Sometimes the most important things in life are also the simplest. Being well hydrated is one of the most meaningful things we can do to care for our vocal cords and voice, and yet it is so easy to let it slide.
Your voice requires hydration to work optimally. Here’s why and how.
Why does hydration matter?
The vocal cords are made of muscle covered in gelatinous tissue. When they vibrate to make sound, the outer layer ripples like a wave over the deeper, denser layer. This wave is essential for clear voice.
The vocal cords vibrate (meaning they open and close in a wave-like motion) about 200 times PER SECOND for women, and an average of 120 times per second for men. The higher the pitch, the faster the vibration; a soprano’s vocal cords might vibrate up to 1000 times per second for a high note.
That is obviously incredibly fast. As a reference point, a hummingbird’s wings beat about 80 times per second.
If the tissue is a little dry, it gets stiffer and less pliable (like a sponge). This can lead to disruptions in the voice like raspiness, strain, increased feeling of effort when talking, and more.
And as with many other elements of voice work, there are excellent and important side effects of adequate hydration in other areas of your body/life as well.
What are the best ways to hydrate the vocal cords?
What you eat and drink
One way is to drink enough liquids that you hydrate them systemically, from the inside out. The best liquid to drink is water, but many others are as good or close to it.
How much water you need to drink is less straightforward. The answer is, it depends on a lot of factors. Are you taking any medications that dry you out? Do you eat a lot of foods with a high water content, like fruits and vegetables? Are you a physically larger or smaller human? Are you losing a lo of water through exercise or alcohol intake?
The bottom line is that if you pee pale pretty much all the time, you are probably adequately hydrated. That means your kidneys are allowing the water to pass through without it having to do the job of removing stuff we no longer need.
If you want a more specific number, starting with 8 glasses/64 oz/1 liter/1 quart per day is a reasonable ballpark for many.
What you breathe
Nothing you eat or drink touches your vocal cords. This is surprising to many people, since there is so much folklore around eating or drinking certain things to help the voice.
The vocal cords are located at the top of the airway/windpipe (trachea). They are not located over the food pathway (esophagus). That’s why nothing we ingest touches them — if it did, we would aspirate and have bigger challenges than voice issues!
This means that every breath washes over the vocal cords.
Dry air, chemicals, mold, and dust are some of the things that can irritate the larynx (home of the vocal cords). And inhaling moist (I said it again!) air is really beneficial. There are two main ways to do this.
Inhaling steam is a tried-and-true method that can be done in a number of ways. A humidifier by your bed, especially in the winer, is a great idea. A hot, steamy shows can also be helpful. But there are even more potent ways.
The simplest way to inhale steam is old-school: put a pot of water on the stove, bring it to a boil, turn the heat off, and use a towel to make a little tent over your head and the pot to trap the steam. Breathe through your nose and/or mouth for 5-10 minutes.
To make this less cumbersome, you know people have products to sell you! You can buy a little machine called a “personal steam inhaler”. You put water in a base that plugs in to an outlet, and it heats the water. There is some form of plastic attachment (these vary by brand) that allows you to make a seal around your mouth and nose and breathe in steam directly.
The second way to directly hydrate your vocal cords is by using a portable handheld nebulizer. Designed to administer medication, they are very effective for this task if you use just saline in them. The saline (instead of water) coupled with the small particles created by the nebulizer set the scene for maximal absorption by the vocal folds. They are also USB rechargeable and very small, so they can come with you to use before a speech, performance, or other vocal task.
For either of these modalities, the recommendation is 5-10 minutes twice a day if you are having vocal challenges, and ‘as needed” if you’re not. Start with every other day and see what you notice.
Your voice just loves this, and will reward you for your care.
If you’d like more specific information about hydration, or anything to do with your own voice, reach out to schedule a session with me!