The power of music and your health

The power of music and your health
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You know when you just need to tune into some good music? Or, when listening to a tune, you feel the need to change what is playing?

Not only can music soothe nerves, it can also motivate a heart-pumping workout or help lull you to sleep — among other healthy attributes.

Music has the power to move you physically, mentally and emotionally. In fact, science confirms the powerful chord that music strikes in all of us not only treats our senses but also stimulates our emotions and connects with our body in a very healthy manner.

Listening to tunes that inspire you has been shown to help mitigate stress levels (which has a ton of health benefits), pain and anxiety as well as improve memory, concentration, learning, physical performance, immune system function, relaxation and sleep.

Interestingly, scientists have found music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function. In fact, there are findings that we are so hard-wired to respond to music that there is potential in music's power to impact our overall physical and mental health, including the way we learn. And, studies show music is an excellent therapy to help patients heal and recover after a stroke. It can help them regain movement, communicate, and lift their mood at the same time while supporting changes in recovering.

Tapping into the superpower of music will help you live a healthier life and make demanding times in your life more manageable. Choosing music that motivates you will make it easier to start that project, get moving, walking or stir you on with other activities you enjoy. And selecting slower music can help to slow down the tempo of those fast-paced thoughts and heart-racing feelings and de-stress. So today, I am writing a prescription for each of you for more music — whether you listen, sing or play an instrument — to find ways to enjoy and incorporate music, throughout your day.

Stressful situations trigger the release of stress hormones — adrenaline and cortisol — to prepare us for “fight or flight.”

They boost the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to our muscles by increasing blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and blood sugar levels. And while stress responses are intended to be short-lived, they can become chronic and have profound ill-effects physically, emotionally and mentally. Chronic stress has been linked to unhappiness, preoccupation and distraction from positive thoughts and endeavors, sleep loss, depression, anxiety, stomach aches, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, chronic illnesses and premature death — all due to sustained high levels of the chemicals released in the “fight or flight” response of chronic stress.

Recent studies have shown that listening to music can put a damper on stress with findings that music actually affects your brain waves and promotes a calm, meditative state. This, in turn, can decrease stress hormone levels and thereby lower your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and blood sugar levels.

A growing body of research supports the claim that music’s pain-relieving effects are the result of our attention being redirected from pain and/or its triggering of the release of natural pain killers, called endorphins. There have been a number of studies to support the benefits in both acute and chronic pain settings. It has also been shown to be associated with an improved quality of life and reduced consumption of pain relievers.

As an anesthesiologist, I have witnessed firsthand how music is a safe, cost effective and non-invasive intervention that can be combined with other modalities to allay pain (and anxiety) in patients before, during and after their surgery.

Researchers have also demonstrated music is beneficial to those with fibromyalgia — a disease characterized by severe total body pain. Findings underscore those who listened to music once a day for four weeks experienced significantly less pain and depressive symptoms compared to those who did not.

More recently, research has found significant relationships between certain features of music chosen. In particular, music expressing contentment, no matter what its genre, was found to be most effective in reducing the experience of pain.

A significant scientific study from Wilkes University found music can create a positive and profound emotional experience, which leads to secretion of immune-boosting hormones, thus helping to contribute to a reduction in the factors responsible for illness. It was found that when listening to soothing music, levels of IgA — a type of antibody that is present on mucosal surfaces such as the nostrils, mouth, lungs — increased. And because these surfaces are the interface between our body and the world, IgA is often referred to as the immune system’s first line of defense.

Add to this, the aforementioned fact that listening to music, or singing, can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, is significant, because higher levels of cortisol can lead to a decreased immune response.

Millions of Americans suffer from insomnia — difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. And while not all music is sleep-promoting, research shows classical music with slow rhythmic patterns — similar to ones that are effective against stress — help you get to sleep faster and for longer.

Musical sounds engage and enhance many of the same areas of the brain that are involved in language processing, memory and other critical thinking skills that are necessary for academic success. Research has shown that students who participated in music programs scored higher on the verbal and math sections of the SATs compared to students with no music participation.

The most highly publicized influence of music on the brain is the so-called Mozart effect. A 1995 report found listening to Mozart improved performance on IQ tests. However, subsequent research found the purported benefit was minimal and short-lived. Still, it has been found that learning to play music in childhood enhances neuroplasticity, resulting in certain structural changes and functional improvements that persist into well into adulthood. And too, listening has been shown to enhance cognitive function well into older age while improving quality of life and possibly cognition in dementia.

Listening to music can help you run faster, bike harder, boost workout motivation and enhance your endurance. Experts believe this is partly due to being distracted with the beat or lyrics as well as syncing your body with the tempo. There is some evidence that listening to music enhances post workout recovery — so keep the tunes playing!

Music is an art, entertainment, pleasure and medicine for the body and soul. Studies indicate not all types of music have favorable effects. In other words, too loud or too jarring music can be distracting and can compete for your attention with what you’re trying to do. Make sure to select the right tempo for your activity or time of day. For example, slow music relaxes by slowing breathing and heartbeat and conversely, up tempo beats will increase your heart rate.

You are hardwired to distinguish music from noise, and advanced research is showing the remarkable benefits, emotionally, physically and mentally. Add to this, music is pleasurable and powerful enough to be “spine tingling,” which in turn can light up the brain's reward center, much like pleasurable stimuli ranging from your favorite morning ritual of coffee or your favorite chocolate treat. Listening to music improves your mental and emotional well-being while boosting your physical health in many remarkable ways.

Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. Email questions for Dr. Nina to with “Dr. Nina” in the subject line. This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional.

Dr. Nina Radcliff
Dr. Nina Radcliff
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