Chances are, if you’re a performer, you’ve heard some “voice hacks” revolving around food and drink. “Drink lemon water to eliminate phlegm.” “Don’t eat before you go on stage.” “Eat potato chips to solve a sore throat.” Many of these sound reasonable enough and are offered to us as such absolute truths that we accept them without really researching whether they are true or not. As a result, all performers hold in their hearts a unique set of myths and half-truths gathered over the years which they believe makes them better singers. Is there any truth to these claims, or are they only urban legends? I decided I wanted to learn that for myself.
The following is a list of all of the most common myths, half-truths, and genuine facts performers tend to pass around. I did my best to research these from a strictly medical point of view, and only consider a home remedy fact if backed up by some scientific evidence. The result was very informative for me, and I imagine it will be informative for many others.
- Myth: Any food or drink is bad for your vocal folds.
The issue here is largely semantics. When people say a certain food or drink is “bad for your vocal folds,” they usually mean it creates less than ideal conditions for performance– ie, it dries the throat and creates phlegm. However, no food is inherently bad for the vocal folds. Remember that the trachea (where the larynx, the “voice box” is located) and the esophagus (which food passes through) are two separate spaces in the human body. No food should come in contact with the vocal folds at all– unless something “goes down the wrong pipe!” While anything consumed may have an effect on the throat as a whole, nothing is going to harm your vocal folds, assuming you don’t choke on it.
- Myth: Coffee or an energy drink before a performance is the best way to keep your energy up.
This is completely false. Caffeine can cause jitters, anxiety, and is a diuretic– which means you’ll be making a lot of trips to the bathroom (which can contribute to dehydration). Not ideal before a show! Caffeine also dries the throat, which in turn encourages the body to produce mucus to help lubricate it. Yet, in our busy world, it’s understandable that many feel the need for an artificial energy boost before a late show. If you must drink these, drink slowly, and try to pad consumption with food and water as you go to avoid an uncomfortable spike in blood sugar. I’ve written a more in-depth guide on consuming caffeine before a show here.
- Myth: Hydrating with soda is as effective as hydrating with water.
I’ve rarely heard any performer make this claim out loud, but many nonetheless abide by it in their daily habits. Much like coffee and energy drinks, soda often contains caffeine which encourages phlegm production. Even zero-caffeine sodas typically contain processed sugars which can cause inflammation, which causes irritation and leads to, you guessed it, increased mucus production. High quantities of sugar can also cause a “sugar crash” that will leave you feeling tired and sick shortly after intake. You’re best off drinking water before you go on stage.
- Myth: Lemons are good for your throat.
- Myth: Lemons are bad for your throat.
These are both myths because they both generalize about a complex topic. Lemon juice and water infused with lemon can be helpful in a certain time and place. Lemon’s acidity will help stimulate the salivary glands to eliminate dry mouth and reduce phlegm, but can also, paradoxically, irritate your throat and cause increased phlegm production if you’re dehydrated. Therefore, lemons are great for, say, eliminating excess mucus produced by a cold, but they’re not ideal for every situation. If you’re doing lemon juice shots all day or singularly drinking lemon water, you’ll probably end up drying your throat more than is desirable. Consume lemon sporadically as needed, but ensure the bulk of your hydration is with plain, old-fashioned water. If you enjoy the flavor of fruit-infused waters, infusing with less acidic fruits such as melons and berries might serve you well.
- Myth: Hot tea, pain-relief sprays, or saltwater gargles instantly cure a sore throat. You can give your all on stage right after using them.
All of these things can soothe a sore throat, and help eliminate pain. However, eliminating pain is not the same as curing a sickness, in the same way taking pain medication is not the same as fixing a broken limb.
Whatever home remedy you employ to reduce pain for a sore throat has a use, so long as it works for you. However, overworking a sore throat will plausibly lead to vocal injury.
