Singer’s Wellness: Food as Medicine

You are what you eat.

If you really think about that, what are you today? What have you put in your body? Is it helping you move towards optimal health or away from it?

What we eat is a big factor in our physical health – food intake has been linked to high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes and cancer,  but what about our mental health?

There is plenty of research out there that shows there is a link between food and mood.  A recent study found a link between poor diet and depression. Other studies show links between other mental illnesses and the food one consumes. Taking this a step farther, studies have identified that there is a link between our immune system (up to 80% of which is located in our gut) and our mental health. Anecdotal evidence is becoming more frequent about people who have revolutionized their health and put autoimmune conditions into remission by radically altering their diet for the better,

Soooo, what is one to do with all this information? EAT BETTER!

Eating a variety of colors of vegetables is great, but you can go one step further and introduce a type of food that helps boost your immune system by helping to heal your gut and improves your digestion.

What is this food as medicine? Fermented foods.

Saurkraut

Kimchi

Kefir

Yogurt ( but only the plain kind the rest has so much sugar it sort of cancels out the benefits)

Pickled beets, peppers, eggplant, turnips, carrots

Fermented foods are loaded with pro-biotics, or the good bacteria that we need to keep our bodies healthy. This bacteria lives in your gut. Let’s review: there is a type of food you can eat that can strengthen your immune system, therefore improving your physical AND mental health. Yes please, sign me up.

It took me time to develop a taste for saurkraut, but it has become a regular part of my diet. I also use Kefir in smoothies where I add some frozen berries (and if my kids are drinking it, a bit of honey. I don’t mind sour tastes, but they do!) and a bit of water. You can make your own fermented foods, or you can buy them at the store. I’m not picky how you get them into your diet, just get them into your diet!

 

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Singer’s Wellness: Eat Food

I would like to suggest to you a radical (really, it shouldn’t be radical at all, but I fear it is) suggestion that the only ‘diet’ most of us need to follow is this: Eat. Actual. Food.

If you are wondering what makes one item food or not, Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food,” gives a great answer. He says food is what you find mostly around the perimeter of the grocery store. Fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, etc.. Food products are primarily what lines the internal aisles of the grocery store. Think cereal bars, twinkies, potato chips, cereal, eggo waffles, flavored yogurt.

Here is Pollan’s advice on how to choose what to eat. He says “Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable,  C) more than five in number or that include D) high-fructose corn syrup. None of these characteristics, not even the last one is necessarily harmful, but all of them are markers for foods that have been highly processed to the point where they may no longer be what they purport to be.” (In Defense of Food, pp 150-151).

Going a little deeper, we need plates that are filled, in descending order, with:

* Vegetables (mostly raw or lightly steamed) and fruits.

* Protein in the form of nuts and seeds whether whole, ground or in oil form, and/or meat/seafood that is not from a factory farm (free range, organic, grass-fed are good words to associate with your meat).

*Whole grains and dairy.

** In small, infrequent portions, treats of choice. Mine is dark, dark chocolate. YUM!

Here are some tips to get you started:

Sit down on a weekend day and plan out a week’s worth of meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner. I do this taking into account the schedule for a given week – kid activities, my work schedule, my husband’s travel, date nights etc.

Make a grocery list based on those meals and any snacks you will need.

Don’t go shopping when you are hungry.

Read labels on food products to see if they fulfill the list of suggestions above.

Commit to trying new foods that you might previously have not liked. You can change your taste buds that have been deadened by years of processed food intake.

Portion size still matters. Just because you are eating well doesn’t mean you have permission to eat all the things!

This isn’t about being perfect and never, ever eating something that is processed. It is about making the best choice you can in a given situation. I don’t think I’ll ever give up cookies, but I can give up pre-packaged cookies or the pre-made dough and just make my own from scratch at home, thus eliminating the ingredients that I can’t pronounce!

 

Let me know if there are things you do that have helped you move towards eating more actual food.

In the next post we’ll look more closely at how food can be viewed as medicine.

 

* I’m not a doctor, and none of this is medical advice, it is just common sense. If you’ve worked an eating plan out with a doctor or nutritionist that is working for you, stick with it!

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Vocal Wellness: Hydration…the fluid facts

Our bodies function best when they are well fed and well hydrated. We’ll talk more about nutrition in coming posts, but let’s address water here.

Our bodies are about 60% water.

photo by: José Manuel Suárez

Our vocal cords are covered with a layer of mucous that is water based.

This mucous does several things:
1. Helps with vocal cord flexibility (i.e. makes speaking and singing easier).
2. Protects them from friction while we talk and sing.

Without it our cords are stiffer, swell more easily when we sing and have a harder time recovering from a long singing session. When we are dehydrated the layer of mucous is either less or non-existent.

