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Study says choir singing not only helps boost mood, but also immune system activity

“We’ve long heard anecdotal evidence that singing in a choir makes people feel good, but this is the first time it’s been demonstrated that the immune system can be affected by singing,” said researcher Dr. Ian Lewis. 

Maybe we all need to join a choir.

A growing number of studies are reporting that singing — especially singing with a group of other people — has benefits for our physical as well as our emotional health.

It also offers social benefits, which is something we need at a time when adults — or, at least, adults in the United States — are apparently getting angrier as well as more anxious, depressed and stressed out

A study published last fall, for example, reported that choral singing — even in a large group with unfamiliar people — fosters strong feelings of social connection and inclusion. 

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Indeed, another study found that people who sing in choirs derive a greater sense of social cohesion and “meaningfulness” from the experience than people who play on sports teams.

Scientists are also uncovering possible physical benefits from being part of a singing ensemble.

Swedish researchers, for example, found that singing has a calming effect on heart rate, particularly when people are crooning in unison, while Australian researchers found that group singing can reduce the perception of pain.

An immune boost

The latest study on this topic was released earlier this month. British researchers reported that cancer patients and caregivers who sang in a choir for only 70 minutes experienced reduced feelings of stress, an improved mood and — according to before-and-after saliva tests — boosts in the levels of immune proteins circulating in their bodies.

“These are really exciting findings,” said Dr. Ian Lewis, director of research and policy at Tenovus Cancer Care (a cancer charity in Great Britain) and a co-author of the study, in a released statement. “We have been building a body of evidence over the past six years to show that singing in a choir can have a range of social, emotional, and psychological benefits. Now we can see it has biological effects, too.”

The study involved 193 people from Wales (mostly older white women) who had been affected by cancer in some way: 55 were a current cancer patient in remission, 72 were a current caregiver of someone with cancer, and 66 were a former caregiver whose relative or friend had died from the disease.

All participants were already members of a Welsh choir, although not the same choir. 

In the days leading up to the experiment, the participants filled out questionnaires, which included assessments of wellbeing, anxiety and depression. Immediately before and after the experiment (the 70-minute choir rehearsal) the participants provided saliva samples, which were used for various biological measures, including levels of the stress hormone cortisone and of cytokines, which are involved in the body’s immune response. The participants were also assessed immediately before and after the experiment for mood and stress.

Better mood, less stress

After all the data was analyzed, the results showed an across-the-board improvement in the participants’ mood and stress levels.

Improvement in mood was particularly strong for patients and caregivers who had the lowest levels of emotional wellbeing before the singing began, while stress levels eased the most for those who had been the most anxious and depressed.

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The analysis also showed a significant decrease in cortisol levels and a significant increase in cytokines.

“We’ve long heard anecdotal evidence that singing in a choir makes people feel good, but this is the first time it’s been demonstrated that the immune system can be affected by singing,” said Lewis. “It’s really exciting and could enhance the way we support people with cancer in the future.”

Preliminary, but appealing

The study, which was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal ecancermedicalscience, has plenty of limitations, which Lewis and his co-authors point out in their paper. Most notably, the study was uncontrolled — in other words, the results observed in the singers were not compared to those in a demographically matched group of non-singers. It could be that the experience of getting together with other people — not necessarily the singing — is what produced the biological changes and improvements in psychological wellbeing.

Nor is a temporary increase in cytokines evidence that singing helps in the prevention or treatment of cancer or any other disease.

The researchers also stress that these findings are preliminary. They have recently launched a more rigorous study that will follow the effects of choir singing on various physical and mental-health markers and outcomes over a period of several months.

Still, there’s something very appealing about the findings, as demonstrated in a quote provided in the study’s press release from one of the study’s participants, Diane Raybould. In addition to being a cancer survivor, Raybould, 64, is a bereaved caregiver. Her 28-year-old daughter recently died from breast cancer.

“Singing in the choir is about more than just enjoyment, it genuinely makes you feel better,” she said. “The choir leaders play a huge part, of course, but so does the support of the other choir members, the inspirational program and uplifting songs. The choir is a family, simple as that. Having cancer and losing someone to cancer can be very isolating. With the choir, you can share experiences only, and that is hugely important.”

The study can be read in full at the ecancermedicalscience website. And if you want an inspiring example of how singing in a choir can lift the mood of cancer survivors and caregivers, watch this YouTube video of a Tenovus Cancer Care choir singing “Lean on Me.”

Make sure you’re alone, though, when you watch the video, because you’re going to want to start singing along.

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