Some of these things can, in time, contribute to a sore throat cure: for instance, prescription sprays may kill irritating, mucus-producing bacteria in the throat, which can solve the problem in time. However, the point still stands that until the sore throat has gone away, singing should be postponed. Don’t simply use these products and then assume you’re ready to go belt-crazy in rehearsal.
- Half-Truth: Dairy creates phlegm and is bad for your throat.
Much of this saying comes from the fact that many people have intolerances or allergies to dairy products. When allergic reactions occur, histamines boost blood flow to affected areas and trigger inflammation as well as increased mucus production. However, milk otherwise is not explicitly linked to the production of mucus. It can make existing phlegm in the throat feel thicker, but it isn’t necessarily the root cause. Nonetheless, as it can make the throat feel “gummed up,” many avoid it, and the avoidance of any food that makes you feel less-than-perfect pre-performance is perfectly valid.
Speaking of allergic reactions, there are a variety of other foods that many are allergic to and therefore might potentially be avoided. Nuts, soy, eggs, fish, shellfish, and wheat are a few common ones. Yet, it’s possible to be allergic to virtually anything, so be sure to note which foods cause you particularly adverse reactions so you can steer clear.
- Half-Truth: You shouldn’t eat before you perform.
This assertion has some legitimate reasoning backing it up, and from a variety of angles. If you eat too close to curtain, you may find yourself the unfortunate victim of food poisoning or some other random gastrointestinal disagreement at a very inopportune time. When you breathe deeply, as in singing, your diaphragm relaxes to allow the lungs to expand. This somewhat compresses the organs in the abdominal cavity, which a full stomach can inhibit. Digestion can cause drowsiness and other obstructions to the fully alert, active state performing requires. Plus, a full stomach can generally cause discomfort, especially when factoring in highly active blocking or dancing. Therefore, there’s a lot of reasons to avoid overeating and eating directly before a performance.
However, this claim sometimes encourages people to approach performance on an entirely empty stomach, which is unnecessary and counterproductive. Not eating before a performance can lead to low blood sugar, causing light-headedness or queasiness. It can also generally distract you from what you’re doing on stage if all you can think about is how hungry you are for your post-show celebration food.
Therefore, it’s best to eat something before a performance. A light, healthy dinner consisting of complex carbohydrates (as in whole grains and rice), lean proteins (like fish, chicken, and beans), and fresh, low-fiber fruits or veggies a few hours before a performance should keep you in proper performing condition. Healthy snacks for the green room such as nuts, crackers, fruits, and veggies can help in a pinch as well.
- Half-Truth: You shouldn’t drink too much water before you perform, or else you’ll have to pee when you’re on stage.
While this isn’t technically wrong, it implies having to pee while performing is worse than being dehydrated while performing, to which many would disagree. Hydration is necessary for fighting mucus overproduction and powering the body properly. It’s not worth becoming dehydrated for fears you’ll have to use the restroom!
A compromise to this situation is to drink water during the day and taper off hydration as you get closer to the show. However, you should of course still drink when you are thirsty– don’t actively avoid hydration if you need it.
- Half-Truth: Hard candies and cough drops make you salivate, which is good for hydration and therefore good to eat before a show.
As with lemons, these salivation-stimulating treats can be helpful, especially if you suffer from pre-show dry mouth related to anxiety. Just don’t overdo it. Candies contain sugar that can irritate the throat, cause inflammation, and encourage mucus production. Sugar-free cough drops and gums, however, are fair game!
- Half-Truth: Vinegar is good for your throat.
Vinegar serves the exact same purpose as lemon juice, albeit stronger. If you’re phlegmy and need a quick escape, vinegar will certainly thin out some mucus and the bacteria that causes it. However, if you consume too much vinegar and not enough water, the acidity will dry your throat and cause your body to produce more phlegm. Make this a once-in-a-while tonic rather than a constant.
- Half-Truth: Tea is good for your throat before a performance.