When you are mildly dehydrated you might notice:
1. Dry mouth
2. Headache
3. Dark colored urine
4. Dry lips
5. Low level fatigue

Hydration is systemic, meaning water has to get into your body before it can hydrate you – drinking water while singing or doing yoga will do a bit to help relieve a dry mouth and cool you off, but it won’t really help your voice in that moment.

How do you know how much water you need to drink? The old way of looking at it was everyone needed 64 ounces of water a day. Turns out it is more individual. Our diets often consist of about 20% water – almost every substance we consume has water in it (especially if you are eating lots of fruits and vegetables).

The remaining, 80% water you take in comes in liquid form – and hopefully a lot of that liquid is water, though tea, coffee, soda, fruit juice all have water. One study showed that caffeinated beverages don’t contribute significantly to dehydration in healthy adult males, but caffeine in high levels causes its own issues. Soda and fruit juice are also not ‘real’ foods, but food products, some laden with chemicals, so I advise avoiding them in general. If you exercise and sweat heavily you will need more water to keep you hydrated. In the winter I also recommend sleeping with a humidifier to keep your airway moist (waking up with a sore throat in the morning because you are so dried out is one sign that you would benefit from a humidified *NB a morning sore throat can also be a sign of reflux).

In the singing world we say ‘pee pale’. After your first morning trip to pee, aim to have light colored urine. (Totally clear urine can signify over hydration, something that isn’t particularly healthy either).

The next time you find your energy flagging at 3pm, try drinking some water to give yourself a boost. Carrying a BPA free water bottle is also a great way to be sure you are drinking regularly and staying hydrated!

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Keep your inner light bright: Tips to avoid being blue and getting the flu this winter

The first snowstorm of the season is approaching the east coast today. As we stare down Old Man Winter, I wanted to offer some simple steps you can take to boost your physical and mental bodies to stay healthy throughout the coming months. You don’t want to lose singing time to being sick or feeling so blah that you don’t practice!

 

From the flu just hot tea

1) Eat Well

  • Fill your plate with ACTUAL food, mostly plant based. Think roasted root vegetables, soups with plant based proteins like lentils and chick peas. The more color on your plate the better. If you are a meat eater, try for organic meats.
  • Lower your sugar intake. I know it is hard. There are so many baked goods around during the holidays and when it is cold and you’re feeling low, simple sugars are very, very tempting. The bottom line is, foods made with white flour and sugar do nothing for you nutritionally. Ultimately, sugar suppresses your immunity and sets off an addictive cycle leaving you craving more and more.
  • Hydrate. Water keeps your system running smoothly. Keeping yourself well hydrated helps to flush germs out of the body and boosts your energy. Using a humidifier while you sleep is helpful as well.

2) Keep Clean

  • Wash your hands. Use regular (non-antibacterial) soap and wash your hands before meals, after using the bathroom and after being in a public place.
  • Clean your smart phone daily. Think about all the places you put your phone down. Maybe other people are using it too – children, friends etc. Keeping it clean will keep it clear of germs.
  • Use a neti pot. Flushing your sinus and nasal passages will remove germs that can lodge more easily in the body when the air is dry.

3) Boost Your Mood and Your Immunity

  • Exercise. Aim for 30 minutes daily at a level where you break a sweat.
  • Be Thankful. Keep a gratitude journal. Just jotting down 3 things that happened during the day boosts your mood and your immunity.
  • Lower your stress. Engaging in regular yoga practice – breathing, meditating and physical postures does a body and mind good!

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Singer’s Wellness: Sleep

Singer’s Wellness: Sleep!

 There is no question it can be challenging to get enough sleep in today’s world. Our schedules as performers may keep us from getting to bed at a decent hour (hello, late rehearsal after working at multiple jobs all day to make ends meet). Sometimes we have things like sleep apnea that keep sleep from being high quality and many, many, many of us suffer from insomnia.

 

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

However, the importance of sleep can not be underestimated. Adequate sleep helps to regulate our endocrine system (hormones), boosts immune system function, keeps fat accumulation at bay, staves off depression and keeps our hearts healthy. We have fewer accidents and work-related injuries when we are well rested. In terms of our voices, cellular repair happens while we sleep. When you’ve exercised your voice, it needs time to repair itself and time to renew the layer of mucous that covers the top of the vocal cords (this layer serves, in part, as protection to the cords). Sleep is a big part of what helps that to happen.

