Food Allergies Nearly Cost Me My Voice Over Career
Updated: Jan 30, 2020
In early 2019 I developed a sore throat. An inconvenience for a voice actor, definitely, but manageable. I took a few days rest and then went back to work. A few more days passed and the sore throat returned. I rested. It healed.
After a few days, it returned again. This time it didn't leave. I spent six months with a constant sore throat, ranging from ignorable-if-I-concentrate to I-can't-sleep-at-night-it-feels-like-my-throats-bleeding. As well as the pain, I was constantly having to clear my throat and could always feel (and could hear on my vocal cords) a mucous-like substance that would drip incessantly down the back of my throat.
This combination of pain - and thus tension - and the mucous dampening my natural resonance and causing my vocal cords to stick, meant that the sound of my voice wasn't exactly attractive; it made me nasal, higher-pitched and brittle. I managed to book work but it was hard, and, clearly, not sustainable in the long term. Somedays, I would be in so much throat-pain and so fatigued that I wouldn't be able to record for longer than 30 minutes before having to return to bed. Now, I love a cheeky daytime nap, but not in those circumstances.
Initially, I thought the sore throat might be down to poor vocal technique or posture. I have received a lot of vocal training over the years and consider myself to be adept but I thought maybe I had got lazy, maybe my new found nasality and lack of lower range were down to a lack of rigor and proper vocal maintenance. I checked in with professional vocal teachers but all seemed well, certainly not terrible from a technical standpoint. Then, I turned to my vocal booth, I had just built one and wondered if the acoustic materials and bass traps were irritating my throat; I replaced them all - T'was not cheap, alas! - disappointingly, the changes didn't make a blind bit of difference. Next, I wondered if it was the humidity or lack thereof, but alas, a humidifier also failed to help. OK, well maybe it's the lack of fresh air, booths are tricky to ventilate - in went an air purifier, this too made zero difference.
While conducting these experiments, I was also making trips to the doctor; there were many trips, a number of doctors and a variety of medications. It culminated with an ENT doctor (ear, nose, and throat) sliding a camera through my left nostril, down towards my larynx and having a look around. He told me that apart from some minor swelling, my vocal cords were A-OK (thank goodness), but, my pharynx and epiglottis were inflamed and irritated. The mucous I had been experiencing back there is apparently known as post-nasal drip; it can be a defensive reaction from the body but also causes irritation in and of itself. The ENT diagnosed me with Laryngopharyngeal Reflux (Silent Acid Reflux). Acid reflux is where the contents and/or acid from the stomach briefly make there way back up your esophagus (food pipe) and burn your throat - a delicate area that's not designed to withstand the harsh effects of stomach acid. My acid reflux was 'silent' because I didn't experience any heartburn, nor was I aware of these regurgitations. The doctor prescribed some acid reflux medication to manage it and sent me on my way. At first, I thought the meds were helping but in hindsight, it was probably just the sheer relief of finally having a firm diagnosis that induced a kind of placebo effect. The relief was temporary, and after a few weeks, it became apparent the meds weren't making a difference. However, on the doctor's advice I persevered a while longer; then we upped the medication dosage, a few more adjustments followed but the sore throat remained.
After 6 months of illness and ineffective treatments, despairingly, I decided to pack it all in; the combination of throat pain and speaking for a living was just too much. Whatsmore, it was such a contrary illness; spades of pain one day but only mild inconveniences another day, that I had begun to think it was psychosomatic, all in my head; best to remove the pressure of speaking professionally and let everything heal.
I gave myself two more weeks, if my throat didn't show any signs of improvement by then, if my voice hadn't displayed any inclination of returning to its usual self, then I was leaving the voice-over and acting game completely - an industry I had been apart of for the last 8 years, the way I had learned my living since university. I was going to go and find a proper job. HEAVEN FORFREND!!!
It was at this point, after hours and hours of web-searching, I stumbled across an anecdotal article of a young man who was diagnosed with a gluten allergy/intolerance, he stopped eating gluten and his post-nasal drip, which he had had for years, cleared up. He hadn't had any throat pain but he'd grown up constantly having to clear his throat; that was his only gluten-sensitivity symptom.
I immediately cut-out gluten. Four days later my voice was better, after a week, almost like new. I was ecstatic. It was good news. GREAT NEWS!
For some unknown reason, on the cusp of turning 30, my body decided to develop a sensitivity to gluten, AND, as it later transpired, dairy. So if you've been struggling with a regular sore, swollen or irritated throat, consider that it might be down to food allergies/intolerances. Don't be too quick to dismiss the idea; my symptoms are as pernicious as they are debilitating. Even now, if I accidentally eat something I'm not supposed to, my first thoughts aren't 'It's the food!' but instead 'Is it vocal strain? Maybe I'm coming down with a cold?' The symptoms can be very similar.
If you're having a hard time with your voice and you've tried everything, then perhaps consider it's what you need to stop trying.