“Tea” is a large, varied category of drinks, and some are better for the throat than others. Teas also have a variety of effects, so much like with medications, one should consider the side effects of what they are taking. Many teas, including black and green teas, are natural diuretics, which make you go to the bathroom more often, encouraging dehydration. Many teas are caffeinated, and caffeine, as previously stated, can worsen pre-show anxiety and dry the throat, producing mucus. Further, preparing any tea with excess sugar likely cancels out any mucus-fighting benefits of the beverage, for reasons already explained. Therefore, while many teas may not be bad for your throat, they may not be ideal for performing regardless.
However, teas are not without value. Ginger and honey teas, for example, are especially valuable for eliminating phlegm-producing bacteria and protecting the mucous membranes from damage. In general, do your research on what you are consuming, and look out for less than desirable side effects.
- Half-Truth: Marshmallows can soothe a sore throat.
When many health experts allude to marshmallow as a natural remedy for a sore throat, they mean marshmallow root, a wild plant that is not at all like the processed, sugary confections we equate with the word “marshmallows.” However, the gelatin in processed marshmallows can be soothing for a sore throat nonetheless. But supermarket marshmallows also contain a lot of processed sugars, which, as previously mentioned, encourage mucus production. Technically, they’re neither bad nor good for a sore throat. You’re probably better off seeking other solutions, but the delicious option is always understandably desirable.
- Half-Truth: Toast scrapes excess mucus from the throat.
I’m not sure if this should be considered a half-truth so much as simply inconclusive. Though a few sources mention this idea, none of them are scientific or especially reputable. It certainly sounds like it could be true– toast has a minorly abrasive, spongelike surface that seems like it could be used to scrape excess phlegm out of the throat… assuming you don’t chew it too much. After all, bread has documented uses as a cleaning product, so why can’t it be used to clean out your throat?! However, as many may have hidden sensitivities to gluten that can cause inflammation, bread consumption may in fact lead to increased phlegm production in some people. Try this one out and decide for yourself if it works.
- Half-Truth: Potato chips remove excess mucus from the throat.
Though many swear by this remedy, much like toast, the potato chip “hack” similarly lacks scientific sourcing. To add to the mystery, every source seems to cite a different reason for why this works: allegedly, the grease “breaks up phlegm,” the salt has healing properties, the rough texture is good for scraping mucus from the throat, or maybe eating the salty chips reaches lower into the esophagus than saltwater gargles can penetrate. We just don’t seem to know. However, this is a very popular urban legend, which implies people have used it with success. This is another one to try for yourself to decide.
- Half-Truth: Drink alcohol to clear up a sore, phlegmy throat.
Technically, yes, fine, I guess– You can’t deny alcohol acts as an anesthetic, and you probably won’t be worried about your sore throat if you’re a little buzzed. And, yes, having a strong drink can, at least temporarily, clear up congestion. However, in practice, the medical community says this isn’t particularly effective.
Alcohol is a vasodilator (it makes your blood vessels expand), which can make inflammation worse. This is counterproductive for alleviating a stuffy nose or phlegmy throat. It can also weaken your immune system, making it harder to fight disease. Some people claim alcohol kills germs in the throat, which simply isn’t true. Also, didn’t your theatre teachers and directors ever tell you not to drink before going on stage? You animals.
This may serve as a good enough home remedy when you’re down for the night and looking to fall asleep quick, however, it’s not ideal in most other circumstances.
- Half-Truth: Loading up on vitamins and other medication before a show is a foolproof way to stay healthy and in top performing shape.
While vitamins and medication have a definite use and purpose, they are not always what’s best for you. Performers must carefully consider the side effects of any medications they take before going on stage. For example, a cold pill may help eliminate congestion, but it may also make you drowsy or impaired on stage. Pain relief medication might help combat throat or bodily pains after a strenuous rehearsal process but may contain blood thinners that could make vocal hemorrhage more likely. (Vitamin C, incidentally, is one such blood thinner at high doses.) Medication may act as a diuretic that keeps you seeking the bathroom during the performance. Careful review of side effects will help eliminate any surprises at showtime. By all means, don’t neglect to take important prescriptions or necessary medication– but as always, be wary of taking anything you don’t necessarily need.