A survey conducted by Keith Saxon and Pamela Harvey (reported in Vocal Health and Pedagogy: Advanced Assessment and Treatment, Vol. II) looked at a small sampling of singers and found that the most frequently reported problem by singers in nonperformance times is staying asleep (44% indicated this was a problem). During performance time 96% indicated they didn’t get enough sleep and the most frequently experienced problem was falling asleep. This same group listed the following as the results of poor sleep:

  • trouble with breath support,
  • reduced vocal endurance,
  • huskiness/roughness of the voice
  • needed more time to warm up

Do those sound familiar to you? Are you skating by on 6 hours a night when you know that isn’t enough sleep, but you have trouble staying asleep and when you’re in performance mode, trouble falling asleep?

Yoga can help! I have dealt with my fair share of trouble sleeping both in terms of staying asleep and in terms of falling asleep after a late rehearsal or performance. Here are some tips from yoga that have helped me immensely:

Yoga journal lists these poses as having a theraputic focus of dealing with insomnia. In general, forward bends will help relax you because they encourage a longer exhale and a longer exhale triggers the relaxation response (in other words it turns off the adrenaline that got you through the concert!). I would add the restorative pose of legs up the wall as one that settles the body and mind. Simply sitting or lying down and breathing consciously to extend your exhale will help too, if yoga poses aren’t your thing.

The practice of Yoga Nidra, which means yogic sleep, has been enormously helpful to me. I have a recording on my ipod and iphone and if I am awake in the night, I pop in my ear buds, lie on my back in bed and turn it on. I’ll be honest, if I’m really stressed out, sometimes it takes listening to it two times to get me to go back to sleep, but it is hugely helpful. There are lots of yoga nidra options out there, but the one I use is from the CD Relax into Greatness by Rod Stryker. I’ve been fortunate to do a few weekend intensives with him as part of my teacher training and his genius is not to be missed!

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Back to school…Healthy Habits for Singers

It is back to school time and I thought I’d offer up a list of habits you can institute that will keep your voice healthy throughout the year.

1. Don’t smoke. Don’t use drugs. Don’t abuse alcohol.

2. Find a way to deal with stress! If you don’t your body will find a way to let you know usually by getting sick or injured in some way. Yoga in the form of physical poses, breath work and meditation will do this for you.

3. Make sleep a priority. Staying rested will help lower your stress level and keep your immune system in balance. Sleep is also the time when our cells repair themselves. If you’ve had a long rehearsal, sleeping will help your voice repair for another day’s voice use.

4. Eat a healthy diet and drink water throughout the day. My rule of thumb is eat actual food and not food products. Whole foods are rich in the protein, vitamins and minerals that our bodies need. Hydration is systemic so drinking water every day until you pee pale is the way to know you are hydrated (and your voice will function more efficiently when you are hydrated.)

5. Exercise regularly. A daily dose of thirty minutes of moderate exercise (walking) is all it takes. Strength training is also beneficial to keep muscles in peak condition.

6. Observe how much you talk throughout the day. It is unlikely that you spend more time singing than speaking. Limit your voice use so you have time to recover – put yourself on voice rest if need be. Don’t use your voice to imitate sounds, yell excessively at a sporting event or engage in competitive talking (like what you do on the subway when you try to make yourself heard over background/ambient noise).

7. Always warm up the voice completely (15-20 min.) before full-on singing. Each voice needs different exercises to target certain areas, so don’t rely on a choral warm up to be perfect for you, if you are a choral singer. Ideally, warm your voice up in the morning before you have used it all day to speak. This will help you to speak efficiently. Before you visit the extremes of your range, spend a lot of time on middle voice. Use lip trills, glides and a variety of vowel sounds to awaken the voice.

8. Ask questions! If you are having trouble singing a piece meet with a conductor or a voice teacher who can help you develop strategies for singing difficult passages. Improving your sight singing skills will also help keep you from getting vocally fatigued when learning a new song. Be sure you are singing the right voice part! If you are unsure of the appropriate range for your voice, go and see a voice teacher.

9. Don’t sing if you are sick. Instead, use the time to visually learn your music. If you aren’t contagious or coughing excessively, learn by listening. If you find yourself vocally tired, heat some water in a pot on the stove and bring it to just under a boil, so steam is produced. Tent a towel over your head and breathe deeply through your nose and mouth for 5-10 minutes. The steam will help to rejuvenate your voice and make it feel better.

10. When you are done practicing or rehearsing, take a few minutes to stretch and do some deep breathing to help the body return to a rested state.

11. If you find yourself in vocal trouble for 10 days or longer – persistent hoarseness, sudden loss of vocal range, the voice easily fatigues or it is painful to talk or sing – get in to have your vocal cords looked at. For many, this involves a visit to a primary care physician or campus health services and then a referral to an Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) doctor. If you can get in to see a Laryngologist that is preferable – this is an ENT with specific training in the voice.

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