Why is it that your vocal coach often asks you about how much water you’re drinking? Is it really that effective in helping the voice? The body? The brain? Can I count juice, soda, tea and coffee as part of my daily intake? Does caffeine and alcohol really cause dehydration?
As I started my vocal pedagogy journey in 2004, I used to ask the same questions. I remember being particularly attracted to the chapter heading “Sermon on Hydration (or “The Evils of Dry”)” in our textbook by Leon Thurman & Graham Welch. Just about every book, article and teacher I encountered advocated the importance of singers monitoring their body’s hydration levels.
The truth is that I didn’t fully grasp the importance of hydration until I started to intentionally increase my own water intake. I experienced a massive difference in my vocal (and whole body) condition. I felt readier to vocalise, as though my larynx was more robust, supple and adaptable. My hayfever symptoms became easier to manage, I studied more efficiently, felt more energetic, and I had less headaches.
I have since noticed similar experiences in the singers I coach when they too fully grasp and trial better models of hydration for themselves. It is always a daily choice that needs to be made, and each of us has to find the way that works for us within our lifestyle and work demands.
What do you need to understand more about your body and your lifestyle in order to determine the right amount of fluid intake each day?
This article does not answer every question…so follow up your insights and queries with a vocal coach, chemist or GP to fully understand and trial what will work for you.
The Big Picture:
- Your priority is to know your own body – what amount of fluid intake is right for you?
- You probably need to look at drinking somewhere between 1.5 and 3 litres of water a day in order to meet the hydration needs of your body AND your voice.
- Many Canberrans don’t drink enough water and suffer from symptoms of dehydration. Our climate is very low in humidity as we live and work in dehydrating environments.
- All you need to fix this is self-awareness and perseverance.
*The following data is drawn from the excellent sources listed at the end of this blog.
Your Body & Your Voice
- Human bodies are 65-70% water. Water helps flush toxins from the cells of your body.
- We use and lose a considerable amount of body fluid every day, so that loss needs to be replaced.
- Body systems work more efficiently when supported by good systemic hydration. Your vocal folds prefer a humidity rate of 65-70% (minimum of 40% maintains vocal health).
- Healthy, thin, mucus in the upper respiratory tract helps the body defend itself against infection.
- Hydration helps ward off vocal fatigue by ensuring the soft tissue in the vocal folds remains responsive and efficient. Vocal folds vibrate and rub against each other hundreds of times per second. To manage that friction, a quantity of thin lubricant is necessary. Approximately 99.9% of the time, the lubricant required is composed almost entirely of water.
How much is enough?
- It depends on your lifestyle! Variables include:
- the level of humidity in your environment (indoors and outdoors)
- how much you sweat
- how much you exercise
- your city’s elevation above sea level
- medical conditions and associated medication
- the amount of “wet” foods you eat
- Try using a hydration calculator to work out how much water you should be drinking (e.g. https://www.h4hinitiative.com/tools/hydration-calculator)
How do you know if you’re de-hydrated?
- You feel a need to clear the throat frequently.
- You have some post-nasal drip or other cold-like symptoms.
- You can hear a sizzling sound when that thick mucus gets between the vocal folds during singing or speech.
- You might observe blobs of white, thick goo in your throat.
- Your urine is dark in colour.
How do you know if you’re hy-drated?
- You experience a clear and flexible tone.
- There is an absence of sniffles or any desire to cough.
- Inside your mouth is a healthy pink colour covered with a thin, shiny water secretion.
- The surface of your throat’s back wall is irregular and dotted with small bits of orange/pink tissue.
- Small blood vessels are visible.
- Same shiny wet look from normal, thin watery saliva.
- Your urine is pale in colour (allowing for some medication and vitamins that can discolour urine).
Other causes of dehydration
- Ironically, over-hydration can lead to dehydration, although it is rare. So don’t go overboard.
- Most medications have a dehydrating effect on your larynx and throat. Sometimes this extends to your mouth and nasal cavity too. (This includes medicated lozenges.)
- Travelling, particularly in airplanes.
- Alcohol and other recreational drugs.
What can you do to improve your hydration while taking medication?
- Talk to your doctor about options.
- Sleep with a humidifier.
- Experiment with increasing your fluids.
- Gargle with warm salt water, or Dr Gould’s recipe (1 cup warm water, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp bicarb soda, 1 tsp honey or maple syrup).
- Biotene mouth spray (can alleviate symptoms of a dry mouth that result from some medications).
How to build a habit
- Plan ahead
The water you drink has to first pass through your digestive system before it can be of any benefit to the voice. That takes around 20 minutes.
It takes 20-30 days to retrain your body to redistribute your increased water supply. Initially it will interpret extra water as excess and you will have more frequent trips to the bathroom. But in about 2-4 weeks, that will change and the bathroom trips should resume a normal pattern.
