All singers have experienced the effects of hormones on the voice. We know they are involved during puberty and the dramatic change in the male voice. Women may continue to experience the effect through their monthly cycle and through menopause.
What exactly are hormones?
Hormones are chemical messengers that travel through the blood stream delivering the message from one group of cells to another. The hormones and the organs that produce them are call the endocrine system. There are about 50 known hormones active in the human body. They are responsible for just about every physiological process in our bodies.
The hormones that I mentioned in the opening paragraph above are just the reproductive hormones, but there are so many other hormones in the body and they can likewise affect the voice.
Keeping our hormones is balance is crucial for our health and will help protect our vocal health, as well. The problem is that the Western lifestyle is one that is prone to putting our hormones out of balance and this can lead to serious problems. In fact, experts in endocrinology estimate that more that half the people in Western societies will develop hormone related diseases in their lifetime, diseases such as diabetes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, osteoporosis and hypothyroidism.
Hormones and the voice
There are hormones that will have a direct impact on the voice and have been studied. There are likewise many hormones that have a more indirect effect.
Let’s start by having a look at the direct effects that have been studied:
As already mentioned the sex hormones have their drastic effect on the voice during puberty. Ask just about any female singer and she can tell you that it’s tied to her monthly cycle, as well. In fact, we do know that there are estrogen, progesterone and androgen receptors in the laryngeal tissue. When estrogen levels are high, as part of premenstrual syndrom (PMS), the vocal fold can thicken due to fluid retention. This can affect range and effort of singing.
The other drastic change for women comes at menopause when estrogen levels fall drastically. This can leave higher levels of androgens, which can cause a drop in the voice.
The thryroid gland, located, right under your larynx, is central to regulating your metabolism. It controls virtually every function of your body and interacts with all the other hormones. About 12 % of the American population suffers from a thyroid disease.
Hypothryroidism is the most prevelant, that is the under-production of thyroid hormones. Up to 80% of those with hypothyroidism have vocal complaints. Effects on the voice include hoarseness, vocal fatigue, a feeling of a lump in the throat and loss of range. Many of these symptoms are likely caused by thickening of the vocal folds due to fluid retention.
Hyperthyroidism, and over-production of thyroid hormones is much less common, but can have similar effects on the voice.
Insulin resistance can lead to Diabetes, which can have effects on the voice. Dry mouth (a common problem with diabetics) may cause difficulty in phonation due to decreased lubrication. Neuropathy, a weakening of peripheral nerves, may lead to weakening of the phonation muscles and loss of control. Diabetes can also cause hearing loss, so important for a singer.
Indirect effects on the voice:
There are so many hormones in the body that control so much that can affect our ability to sing well.
The hormones of our adrenal glands, like cortisol and adrenaline, if not in balance, can cause us to be in a state of chronic stress (elevated cortisol levels) or can fail us and drop production to a point of burnout, sometimes called adrenal fatigue.
Our mood, which can have an affect on our performance is reliant on hormones such as dopamine and seratonin. If the hormones are out of balance we can be left with mood disorders that can disrupt our life and our singing.
There are hormones that regulate our appetite. A rise in ghrelin signals us to eat. Leptin is an appetite suppressant and rises as we eat, so that we don’t overeat. When these hormones are out of balance it can cause unwanted weight gain that can have an affect on our breath control and stamina.
Acid reflux may be affected by estrogen levels and by melatonin. Melatonin is also responsible for preparing our bodies for sleep. Lack of sleep will definitely affect your voice.
Keeping it all in balance
Hormonal balance is largely based on our lifestyle.
Diet plays a huge role. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is high in processed foods, refined sugars, conventional meat and dairy that is pumped with antibiotics and hormones. These foods are low in nutritional value. For your body to function properly it’s vital to have a healthy diet.
There have been studies that show that the hormonal levels during PMS and menopause can be better balanced so as to not have such a drastic effect. In one study women with very painful periods and PMS were placed on a plant-based diet and had significant reduction in duration and severity of the pain. Another study looked at using vitamin D, which was also effective.
For singers, these are certainly better options than NSAIDs like asprin and ibuprofen, which can put you at risk of vocal fold hemorrhages.
In general, a plant-based diet (high in vegetables, lignans, omega 3 fatty acid, healthy fats and fibre) has been associated with prevention of many diseases, including some protection against thyroid disease.
Other lifestyle factors that can affect hormonal balance are:
Exercise – too little or too much can both disrupt balance
Sleep - Make sure to get 7 – 9 hours a night
Stress – Learning stress management techniques is important.
Toxins – many toxins are endocrine disruptors that block hormones from delivering their message.
The functioning of our bodies are vastly complex and many hormones work in cascades, that is, a number of hormones are released by various organs in turn to get a specific outcome. For example, our stress response (fight or flight) starts with the hypothalamus in the brain releasing hormones to the pituitary gland, which signals a release of another hormone to the thyroid, which then send it’s messenger to the adrenal gland to release the “stress hormones”, which in turn go to various other parts of the body, such as cortisol going to the liver to release glucose.
An imbalance along any part of this cascade can have repercussions. So it is important for us to try to balance our hormones by making the appropriate lifestyle changes - for your health, for your voice.
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