I am 17 heading into college and I am a singer. I have spent the last 4 years at an arts high school studying music and now am going to study in college. Singing is everything to me. Lately I have started forcing myself to barf some of my food. Not ALL of it, just some of it. But I really worry about my vocal health. Does daily forced barfing have a negative effect on a person's vocal chords or voice? I really want to know.
It sounds like forcing yourself to throw up has become habitual for you. This can lead to a number of health concerns, one of which may be damage to the vocal cords. The research on the damage that frequent forced vomiting (usually in the context of an eating disorder such as bulimia nervosa) causes to vocal cords is somewhat inconclusive. But it does point to likely damage of vocal cords as a result of small amounts of vomit and stomach acid finding its way into the larynx each time you vomit. How many times does one have to vomit to cause damage? This is unclear and it may not be the same for everyone, but there is risk of vocal cord damage, voice changes over time, chronic laryngitis, and/or hoarseness developing as a result of forced vomiting.
Do you have a sense of what has led you to start forcing yourself to throw up? Most people who do this are preoccupied with their body image and often judge themselves rather harshly for what they perceive to be flaws in their physical appearance or in other areas of their lives. Being a performer, you are at a greater risk for developing an eating disorder. It may be worth exploring this with a therapist or other health care provider. Even in the short term, forced regular vomiting can result in plenty of health consequences besides the potential vocal cord damage, including:
- dental complications, including severe tooth decay and gum problems
- acid reflux and heartburn
- general gastrointestinal complaints
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
For most people, purging is something that rarely gets better on her/his own. Most people need support to work through the contributing issues. Getting help is very important because eating disorders can cause serious enough health consequences to be life-threatening.
If you're at Columbia, you might consider making an appointment with a member of the Columbia Health Eating Disorders team, which is comprised of medical health care providers, mental health professionals, and dietitians. You might also feel comfortable speaking with a counselor at Counseling and Psychological Services (Morningside) or the Mental Health Service (CUMC) to explore this new behavior and its impact on your life in a non-judgmental environment. Outside of Columbia, The National Eating Disorders Association has a wealth of information on disordered eating, assistance, and support.
It would be wise to visit the counseling center at your college to discuss your body image and other concerns that may have led up to your purging. If counseling is not available on campus, your health service will likely be able to assist you by providing an off-campus referral. You deserve support to help you deal with the issues that show up with eating disorders. The sooner you begin the process, the better off you and your voice will be. Kudos to you for taking the first step and asking for help.