affect your voice.
No Matter the Season
No matter the season, staying hydrated is a must if you’re a singer. When your body is your instrument, knowing what to do when you’re experiencing vocal dryness will give you more confidence when you need to sound your best.
Now, where’s the nearest bathroom…