One of the things that is often said in singing circles is that eating dairy products causes the body to produce more mucus and phlegm, so singers should avoid it on the day of performances. However, I was astonished to discover recently that this isn’t strictly true…
Dairy does seem to cause some thickening of phlegm and mucus in human beings, but studies have shown that it does not cause the body to produce more phlegm (Wüthrich, Schmid, Walther & Sieber, 2005/Pinnock, Graham, Mylvaganam & Douglas, 1990). Instead, foods which are high in dairy fats, like whole milk, leave a residue of fats on their way which can make it feel like we have more phlegm. This is a good reason to avoid dairy on the day of an exam or performance – but reducing phlegm production isn’t!
Dehydration is also something which increases the thickness of mucus and phlegm, and this is far more likely to be the problem than the cheese toastie you had for lunch. That’s why tea, coffee and fruit juices can contribute to phlegm issues. It’s water that thins out phlegm and coffee and juice both contain acids, caffeine, tannin and other things that reduce their effectiveness at treating dehydration.
Finally, singing stimulates large parts of your respiratory system making it vibrate. This loosens all the phlegm and mucus in your throat, which in turn means it feels like you have more of it. So even if you consume no dairy products at all, you can still get that annoying phlegm in your throat!
So what is so bad about milk? A lot less than most people think. In fact, thinking that milk causes more mucus is more likely to cause phlegm problems than drinking the milk (Pinnock, Graham, Mylvaganam & Douglas, 1990).
However, avoiding rich, fatty foods (including full-fat dairy) that can create the illusion of increased phlegm on the day of exams and performances is definitely a good idea, alongside keeping well hydrated and avoiding any foods which are prone to upset your stomach at all. And if you feel all phlegm-ey? Reach for the glass of water rather than blaming poor milk.
Are you surprised to find out that dairy doesn’t cause mucus? What other singing myths have you seen busted? Are there old wives tales you’ve heard that have turned out to be true? Comment below, and follow the blog for more tips, tricks and myth-busters.