Furthermore, taking extreme quantities of vitamins may be entirely unnecessary and a waste of money. Unless you have a demonstrable lack of a certain vitamin (for example, iron deficiency marked by recognizable symptoms), many people achieve reasonable vitamin intake from their diet alone, assuming they are young and healthy and their diet is rich and varied. You may want to load up on certain vitamins for specific reasons– for example, taking lots of extra vitamin C to boost your immune system when surrounded by sick people– but overconsumption of most vitamins is counterproductive. The body only stores the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. If you consume the rest of the water-soluble vitamins in massive excess, you’ll simply eliminate expensive vitamin-rich urine. Pay attention to the daily values on your vitamins and generally avoid taking more than your body can reasonably process in a day.
- Fact: Drinking water washes excess mucus from the throat, and proper hydration can prevent excess mucus.
Your body produces mucus as a lubricant. If your body is not hydrated properly, the mucous membranes in your nose, mouth, and throat quickly dry. Thus, the body produces more mucus to combat the dryness, making your sinuses and throat thick and phlegmy. Drinking water keeps you hydrated so that mucus production can slow and also helps loosen and eliminate mucus that has already formed.
This is the same reason why many performers advocate for sleeping with humidifiers or taking hot, steamy showers to reduce phlegm. Adding moisture to the air can prevent your mucous membranes from drying out as quickly, reducing the amount of water you need to drink to stay lubricated.
- Fact: An apple a day can eliminate phlegm.
Apples are fibrous and slightly acidic, which means eating them can help eliminate phlegm-causing bacteria in the throat. Other good foods in this department include leafy greens, berries, and sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon and other fish.
- Fact: Fried and acidic foods can cause and worsen sore throats.
Fried foods, especially when coupled with a generally poor diet and sedentary lifestyle, can cause acid reflux, which can make the throat chronically dry or scratchy. They can also cause phlegm. The same goes for acidic foods. Fried foods can furthermore be hard for the body to digest, which can cause the immune system to weaken, and may be encased in tough breading that can harm the throat. They’re also just not very good for you, so avoiding them where possible is in your best interest.
- Fact: Honey will soothe a sore throat.
Honey boasts a wide variety of health properties, so don’t feel guilty about adding it to your pre-show diet! It’s also a wonder for singers: it coats and soothes the mucous membranes and helps protect them from damage, it suppresses a cough (which can irritate the throat and harm the vocal folds), and it apparently “creates a smoother singing tone” (though vocal training will surely be more effective in this endeavor). Perhaps the most time-tested and evidence-backed home remedy for a sore, raspy voice, singers should keep this solution close at hand.
- Fact: A balanced, healthy diet and lifestyle including ample regular water intake will serve singers best.
Many of the urban legends and home remedies on this list are angled towards eliminating phlegm, maintaining immune health, and ending sore throats. All of these endeavors can be assisted or even in large part achieved by simply maintaining a good diet and healthy lifestyle, and drinking adequate water on the regular to maintain proper hydration.
- Fact: Ultimately, you should do what works for you.
Everyone swears by their own unique regimen of home remedies and urban legends when it comes to vocal health. We do it, Broadway stars do it, voice teachers do it, too. We’ve all heard such varied advice on eating and drinking before performing because everyone has unique experiences, and everyone has unique needs. No one remedy will work for everyone, and one highly niche remedy might work really well for one specific person. Unless that remedy demonstrably causes more harm than benefit, performers should stick with what makes them feel prepared and confident, rather than following health routines they feel uncomfortable or unhappy with.
Hopefully this article provides a starting point for investigating which of your favorite pre-performance snacks and routines are actually helpful, and which ones you are better off discarding!