Sunday, February 8, 2009

Medicine for your “19th nervous breakdown”

Would you believe me if I told you I knew of drug that was used to treat depression, pain, high blood pressure, can increase your endurance and even make you smarter? I know I’d be interested if not also a little skeptical. What if I went on to tell you that it has no known side effects, it doesn’t interact negatively with any other medications, and it’s impossible to overdose on it. Getting a little more skeptical? It isn’t even taken orally. In fact, I would advise against taking it orally. Rather, its health benefits are transmitted through vibrations in the air. I can almost hear the skeptical groans at this point but it gets even better. It can be obtained for free, almost all Canadians have some in one shape or another, and some readers may be taking it right now while reading this!

At this point, I hope most of you are demanding that I reveal the identity of this mystery medicine. My last hint, and one that should surely give it away, is that it comes in many different varieties: classical, pop, and jazz among many others. Of course, I’m talking about music.

We tend to think of music as a leisure activity – something that has no inherent benefit beyond making us feel good but music and medicine have been inextricably linked to each other for millennia. In ancient Greek mythology the god Apollo was the god of both music and healing. Many cultures saw health as a delicate balance in the body of four humours or temperaments and if this balance was disturbed, music could be used to restore it. Nineteenth century American general and senator probably said it most clearly: “Music’s the medicine of the mind.” Maybe we should start thinking about music in this way. After all, if all the health benefits of music I mentioned were available in pill form, I’m sure most people would take it daily.

Many people already have an intuitive understanding that music can be good for the mind. After all, we often select music to reflect the mood we’re in. But music may not only reflect the mood we’re in, it may also affect the mood we’re in. Depression, a condition that affects over 100 million people worldwide, has shown some improvement in people receiving music therapy which can be any combination of singing, dancing or listening. Its affect is best when used in conjunction with other conventional treatments but can help alleviate some of the symptoms such as disturbed appetite, sleeplessness and low self-esteem. One study found that listening to one hour of music a day reduced depression by up to 25%. It can also help you sleep better. Listening to 45 minutes of soft music before bed can help increase the quality of sleep by up to a third.

Music not only treats the mind but can help us manage pain. Music has been shown to reduce the amount of sedative required during surgery, a testament to a practice that has been used since the Romans. Researchers thought they could reduce the amount of sedative required in surgery by simply blocking loud and stressful noises related to surgery such as dropping metal instruments into a can. They gave patients headphones with either white noise to block out the noise of the surgery or their favourite music. Surprisingly, the white noise had no effect on how much sedative the patients required but those listening to their favourite music required less. Music has also been shown to reduce pain in those suffering from chronic pain and to reduce stress associated with other medical procedures such as eye surgery or colonoscopies.

Even cardio-vascular health can have strong responses to music. Listening to your favourite music can make the blood vessels in your heart dilate which increases blood flow to your heart. Stressful music has been found to have the opposite effect. Another study found that music with faster rhythms tended to increase heart rate and breathing rate and that alternating slower and faster rhythms can reduce stress and induce relaxtion. When the right music is selected for joggers, it can improve their endurance by up to 15%. While listening to music, joggers are less aware of their fatigue making exercising a far more positive experience.

Although music can improve physical and mental health, it can also compound the negative effects of some behaviours. A researcher in France conducted a study by observing how quickly patrons of a bar consumed beer and how long they tended to stay depending on how loud the music was. Unsurprisingly, considering the sound level in most bars, loud music made people drink faster and stay longer. Other research has shown that loud music can worsen the damage that drugs like ecstasy can do.

When we are sick we tend to get hung up on cures that come from little pill bottles and forget that treatments can come in different forms. I’m still no less awed by the fact that music, which only reaches us through small vibrations in the air around us, can have such a large impact on our mental and physical health. It demonstrates how deeply engrained music is within us. So if you find yourself stressed out or in pain for whatever reason, pop some Ray Charles or Rolling Stones into your stereo, sit back and take it in. Medicine never sounded so good.

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