Years ago, as a voice student at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, I began struggling with a frequent roughness in my throat and a consequent chronic cough. I also had some hoarseness that would inconsistently affect my voice. I was told multiple times by doctors that I was suffering from various allergies and was prescribed medications and treatments, with no improvement. Finally, I went to the Massachusetts General Voice Center and found that my vocal chords were not damaged but were very swollen and irritated due to gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD; a chronic digestive condition that occurs when stomach acid flows back (refluxes) into your food pipe or esophagus. In my case, and many cases, the acid made it all the way to the larynx which is only separated from the esophagus by a few layers of tissue. I have since learned to manage my reflux issues very effectively so I can live my life as a vocalist, but it was scary and frustrating when I was going through it.
Statistics currently show that nearly 25 million Americans suffer from reflux or GERD and vocalists seem to be at an even higher risk than the average person due to the pressure we put at the midsection of the body when singing. If severe reflux or GERD is left untreated, it can lead to real damage to the vocal chords and, in the most serious of cases, can put you at greater risk for esophageal or laryngeal cancer. Luckily, reflux can be managed through a combination of diet, lifestyle changes and medication.
1: QUIT SMOKING – Hopefully, especially if you are a singer, this one goes without saying for a great number of reasons. In addition to those many reasons, smoking greatly contributes to reflux or GERD by increasing stomach acid and weakening necessary stomach muscles.
2. Pay attention to your own sensitivities and avoid aggravating foods and beverages such as: spicy and fatty foods, citrus, chocolate, mints, coffee, tea, sodas, other carbonated beverages and alcohol. Especially limit these when preparing for a performance.
3. Elevate your head when sleeping by using a body wedge or elevating the entire head of your bed, 4-6 inches.
4. Avoid tight clothing around your middle, which puts extra pressure on your stomach and worsens symptoms.
5. Do your best to avoid stress – stress can be a major factor in controlling your reflux symptoms so try to find ways to manage your stress that work best for you.
Everything you do to improve or decline the health of your body directly affects the health of your voice. Singers need to especially be mindful of this and make daily decisions that better their overall physical and mental health.