Mucus on the vocal folds is the bane of any singer’s life. There are ways to tackle this issue using natural solutions. Nutritionist, Stephanie Moore tells us how.
For a singer, having a build up of mucus in the throat is really bad news. Mucus production can be triggered for various reasons, but if you are trying to hit those top notes or belt out a big number, you’ll struggle if your vocal folds are all bunged up with mucus.
The constant clearing of the throat to eliminate the mucus build-up can cause irritation and soreness, triggering even more mucus production, so what can be done to rid your throat of mucus and prevent its return?
Why Do Singers Get Mucus Build-Up?
Firstly let’s look at the possible causes of mucus production. If you have an infection – a cold, the flu or a respiratory bug, your natural immune response will create mucus to help the body eliminate nasty invaders by expelling bacteria and viruses through the mucus when you cough and sneeze. So, keeping your immune system strong is essential to warding off bugs in the first place.
Keys to a healthy immune system: plenty of sleep; a diet high in fresh, natural foods as unprocessed as possible; limited refined sugars in the diet such as sweet foods, baked goods, chocolate etc.; getting some exercise and managing stress levels by making time to properly relax on a regular basis. Water is also a key factor for both healthy immune function and keeping mucus levels down. Taking a supplement containing vitamins C, D & E plus some Zinc will also boost immunity and help dispel the mucus.
Another cause of mucus production is a protection mechanism from irritants like cigarette smoke and other fumes. Smoking is one of the very worst things you can be doing for vocal health and overall well-being. The heat and noxious chemicals in cigarette smoke are so damaging that the body makes mucus to protect the delicate cells that line the oesophagus (throat). When people give up smoking, they often find they develop a hacking cough, producing seemingly endless amounts of mucus. This is because the body begins to eliminate the mucus that has built up over the years to protect the throat.
Other irritants like car or paint fumes, chemicals in the air and pollens, dust and other common allergens, all stimulate mucus production to catch the irritants before they reach the lungs.
To help loosen and reduce the build up of mucus in the throat, there are various effective, natural remedies you can try:
- Drink hot liquids such as herbal tea or a good quality chicken broth to moisten the airways and break up the mucus
- Gargle regularly with warm water and sea salt.
- Avoid eating too many dairy products as they increase mucus production. Most dairy foods contain a protein called casein which many people struggle to breakdown properly, resulting in mucus production. If you find dairy foods are a problem, try eating goat, sheep or cow products from brown cows – Guernseys and Jerseys. These animals’ milk contains a protein, called A2 protein, also found in human milk, making it much easier to digest. Goat and sheep cheeses, milk and yogurt and products using only Guernsey or Jersey milk are now easy to find in most supermarkets.
- Add a few drops of eucalyptus oil to a vaporizer to loosen phlegm and relieve congestion.
- Use lemon and honey as a healing drink. Manuka honey is particularly effective as it has potent anti-viral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Mix ½ a freshly squeezed lemon with a tablespoon of honey in to a large glass of warm water. You can also add a teaspoon of turmeric. Turmeric is a spice that contains antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, which will help to fight infection and calm irritation. This mixture should help clear your throat, as the lemon will cut through the mucus while the honey and turmeric will help to soothe and heal the throat.
Along with milk products further mucus-forming ingredients include caffeine, sugar, salt, and soy-based products. Many people use soy milk and soy-based meat alternatives as a seemingly healthier option, but soy is one of the most mucus-making plant foods there is.
The Dreaded Reflux
One of the most common causes of mucus production I see in my clinic is due to acid reflux. Acid reflux is quite simply stomach acid coming up the oesophagus (gullet) rather than staying in the stomach. The acid in the stomach is incredibly strong and is there to kill off bacteria and other nasties like parasites in our food as well as helping to break down protein before it passes in to the intestines for absorption.
Acid reflux is often considered an excess acid problem where too much of the stomach acid forces its way back up the throat, irritating the tissues and causing burping and an uncomfortable burning sensation. However, the vast majority of patients I see, including many singers, exhibit these symptoms due to too little stomach acid. This may seem strange when the problem is acid coming out of the top of the stomach, but the cause is very simple: there is a sphincter (valve) at the top of the stomach. When acid levels are good, there is a strong trigger for the sphincter to clamp shut so nothing can escape back up. If your body does not produce enough acid, the opening does not close properly, allowing acid to leak back up the throat. There is another common condition called asymptomatic acid reflux where there is no burning sensation commonly associated with reflux, or heart burn, but instead the voice is constantly hoarse, the patient is continuously feeling the need to clear the throat and there is a steady production of mucus. Also, there is often a sensation of a little lump at the back of the throat. This is also a reflux issue where the potent acid is finding its way all the way up to the top part of the oesophagus, causing inflammation and potentially damage to the lining of the throat and to the vocal folds.
Other symptoms of low stomach acid include bloating, as your food will not be getting broken down properly and will be fermenting in the gut; foul-smelling wind; poor bowel function – usually constipation; bad breath; feeling heavy and full for a long time after eating and if this condition goes on for some time you will become fatigued and run down as your absorption of nutrients from your food will be seriously impaired, potentially leading to much more serious ailments.
Which reflux do I have?
There are 2 simple tests you can do to get a good idea if your digestive issues and/or heartburn are caused by too little stomach acid.
Firstly, get yourself some good quality apple cider vinegar (ACV). It needs to be unfiltered and unpasteurised, so you’ll have to hunt it down in a health food shop or buy online. It should contain floaty bits and sediment – this is the good stuff, full of beneficial bacteria and enzymes known as ‘The Mother”. Take 1 tablespoon in some water with your first mouthful of food. This will help generate a balanced amount of stomach acid and ensure your sphincter shuts properly. If better after a meal using the ACV, it is very likely you have low acid. If you feel worse, you are probably producing excess stomach acid.
Add a level teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to a glass of water and drink on an empty stomach. The very alkaline bicarb will react with your strong stomach acid and cause gases to be produced. Time how long it takes you to burp. Immediately producing large ‘comedy burps’ indicates high levels of stomach acid; burping after 2 – 3 minutes, a healthy level and no or few burps after 5 minutes indicates your acid levels are low.
Here are a few suggestions to correct levels of low levels of stomach acid and to address acid reflux:
- Take a tablespoon of apple cider in a little water (as above) at the start of each of your meals. If this does not prove effective, a more potent remedy is to actually take some hydrochloric acid (see next pointer).
- Take a Betaine and Pepsin supplement – this stimulates hydrochloric acid production in your stomach and helps in the breakdown of proteins.
- Liquorice – you can chew on natural liquorice sticks, or use a chewable liquorice supplement (Called DGL liquorice). This is highly healing for an inflamed oesophagus and helps to manage acid reflux.
- Aloe Vera – highly anti-inflammatory, soothing and healing. Gargle with a high quality Aloe Vera gel in a little water to soothe a tired, sore, inflamed throat.
- Take a broad spectrum digestive enzyme with your meals to help breakdown your food.
CHEW, CHEW, CHEW – this will stimulate stomach acid production and massively improve digestive function. Manage your stress: whenever you are anxious, over-tired, over-worked, production of stomach acid and digestive enzymes dramatically reduces, making you much more prone to acid reflux issues.
Keeping on top of your general health: eating well to support your digestive health and immune function; ensuring you get enough sleep and making sure you keep your stress levels in check will all significantly support your vocal health.
Mucus build-up is a sign that your body is struggling. If you are battling with excess mucus start by taking a look at the quality of your food. And don’t underestimate the importance of rest and relaxation to help your body help itself stay fit healthy and mucus free.