Many singers have problems with excess mucus or phlegm on their vocal cords. When this is a problem you might notice that it’s unusually difficult to hit top notes, but also get wobbles and lack of control throughout your range. You’ll probably be tempted to try to clear your throat, which may help momentarily but you’ll find that it doesn’t stay clear.
The usual advice is to:
- Clearing your throat. This will irritate the vocal cords – gently hum, use ‘Guh’ and ‘Buh’ sounds and swallow loudly instead.
- Dairy. This tends to produce more mucus.
- Allergens. Pet hair, dust, anything that irritates and causes inflammation in your respiratory system.
- Smoking. Again, this causes irritation/inflammation and is obviously generally a bad idea anyway.
- Drink lots of water. This will help to thin out the mucus and encourage the body to regulate its fluids.
- Inhale steam. Again, this helps to soften and thin out the mucus and can work through nose and mouth.
- Longer/gentle vocal warm ups. Take it gently and don’t push your voice hard to compensate.
- Nasal irrigation. This manually flushes through the phlegm.
There’s supposed to be a thin layer of mucus to lubricate the vocal cords, so you don’t want to strip the mucus completely. For this reason, some people don’t advocate drinking lemon water, as this can be too drying.
In addition, we can use some principles from Chinese medicine to understand why phlegm accumulates in the first place and how to resolve and prevent it.
According to Chinese medicine, Phlegm is produced when there is a combination of ‘Dampness’ (excess fluid) and Heat.
Dampness is usually caused by eating certain foods and/or having a weak digestive system – common symptoms would be bloating after eating, heavy limbs, tiredness and loose stools. Some foods are particularly damp-forming, such as dairy and sugar. One function of the Lungs is to descend and disperse fluids, so when the Lungs are weak they may fail to do this, again resulting in excess fluid or Dampness.
Heat is introduced in various ways – heating foods or drink such as coffee, alcohol, and spicy food, through smoking, and from stress, frustration or anger.
Without knowing exactly what is going on in your individual case, some general advice from this approach would be:
AVOID or REDUCE
- Damp-forming foods: dairy, sugar, refined flour (pasta, bread etc), bananas, yeast, beer, concentrated juices (orange juice/tomato juice), roasted peanuts, greasy food.
- Spending a long time in a damp environment, swimming.
- Heat-forming foods: spicy food, alcohol, coffee.
- Smoking (or inhaling smoke of any kind – incense, camp fires etc).
- Eat phlegm-resolving foods: almond, daikon (mooli), garlic, grapefruit, marjoram, onion, peppermint, thyme, walnut, and watercress.
- Drink Phlegm-Resolving Tea (see recipe below).
- Eat simple, easily digested foods to support the digestive organs. See General Eating Advice for more on this.
- Rest, relax, meditate – anything you can do to de-stress.
- Breathing exercises to strengthen the lungs and massage the digestive organs. Also rest your voice if it’s been working hard.
- Especially if your lifestyle can be sedentary, doing some exercise can help strengthen the lungs, as well as improve the body’s own efforts to shift phlegm.
3 cups water
2 tsp fresh thyme
1cm root ginger
1 tsp honey (optional)
Boil the water in a pan. Crush and add the thyme, simmering for 5 minutes. Slice the ginger very finely and add to the pan, simmering for a further 10 minutes. Squeeze in the lemon and honey, stir, strain and serve. Drink 2-4 cups per day until the phlegm clears.
If you have significant amounts of internal heat, omit the ginger.
If you are particularly cold, or if you find the tea too drying, omit the lemon.
You might find it useful to seek advice from an acupuncturist to tailor the recipe and any other treatment to your particular condition and imbalances.