A little more than a year ago, I came across a study about chanting and its impact on the brain. In the study, published in the International Journal of Yoga, participants were asked to conduct OM chanting while their brain activity was measured in a functional MRI machine.
The study found that OM chanting reduced activity in the limbic system, a significant portion of the brain associated with stress, emotion, learning, motivation and other functions. The simple exercise just relaxed the brain.
This study could have profound implications for clinical practice. It also dovetails with other research showing that singing, playing and listening to music can produce similar results. In fact, a number of studies have found that certain music can reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone associated with the fight-or-flight response.
On one hand, these and other studies confirm something we already knew—music is good for our health. But they also suggest that music should be more than a casual activity, something we do only to pass time in the car or play in the background while doing chores.
Perhaps, we should be mindfully incorporating music into our day, much in the same way we incorporate exercise and fresh, nutritious foods. We should acknowledge that music is part of a healthy lifestyle.
A Symphony of Benefits
No one ever doubted that calming music is good for us, but until recently, there had not been much research to confirm our anecdotal understanding. This has changed.
Today, study after study shows that music benefits us right down to the molecular level. In addition to lowering levels of cortisol and thus addressing anxiety, depression and other conditions, music is shown to do much more.
It can reduce pain after surgery, improve quality of life for cancer patients, reduce risks for congestive heart failure patients, enhance the immune system, accelerate metabolism, and speed healing/recovery time.
When I look at this list of benefits I am reminded of exercise and its numerous health effects. Even gentle, regular exercise can control cortisol levels, benefit heart health and even help lower the incidence of cancer. In a sense, these two activities – music and movement – may be magic bullets for our health. They require minimal effort and produce such incredible benefits.
Our Good Health Toolbox
Those who are familiar with my work will quickly recognize the following recommendations to maintain good health.
It starts with a good diet emphasizing lean proteins, healthy fats, whole grains and green leafy vegetables, preferably organic and locally grown.
Stay hydrated! I can’t overemphasize the importance of drinking plenty of fresh, filtered water.
Exercise. It doesn’t take much—30 minutes, three times a week. A brisk walk will do the trick.
And don’t neglect your sleep, which regenerates the body and mind so that all systems, including limbic and immune, are functioning optimally.
So let’s add music to this list.
I won’t set any specific guidelines, though I believe it would be difficult to overdose. Choose genres you enjoy, but keep in mind that music with a lot of discordance, like more aggressive forms of heavy metal, has been known to cause agitation and increase adrenaline.
And finally, I leave you with a song. My daughter Amity, a singer and guitarist who frequently plays music for chronically ill patients, recently released a new music video called "Me and My Guitar."
In it, she tells a story of the empowering, healing and transformative influence of music. (Admittedly, I am biased, but I find it quite uplifting.) I hope you will, too.