- Be curious
Experiment until you find a daily routine that works for you and your voice. Incorporate both systemic and environmental strategies (see below).
- Try steam vapour
Inhaling steam is an ideal way to immediately introduce hydration to the throat and larynx, which is why it is favoured by singers worldwide. There are affordable portable inhalers available.
Anything that makes you salivate will also produce healthy laryngeal secretion. Keep a pack of gum handy.
- Caffeine (research is conflicted over whether caffeine is inherently dehydrating. Still, most people find that too much caffeine instead of water has a negative impact on the voice.)
- Alcohol and tobacco
- High salt intake
- Recreational drugs
- Exercise without increased fluids
- Always drinking water with something else in it, eg juice, cordial, tea
- Observe and take note of lifestyle factors that lead to dehydration
- Talking and socialising
- Water bottles
- Consider what size bottle/s will suit you. E.g.:
- a large one that is the size of your total daily goal
- 2-3 bottles that add up to the size of your total daily goal
- 1 bottle that you refill several times throughout the day
- Try starting the day by filling your water bottles with tap or filtered water.
- Consider what size bottle/s will suit you. E.g.:
- If you prefer drinking from a glass, develop an idea of how many mls your favourite glass holds, and calculate how many of them you need per day.
- Determine how you will keep track of the quantity of glasses you’ve had each day. There are many apps that help.
- Plan how much water you’d like to drink by different times of the day. Aiming to complete at least the first litre by lunchtime is a great start. There are water bottles on the market with time guidelines printed on the side.
- To create variety, occasionally add fruit pieces, herbs, ginger, or citrus slices.
- Be self-reliant – don’t count on being able to easily find drinking water in the places you’re going to be spending time in.
- Eat “wet” snacks e.g. plums, watermelon, cucumber, soup, and other water infused foods.
- Inhale steam for 5 minutes at the start of the day to kickstart your laryngeal hydration.
- Steam again before bed to help protect your throat and larynx from drying out overnight.
- Experiment with plain water and salt water (add 1 tsp salt to the hot water) to see which your throat and larynx prefer.
- See the separate tip sheet on steam inhalers.
- Many singers sleep with a humidifier in the bedroom, particularly during times of prolonged performance schedules, travel and sickness. Both warm air and cold mist humidifiers are available, both adding moisture to the air.
- Performers who travel by aeroplane sometimes choose to use a personal humidifier (such as Humidflyer) during the flight (a typical plane cabin only has an atmosphere of about 5-20% humidity). This maximises laryngeal humidity by recycling the moisture in your own breath, and minimising the risk of contracting illness from others (10-12% of the humidity within the aircraft comes from the exhalations of the other passengers).
- Some singers report effective results from nebulisers that generate mist for inhalation.
Akhtar, S., Wood, G., Rubin, J. S., O’Flynn, P. E., & Ratcliffe, P. (1999). Effect of caffeine on the vocal folds: a pilot study. The Journal of Laryngology & Otology, 113(4), 341–345.
Erickson-Levendoski, E., & Sivasankar, M. (2011). Investigating the effects of caffeine on phonation. J.Voice, 25(1557–8658 (Electronic)), e215–e219. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvoice.2011.02.009
Franca, M. C., & Simpson, K. O. (2013). Effects of the Interaction of Caffeine and Water on Voice Performance: A Pilot Study. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 35(1), 5–13. https://doi.org/10.1177/1525740113487554
Hartley, N. A., & Thibeault, S. L. (2014). Systemic hydration: Relating science to clinical practice in vocal health. Journal of Voice, 28(5), 652.e1-652.e20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvoice.2014.01.007
Killer, S. C., Blannin, A. K., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2014). No evidence of dehydration with moderate daily coffee intake: A counterbalanced cross-over study in a free-living population. PLoS ONE, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0084154
LeBorgne, W. D. & Rosenberg, M. (2014). The Vocal Athlete. Plural Publishing, San Diego.
Tanner, K., Fujiki, R. B., Dromey, C., Merrill, R. M., Robb, W., Kendall, K. A., … Sivasankar, M. P. (2016). Laryngeal Desiccation Challenge and Nebulized Isotonic Saline in Healthy Male Singers and Nonsingers: Effects on Acoustic, Aerodynamic, and Self-Perceived Effort and Dryness Measures. Journal of Voice, 30(6), 670–676. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvoice.2015.08.016
Thurman, L. & Welch, G. (2000). Bodymind & Voice: Foundations of Voice Education. The VoiceCare Network, National Center for Voice and Speech, Minnesota.
Trinidade, A., Robinson, T., & Phillips, J. S. (2014). The role of caffeine in otorhinolaryngology: guilty as charged? European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology, 271(8), 2097–2102. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00405-013-2648-0
Wilson, P. W. (2013). The Singing Voice: An Owner’s Manual (Second Ed.) Lazy O’Rhinus Press, Sydney.