Chemicals and the voice
© John Messmer 1999
It is the nature of people to seek remedies for ills and to maintain health. Too often they fall victim to purveyors of snake oils and like cure-alls who use their gift for marketing to convince people to believe something they want to believe because it fulfills a hope. Commonly, testimonials are used to support claims that often seem too good to be true. Many of these testimonials may be based on real cures. The problem is that the problem the person testifies about may not have existed in reality. If it did, recovery could be the result of placebo effect. Up to 30 percent of people given inert substances they believe to have an effect get the effect they believe will occur.
On the other hand, some people attribute danger to substances based on the same subjective evidence. They refuse to use medications or foods that they believe to be harmful based on scant reproducible evidence.
Since singers rely on the health of their bodies to assure peak performance of their instruments, they tend to be particularly susceptible to the hazards of bad science and poor medical information. Like athletes they can fall victim to fads and notions of health care. Word of mouth spreads information until repetition makes fantasy seem like fact.
There are some chemicals that are harmful in any amount: tobacco is the most prevalent. It is beyond argument that tobacco use is to be avoided at all costs by singers. Even one cigarette can affect vocal performance. Other illicit drugs fall under this category also. Because marijuana is usually burned and inhaled it has the same dangers as smoking in addition to the psychological effects it can have. Cocaine is highly addictive and toxic to the heart. Heroin is highly addictive even if smoked rather than injected. Even without the addiction potential there are enough reasons of physical harm to avoid these chemicals.
Alcohol is a bit more complex. It is highly addictive, but typically one must be genetically predisposed. Used in moderation by one not genetically predisposed to addiction, it can be safe. If one consumes less than one ounce of alcohol per hour (one mixed drink or twelve ounces of beer or six ounces of wine for a man of 150 lb or three quarters that amount for the same size woman) one is able to metabolize the alcohol so that there is minimal physical risk. This assumes one does not drive or operate machinery while using it. On the other hand, alcohol can increase gastroesophageal reflux which can harm the voice. Thus, one must weigh the risks before consumption.
Prescription medications can be the source of much consternation in singers and non-singers. Much myth and rumor exists as to the dangers of prescription medications. As complex as the body is, it is possible for anyone to have a bad effect from prescription medications. That is why it is best left to someone trained in their use to prescribe them. It is too complex to deal with all the ins and outs of all medications here, so it is best if the singer has a health care provider he or she trusts to consider his or her needs when treating medical problems. There is a cadre of conspiracy theorists who believe that physicians and the pharmaceutical industry is in cahoots to profit at the risk of the people they treat. They claim that tests are falsified or altered to change the results or that adverse information is ignored. That has certainly occurred from time to time. Unfortunately, the medical industry has unscrupulous people in it as do other areas of business. To claim the existence of a conspiracy or to suggest that this behavior is commonplace either paranoia or an attempt to further one's own interests.
At various times, claims have been made about food colorings, refined sugar, flour, artificial sweeteners, patent remedies, meat, fish, commercially produced fruits and vegetables and more. As a reaction, many of these same claimants suggest that "all natural" products are both safe and more beneficial than the things they decry.
There are many "natural" substances that are highly toxic: rhus radicans is quite natural but most people would avoid eating poison ivy; amanita mushrooms are natural but deadly; digitalis purpurea plants can stop your heart and Socrates career ended with a drink of all natural hemlock. Sassafras was a natural tea in years past but has been associated with cancer. Licorice root is natural and generally harmless, but in large quantities can cause high blood pressure and salt and water imbalance. Just because something is natural does not mean it is either safe or beneficial. These things must be proven through rigorous study based on scientific methods.
What of artificial chemicals added to our foods? Aspartame or Nutrasweet has been a source of contention even before its release. Aspartame is composed of two amino acids found abundantly in foods: aspartic acid and phenylalanine. When these are metabolized, methanol or wood alcohol is produced whether the source of the amino acids is Nutrasweet or food. Fruit juice produces more methanol than aspartame. There are many Web sites and publications dedicated to convincing people that aspartame is dangerous. The Web sites often cross link with sites that deal with alien invasions and like topics. Suffice it to say that any chemical could produce adverse effects in some people. There are very few people who are adversely affected by aspartame; those who are should avoid it. Many people are adversely affected by caffeine, chocolate, gluten, casein, peanuts, shellfish, sulfites and more. There is no conspiracy; corporations are not in collusion to poison us; if it sounds outrageous, it probably is.