3 ways singers can thrive while having their period

When it comes to women’s health all too often we are handed a big steaming plate of “this is just how it is.”

To that I would like to reply a resounding BULLSH*T!

Here’s the scenario: you get to the week before your period and you turn into a bloated, murderous-swinging-to-weepy, unable to connect to your breath support, singer who feels like she’s trying to drive a mac truck rather than a ferrari. Oh, and let’s not forget the killer cramps when you finally get your period. Sound familiar?

Good. Well, not good, but let’s unpack three things you can do to lessen all that yuck. Because it doesn’t have to be ‘just how it is.’ And, if the only solution you’ve been offered by your OB/GYN is to take the pill, you definitely need to read this.

Things can change. Here’s how:

  1. Eat
  2. Move
  3. Chill

Those PMS changes are driven by hormone swings. Ideally our estrogen and progesterone are in a happy, balanced relationship and vary a bit as we get close to our period. But, for many of us, we are stuck in an estrogen dominant state: we eat meat, use products that have estrogen mimicking ingredients (called xenoestrogens) like parabens, and drink alcohol.

We need progesterone to keep that estrogen in check, but if we’re consuming all those things, estrogen takes over and progesterone can’t keep up. Then we’re bloated, moody, struggle to lose the muffin top, get migraines, and have abnormal paps.

We also need to talk a bit about insulin (blood sugar) which is like the gatekeeper for other hormones. When it’s high, it contributes to estrogen dominance too. Then we’re hangry, crave foods, get shaky between meals, feel anxious and have high fasting blood sugar.

We also can’t leave out the importance of Cortisol, the stress hormone. A little bit is good for us, we need to be able to respond to stress. Buuuut, a lot of it can lead to too little of it and then you’re in a cycle of sucking down caffeine in the morning to rev up and red wine at night to unwind. Plus cortisol raises your blood sugar and cross talks with estrogen and progesterone. When cortisol is high we’re stressed, have insomnia, GERD, and overeat.

All of this, becomes even more of an issue as you get close to and past age 35. UUUGGGGHHHHH.

As singers who are so highly attuned to the body as our instrument, we need things to do that help us return to as close to an optimal state as possible. Exercise more and eat less is a bit too simplified for women to get the results they want, I think, but here are some ideas that can help you craft what works for you.

  1. Eat: Up your plant intake. One of the ways we get rid of excess estrogen is through poop. Yep, I said it. You need to start pooping more. I’m a fan of thinking about what we can add into our diets to improve our health rather than thinking about what to restrict. Eat a rainbow sounds silly, but it’s correct. Lots and lots of leafy green matter, red, yellow, orange, purple veggies are all good. Go slow with adding veggies because if you overwhelm yourself with too much fiber…well, that can be ugly and uncomfortable. Some ways of adding things in: throw some dark leafy greens into a morning smoothie, chop up some carrots to crunch on rather than chips.  If you do better with thinking about how to lower your intake of things here are the things you want to limit: caffeine, sugar, alcohol, processed foods. Also, drink enough water for your body, but you already knew that because singers are smart about water.
  2. Move: Movement is another way we can manage our hormones. Sweat helps flush estrogen out of the body. Movement helps manage cortisol levels and balances blood sugar. Do you need to kill it at the gym? No, but you need to start moving your body more and moving it better. Maybe that looks like a brisk walk 3 days a week to begin. Maybe it’s a spin class, or a yoga class, or a HIIT workout. Find something that makes you feel good and do it regularly. Many women have found connections between tension in the back of the legs and period cramps – stretch your calves regularly for a month and see if your cramps are better. Movement doesn’t just help your hormones, it helps your singing. Cardiovascular fitness, lung capacity and overall improved blood flow are all advantageous for your voice.
  3. Chill: No, this isn’t netflix and chill. Numbing out to technology (or food, or booze) isn’t what I’m talking about. I mean, get quiet with yourself. Schedule in downtime where you literally do nothing. Find a meditation practice that works for you. Take a hot bath nightly. Spend time off of social media, the land of comparison-itis. Women thrive in the company of other women, so plan a night with girlfriends. Engaging in mindful practices helps manage cortisol levels. We sleep better, we’re happier, and we sing better when we aren’t so freaking stressed all the time.

