The Truths & Myths about How Drinks Affect Singing

Over the years of working in amateur theatre I’ve been offered lots of advice on what I should and shouldn’t drink before a show. However, only a little bit of research shows that some that advice can be, shall we say, a little ropey.

Let’s start with drinking coffee .

Those in the “bad for you” camp often quote a study from 1999 which concluded…

substantial changes were seen to authenticate the fact that caffeine does produce alterations in voice quality

However, there are two caveats to this study – it was performed on just 8 people and…

these alterations have considerable intra-subject variability

i.e. the affect varies person-to-person.

However, a 2011 study of 16 adults in a double-blind trial concluded that

ingestion of caffeine did not adversely affect voice production

A later trial of 58 females came to a conclusion that

a conservative (100 mg) dosage of caffeine may not have an impact on vocal acoustics

100mg is about a single cup of coffee – a little too conservative for me!

Note that this DOESN’T mean that larger amounts of caffeine will have an effect – it just means that this trial didn’t test for anything more than 100 mg of ingested caffeine.

Personally, I’d say the evidence sways towards the fact that caffeine is fine and, at worse, has variable and low impacts on people. Also, it should be noted that these studies were on the affects of caffeine itself and not caffeinated drinks – in the trials tablets of caffeine were digested.

Now, the Musical Director in the current show that I’m performing in swears that coffee is bad but for different reasons…

Coffee I find is more likely to produce an effect on the body overall rather than specifically on voice

Indeed, heavy coffee drinkers, apart from getting the caffeine “buzz”, are more likely drinking it because they’re tired, and that’s never going to help a vocal performance.

But what about tea?

If we know that excess caffeine consumption dehydrates, and if we know that tannins also dehydrate, then chances are that a drink containing both these elements will also leave you parched.teamuse

Bearing in mind studies have shown that caffeine-containing drinks do not impact urinary output any differently than other drinks, I’d then have to question the 2nd assumption made here – what do tannins in tea do? Again there are lots of people simply repeating the rhetoric that they cause dehydration but I can find no evidence behind any of this. In fact, tannin is a natural astringent, used in medicine for curing sore throats.

Which brings me onto drinks in general – hot or cold, they’re great. In particular, they help to lubricate the mouth, throat and tongue. Citrus fruit (best drunk smooth, as any bits in the juice could cause you to cough) also increases the amount of saliva you produce. However, try and avoid the extremes as icy cold or scolding hot drinks are unlikely to help anyone 😉

Mixed up in all of this is a long-standing myth that you should drink 2 litres of water a day.  There is no scientific evidence that we need so much water and different people require different amounts of hydration depending on circumstances…

The thirst mechanism’s so efficient there’s no good evidence for how much we need to drink on average a day. It depends on how active we are, how much water is in the food we’ve eaten, how hot it is and if we have any medical conditions.The Guardian

The water in your cup of tea is no different than the water from your tap when it comes to hydration and your food contains a lot of water as well. Drinking extra water is said to help with weight loss (fill up with water first), reduce headaches and fatigue and improve concentration, amongst other things, yet there’s no evidence for any of this.

Now, I’ve always had pineapple juice recommended to me as it also helps to coat the throat too, due its tacky nature. However, it will only have such a behaviour just before singing – there’s no point drinking it hours beforehand. However, I have seen other claims about the juice, such as…

Pineapple juice has a natural anti-inflammatory compounds [sic] that can help soothe the throat.VisiHow

This is referring to Bromelain which although present in most of the pineapple is mainly concentrated in the stem. Large quantities of this are used to help with skin burns as it assists in the removal of dead skin cells. As for being a general anti-inflammatory? Not unless you have a lot of dead skin in your throat and, certainly, not in the concentration present in your average fruit drink.

Sugary drinks also get a bad press when it comes to singing – sadly the same websites that put out bad advice about coffee and pineapple juice are doing much the same for this…

Sugar is food for bacteria. Bacteria reproduce rapidly in ideal conditions. Warm, moist conditions like your throat is ideal.VisiHow

It goes on to recommend sugar substitutes but only after recommending that you avoid sugar in all food and drink before singing, which could be an interesting target to try and achieve. Not only that but artificial sweeteners are, more often than not, a diuretic, which means that they’ll dehydrate you, which is definitely not good. As somebody else said…

I’ve… heard one singer claim that drinking honey will help your throat, which flies in the face of the claim that sugar is bad for your voice.Howie Reith, Classically trained baritone

The reality is that, yes, bacteria feeds on sugar but, with a balanced diet, you’ll eat or drink something non-sugary afterwards and wash sugar from the throat away. Sugar doesn’t cause sore throats but will exacerbate it once you have as it will feed the bacteria of the existing infection.

Lastly, milk.

Milk is the cause for phlegm build up in singers and phlegm is every singer’s worst enemy. It sticks to the back of your throat and nasal cavity requiring you to clear your throat when you are singing.Singer’s Secret

Sounds pretty bad, yes? However, milk (and dairy products in general) do not produce phlegm in most people. Instead, the high fat content in dairy products thickens the mucous that is already present in your airway, making it seem like there is more phlegm. Of course, having thicker phlegm can be just as problematic as having more phlegm but, luckily, this thickening sensation can be diminished simply by drinking milk with a lower fat content (i.e. skimmed or semi-skimmed). The amount in your average cuppa will do nothing but avoid tall glasses of full fat!

What I’ve learnt from all of this is that there’s a lot of rubbish being peddled on the internet on this subject (sadly emanating from a few popular sites) – word of mouth, based on little evidence and, often, some bad assumptions.

If you followed what was popularly peddled you would only drink water (lukewarm of course) and then a lot of it. You’d be tired and probably be stood in the toilet rather than on stage. So, drink as normal but, at the time, increase intake to lubricate your throat and, possibly, citrus drinks (or even just squeeze some lemon juice onto your tongue!) to improve salivation further. But do everything in moderation and away from extremes. Oh, and don’t tell your Musical Director if it involves coffee 😉

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