As a busy ENT surgeon who sees a lot of patients with voice issues, I am often asked “Doctor do you think it may be my diet?”. The answer to this one as always is a little tricky. Yes….and No. Or rather No….. and maybe. There are a lot of myths about what different foods can do to your voice. Many singers are convinced, for example, that eating dairy has an effect on the quality of their singing, making them more “mucousy”. Whilst I probably wouldn’t want to tempt fate by saying they should swig milk to their heart’s content, when you compare it to what a lot of them lubricate with on stage it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea. There is also a common perception that foods directly contact your vocal cords and “wash” them or lubricate them. A lot of people think gargling cider vinegar helps. Unless you have a serious neurological problem called “aspiration” what you eat or drink does not contact your vocal cords. Gargling is unlikely to have any positive effect and gargling acetic acid (vinegar) certainly won’t help you.
So if foods and drinks have no direct effect upon your vocal cords is it OK to eat and drink anything? Well, no, what you eat and drink does have an effect but its not usually a simple one.
How do foods affect your voice?
As we’ve said there is very little evidence that the types of foods you eat directly affect your voice. Gargling with honey won’t make you sound sweeter. So, we can count that out. There are a number of caveats though.
Being too dry is a killer for your voice. Whether you are a school teacher or an opera singer, if you develop voice problems one of the first things you should do is crank up your hydration levels. It’s as simple as that. Drink more water. About 2 litres per day is about right. Avoid foods and drinks that dry you out. So, here’s the bad news, you should avoid:
Alcohol – it’s a diuretic. So, you pee out more than you take in. That’s why you get a headache. Its also why you get a dry, scratchy throat and a hoarse voice. It also lowers your inhibitions and so before you know it, you’ll be smoking a cigar and cranking out Def Leppard at a karaoke bar.
Caffeine – this is probably not as bad as alcohol or Def Leppard but it also works as a diuretic and won’t help you if you are struggling with the high notes. This goes for coffee, regular teas and soft drinks. Stick with the water.
Heavily salted pickled and preserved foods – apart from being bad for your blood pressure and increasing your risk of various cancers, these types of foods can dehydrate you and this that can affect your voice.
If the dehydration doesn’t get you the reflux will. This is the definite link between what you eat and how your voice sounds. One of the most common reasons people develop a hoarse voice is gastric reflux. Whilst your stomach is “Teflon Coated” to deal with gastric juices your pharynx and larynx (throat and voicebox) are not. If gastric reflux gets into your oesophagus the acid and enzymes (digestive juices) cause inflammation and heartburn. If it gets higher up in your throat, then it can cause inflammation and Laryngopharyngeal Reflux or LPR. The symptoms of LPR are a hoarse voice, coughing, throat clearing and a general soreness of the the throat. LPR is way more common than most people expect and a lot of it is caused by diet.
There are physical reasons that you may get LPR; for example if you have a leaky valve at the top of your stomach (Hiatus Hernia) or if you have sleep apnoea then it is much more likely that gastric contents will leak into your throat especially if you lie down flat. However, what you eat can really influence the severity of LPR.
What foods can contribute to LPR?
We call these foods ‘Refluxogenic’ and most of us know from experience what they are. But for those of you who haven’t, here’s a list:
- Fizzy Drinks
- Fried Foods
- Most Fast Foods including Pizza, Curries etc
- Potato Chips and processed snacks
- Chilli powder and spicy Foods
- Fatty and Processed Meats eg Bacon
- Tomato based sauces
- Citrus Fruits
- Caffeine and Coffee
If you’ve got reflux or LPR you should cut down on these foods or avoid them entirely if you can.
Are there any foods that help LPR?
Luckily there are lots of foods left that can help stop your reflux and LPR and so help your voice. They are also likely to help you keep fit and lose weight all of which will help you stop the reflux.
Here’s a list of them:
- Whole Grains – oatmeal, couscous and brown rice
- Root Vegetables – sweet potatoes, carrots and beets
- Green Vegetables – asparagus, broccoli and green beans
- Melons and watermelons
- Nuts (unsalted )
- Broth based soups
- Herbal Teas