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The Surprising Health Benefits of Sound

The right tones can help you breathe better, lose weight, beat pain and get through surgery

By Matthew Solan

When I trained for my first half-marathon, Steely Dan’s Greatest Hits was my best companion. It kept my mind distracted from the endless boredom that made a 30-minute outing feel like three hours. The more I ran, and the longer I listened, I found that various tracks affected me in different ways as they came through my earplugs.

When I switched to speeches from President John F. Kennedy, my pace quickened; Esperanza Spalding’s live version of “Body and Soul” helped me ignore my tight calf; a looping recording of crashing waves placed me into a Zen-like trance that made me feel like I could run forever.

(MORE: Why a Love of the Arts Will Help Your Brain Age Better)

It has been well documented that listening to our favorite music can improve our athletic performance or at least motivate us to exercise, but sound — whether in the form of pop songs, white noise, vibrations or just the rumbles of nature — can also have a deep, lasting impact on one’s physical and emotional wellbeing.

Here's how sound can help us heal:

Drown out anxiety during surgery. One of sound therapy's most promising abilities is reducing anxiety. A 2012 study conducted in Thailand found that a type of audio therapy known as binaural beats could greatly reduce patient anxiety during cataract surgery, one of the most commonly performed procedures among people in middle age and beyond. Researchers deemed cataract surgery a strong candidate for audio therapy because it is typically done under local anesthesia, leaving patients awake and exposed to the potentially upsetting sounds of surgical machinery.

Binaural beat audio therapy consists of two tones, each pitched at a specific, slightly different frequency. Each tone is delivered to a different ear via headphones, while soothing sounds of nature such as rain or birdsong play in the background. The technique evokes alpha-frequency brainwaves linked to relaxation and reduced perception of fear and pain, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

The Thai study divided patients into three groups. The patients who listened to a mix of sounds featuring binaural beats and soothing music before, during and after their cataract procedures had less anxiety and a slower heart rate than those in the two other groups. In a statement, lead researcher Dr. Pornpattana Vichitvejpaisal of Chiang Mai University in Thailand said binaural beats provide "a simple, inexpensive way to improve patients' health outcomes and satisfaction with their care."

Soothe pain. Other research has found that sounds can deliver not only effective distraction, but actual pain relief. A 2011 study published in The Journal of Pain found that listening to catchy music, especially songs or tunes with personal meaning, can help reduce pain, particularly in people who have high levels of anxiety. The music, researchers found, helps ease discomfort by activating sensory pathways that compete with pain pathways. In other words, the music forces you to think less about the pain.

(MORE: Speed Up Your Recovery by Relaxing)

"Pain has a psychological component," Carlene J. Brown, director of the music therapy program at Seattle Pacific University and co-author of the study, told The Salt Lake City Tribune. "The more you think about your pain, the more you have. Anything that can interrupt that," she added, decreases pain.

Try a sound diet. To reduce calorie intake, you may want to put on some relaxing music at dinnertime. A 2008 University of Rhode Island study found that meals consumed at a slower pace produced a higher rate of satiety than those eaten faster, leading subjects to eat less overall. Following up on that research, Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, recently took over one section of a Hardee's restaurant, where he added softer lighting and slow jazz instrumentals to the usual ambience. Those who dined in the revamped area might have been expected to eat more, including dessert, because they ate slower and lingered in the restaurant longer. But in reality, those patrons consumed 18 percent less — an average of 775 calories instead of 949. They also gave higher ratings to the quality of their meals. The relaxing music, Wansink believes, created a mellow mood that led diners to eat at a slower pace and feel more satisfaction with their meals even without finishing everything in front of them.


(MORE: Are We Finally Done With Dieting?)

Create good vibrations. Chanting a mantra like the syllable "Om" is a long-practiced method of meditation, meant to help the mind stay focused and present. Now science is catching up, discovering the physical effects of such sounds. A 2011 study that examined Om chanting through analysis of MRI scans found that the practice deactivated regions of the brain involved with alertness and self awareness — when people chanted, they turned down their stress and stimulus receptors.

The simple act of humming can have similar effects, according to research into what's known as vibrational medicine, the belief that various frequencies can produce healing properties. While some people find the vibrations produced by humming uncomfortable, researchers have found that, along with calming your spirits, it improves your breathing rate and boosts oxygen distribution throughout the body. Sinuses, for example, require good ventilation to keep air flowing freely through the nasal cavity. A study in The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found that humming could open passages and limit obstruction. Subjects whose breathing was tracked while they hummed exhaled 15 times as much nitric oxide, a sign that the vibrations they produced improved their ventilation.

I don't have a mantra or hum much, but before my next long run, I think I'll download some Tibetan chants for my iPod.

Learn more about the use of sound therapy to help cancer patients and others from Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, director of oncology and integrative medicine at the Strang Cancer Prevention Center in New York City.

RELATED VIDEO: "The Healing Power of Music," PBS NewsHour

Matthew Solan is a health and fitness writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla. His website is Read More
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