This list is far from exhaustive, but it’s a place to start. If you want to learn more, there are some great resources out there. Some of the most affordable and accessible are books by Sara Gottfried, an integrative MD and hormone expert. Her two books the Hormone Cure and The Hormone Reset Diet are must reads. Kelly Brogan MDs book A Mind Of Your Own is another great hormone/mental health read. A good functional nutritionist or hormone expert like Anna Garrett can help you test hormone levels and formulate a plan for yourself.

There are lots of apps out there for meditation like headspace and Calm. There’s a yoga studio on every corner and most have some kind of restorative class or meditation class if you like in person things.

If you want to talk about movement because you aren’t sure where to begin, reach out and let’s talk about what your body needs to begin to move more in a way that feels good.

You deserve to thrive as a singer all 4 weeks of every month and not feel so bogged down with the changes in your body that are driven by your hormones!

Head, Shoulders, Neck and your Voice

Physically, you need your larynx to be aligned just right for your breath to flow optimally and your voice to sound at its potential.

However, what do you you a lot every day? Type on the computer, drive, play piano or other instruments, hold children, carry heavy bags, slump in a chair…any of those sound familiar? Each of those activities pulls your head in front of your shoulder line, adding weight to your neck and pulls your arms out in front of you, putting your arms and shoulders into internal rotation, pulling your shoulder blades away from your spine.

The result? Tight upper chest muscles, weak rhomboids,  a neck that is strained by an additional 10 lbs for every inch that the head sits forward, a voice that isn’t set up to let little muscles do little work and big muscles to do big work, breath that can’t flow freely and posture that looks like this:
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OW!  I’m giving a bit of an extreme example, but you get the point. Though you are primarily concerned about your voice, the long term effects of this position are a bit grim. This misalignment is linked to impingement of nerves in the neck, migraines, eye tension, breathing problems, endocrine issues as well as rotator cuff injuries.

Your situation might not be at a point where you feel pain in your neck and shoulders, but if you don’t address it now, it will get there. If you aren’t sure if your upper chest is tight, try palpating just below your collarbone from your sternum out toward your shoulder and see if you feel some pain. That’s one of your pec muscles – in an extreme situation, you might feel the pain radiate through to the muscles around your shoulders in the back. Then, extend your arms out wide and notice what you feel down your inner arm. You will feel how tight the inner arm is.

Honestly, I was shocked when I did both of these things at just how much sensation (sounds nicer than pain, right?) I felt across the top of my chest and all the way down my inner arm and into my fingers. I often have neck pain. The combination of a water skiing accident as a child and being rearended in my twenties with my head turned over my left shoulder left me with my 2nd cervical vertebrae out of alignment. My neck muscles spasmed after giving birth to my second and in the last two years the pain would sometimes get pretty intense, feeling like my head was in a vice and all I wanted to do was close my eyes and lie down. My vocal symptoms included not being able to sing the really, really high notes that I had been easy before.

Fortunately, I started exploring things through my yoga practice and have managed to keep the pain and tension at a minimum, re-finding some high notes and making my life much, much better.

Here are a few things you can do and your voice, neck and shoulders will thank you for it.

First, find your hyoid bone in your neck and imagine it moving back and slightly up, pulling your neck and head back with it.

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Then, cup the back of your head with your hand and press the head back into your hand.

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This will get you on the road to moving your head and neck back into alignment. It will probably feel pretty foreign at first and you’ll have to develop a sense of how it feels when it is in the right place so you can be aware of when it isn’t.

Taking it to the next level to really create a long term remedy involves some great yoga-based stretches that I’ll share in another post. Together, these go a long way to undoing tension and pain in the neck to help your voice function at its best!

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!