The anti-inflammatory effects of music

Can music help us heal? The first piece of research evidence that turned me on to my field was a finding presented in a Health Psychology course as an undergraduate.  Researchers found that after surgery, patients healed faster, and were released from the hospital sooner, if they had a window that looked out on to trees from their hospital window.

I love being outdoors and feel most at peace hiking in the woods. So I loved this study. Well that makes sense, I thought. It’s so much more peaceful to see trees and natural beauty than a white hospital wall.  But, does it actually make sense? How could it be possible that just seeing something could actually change the rate our body heals itself? That means that seeing nature somehow gets down to the level of our cells. Based on Western thinking of the separation of the mind and body, this actually doesn’t make sense at all.

Most of my work is on stress. How stress influences biology. But lately I’ve become interested in more of the positive experiences in life  and how those influence health. When I think of positive experiences I think immediately of emotions – happiness, engagement, a sense of meaning and purpose. But a recent article in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity broadened my thinking on what we mean by positive experiences. Fancourt, Ockelford, & Belai (2014) reviewed  studies that looked at the effect of music on neurotransmitters, hormones, and the immune system.

They found overwhelming evidence from a review of 63 studies that listening to music decreases stress, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and lowers the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Several studies also showed that relaxing music had a greater impact on these things than relaxation techniques and anti-anxiety medication.

The most interesting findings to me were the effects of listening to music on inflammation. Inflammation is a hot topic in the field right now because of the overwhelming epidemiological evidence linking increased levels of inflammation to a wide range of chronic illnesses.  Our lab is currently looking at the role of yoga and mindfulness meditation in reducing inflammation in breast cancer survivors since increased inflammation is predictive of cancer recurrence.  Four studies in the review found that listening to music (drumming, relaxing music, music therapy) resulted in decreased levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-6, a commonly used marker of inflammation.

But how would this work? How would listening to something alter the way in which your immune system is acting? Decreases in stress and anxiety are likely explanations since lower stress and anxiety is associated with lower levels of inflammation. But do these changes last? Do these changes actually impact the long term functioning of the immune system or improve key immune system functioning, like wound healing? These questions remain to be answered.

The work on music is an especially exciting area for future research since it involves such limited action from the listener.  Patients who are bed-ridden or otherwise unable to participate in other mind-body interventions like yoga and exercise could benefit.  This is an exciting area for future research!