Music has been incorporated into medical practice since before the ancient Greeks. However, though practitioners have been convinced of music's health benefits for thousands of years, there had been little peer-reviewed research to back them up. But recent studies are providing an empirical backbone for the anecdotal evidence. A 2012 scientific review, published in the journal Nutrition, collects information from a number of studies to support music's influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the immune system. These results support the experiences of complementary practitioners, who have long used music to help heal.
"As an integrative physician and traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, the healing power of music has always been an important part of my practice and family life," says integrative medicine pioneer Isaac Eliaz , M.D. "Harmony and tempo help synchronize the rhythms of the natural world with the music of the heart – each person's individual energetic pattern, expressed in their pulse."
The review highlighted a number of studies that confirm music's healing potential. For example, music reduces levels of serum cortisol in the blood. An important player in the HPA axis, cortisol increases metabolic activity, suppresses the immune system and has been associated with both anxiety and depression. A number of studies have shown that exposing post-operative patients to music dramatically lowers their cortisol levels, enhancing their ability to heal.
Other studies in the review measured music's impact on congestive heart failure, premature infants, immunity, digestive function and pain perception. In particular, music's effects on the limbic and hypothalamic systems reduced the incidence of heart failure. Other studies showed that surgical patients required less sedation and post-operative pain medication.
"These results only confirm what I have observed for many years in my practice," says Dr. Eliaz. "Music produces quantifiable healing. For example, my daughter Amity, a professional musician, regularly plays her songs for chronically ill patients who express how uplifting her music is. These performances do more than encourage good feelings, they help the body heal on a molecular level."