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Sing Your Way to a Better Life

Are you looking for a new hobby? I got the perfect one for you: singing!

Who doesn’t like to sing? Granted, some of us might lack the confidence to belt their hearts out from fear of being heard, but what if I told you that the benefits far outweigh the embarrassment? Yes, really!

You might think that there’s nothing worse than the risk of being mocked for your untrained skills. I’ll tell you that there’s nothing better than ignoring that risk!

Buckle up, I’m going to explain my point. You’ll leave this page eager to “Sing Your Way to a Better Life”!

Singing Calms Your Nerves

What Goes on Inside Your Head

The Right Side

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As depicted in the image above, the brain is divided into two hemispheres: the left, responsible for “logical” operations like… mathematics and sudoku, to turn that example from my first post into a running joke; while the right is more creativity-oriented. Singing, just like drawing or other forms of creative endeavors, stimulates that part of the brain, providing it with a nice workout that develops it. You read that right: singing develops half of your brain.

That is actually one benefit of singing that is used in treating some pathologies. One of them is non-fluent aphasia, characterized by the affected person’s partial inability to produce language. The blame can usually be put on a lesion in Broca’s area, located in… the left hemisphere.

Why is it important? Well, because singing is managed by the right hemisphere, patients with that type of aphasia can still sing. Exploiting that peculiar possibility, music therapy for non-fluent aphasia may compensate for the lesionated Broca’s area – part of the left hemisphere – by stimulating the right one. Makes sense.

But wait, there’s a lot more to cover.

Remember Dopamine?

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Good old dopamine. We saw previously that it is behind many mechanisms: reward, pleasure, cognitive function, executive function, even motor function and associative learning!

Singing helps release healthy amounts of dopamine in the brain. It therefore makes sense that such an activity has a lot of potential as a stress reliever. Feeling upset after a petty fight or disappointed because of a failed project? Hum those nasty feelings away.

A Natural Painkiller

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Opium Poppy

No, this is no scam: singing also makes you release endorphins! What are those? Well, endorphins are simply endogenous opioids. An opioid is “a natural, semisynthetic, or synthetic substance that typically binds to the same cell receptors as opium and produces similar narcotic effects (such as sedation, pain relief, slowed breathing, and euphoria)” Fear not, though: since endorphins are endogenous and not as dangerous as actual opium, you’re not going to rehab for making them.

They do, however, also have analgesic properties, in addition to improving mood. They’re behind runner’s high, for example.

Basically opium and its derivatives, but safe.

Bonding and More Stress Relief

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I hope you’re not fed up with chemistry yet, because I have yet ANOTHER molecule to present: oxytocin!

Whether you’ve heard of it before or the name puzzles you, here’s another short definition from Wikipedia: “Oxytocin (Oxt or OT) is a peptide hormone and neuropeptide normally produced in the hypothalamus and released by the posterior pituitary. It plays a role in social bonding, reproduction, childbirth, and the period after childbirth.” What matters to us here is “social bonding”. It is behind most social behaviors and feelings such as trust, compassion, romantic attachment and even parent-child bonding!

As you’ve probably guessed, vocalizing induces the release of oxytocin, bringing us closer together. Whenever you sing in a choir or around a bonfire, don’t you feel a sense of belonging and affinity with your improvised “band members”? Well, now you know why.

It has also been found that oxytocin is produced in response to feelings of stress and anxiety in order to regulate them.

A hormone that induces the feeling of stress, however, is cortisol. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands above the kidneys in response to events that our brain deems potentially dangerous or harmful. Don’t shoot the messenger, though, it is produced in response to the events that cause stress, and for good reasons: it makes you more alert in those situations by increasing your blood sugar and activating the “fight-or-flight” response. And yes, I know, it’s not technically a neurotransmitter because it’s not produced in the brain. But it’s produced in reponse to stress, which is perceived by… the brain.

As you can guess again, singing has been linked to decreased levels of cortisol. What that means is obvious.

Music Therapy for Mental and Neurodegenerative Disorders

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Neurodegenerative disorders, such as the most famous Parkinson’s disease and dementias (among which is Alzheimer’s disease), are a type of disorder in which, as hinted by the name, the neurons in the brain stop functioning and die with time.

While it is impossible to cure or reverse those diseases for now, it has been shown that singing offers great benefits to people who suffer from them. That could be due to multiple mechanisms such as neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to “rewire” itself), neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons), etc.

As for mental illnesses, need I say more? By acting on so many neurotransmitters that are responsible for stress, happiness, pleasure and socializing, it can help convince you that better days are indeed to come. Sure, it might not be a “miracle cure”, but small steps and tools will get you there.

What About the Rest of the Nervous System?

The parasympathetic nervous system is part of the peripheral nervous system. Its functions are primarily “relaxing”; one example that interests us is slowing down the heart rate (and therefore decreasing blood pressure).

The vagus nerve (also called cranial nerve X or CN X) is one of the nerves of that specific system. Its fibers innervate abdominal as well as thoracic areas (heart, lungs, trachea, pharynx, larynx, esophagus). Obviously, because of the “heart” location, this one’s responsible for slowing down the pulse.

It might be just as obvious for some that, since it is also linked to the respiratory organs, there has to be a correlation between them. Indeed, because singing requires breathing (learning to breathe is literally one of the first steps of learning to sing), it stimulates the vagus nerve. Got high blood pressure? Sing it down.

But wait! It’s not just breathing! That would be too simple to justify the topic of this post. We mentioned above that the CN X is connected to the larynx – the “voice box”, which houses the vocal folds. Use of this area through vocalizing also stimulates the nerve of interest. Since vocalizing also requires breathing, isn’t it even better?

The Body Isn’t Just Nerves

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If you just enjoy singing as a lighthearted pastime and don’t wish to dwell on the technicalities, this might change your mind. If it doesn’t, it’s alright: the other benefits will still apply.

Because singing is a discipline in and of itself, there’s a “correct” way to do it (that is, if you want to wow your audience or do it as more than a hobby).

First of all, it requires proper posture. Body grounded and centered in a straight and non-stiff line, shoulders back and relaxed, chest open… Basically, the perfect posture! Your back, neck and muscles will thank you.

Speaking of muscles: additionally, it is technically a workout. It activates parts of your musculature, such as the intercostals and abdominals. Same principle as a plank, but more fun.

Another set of muscles it strengthens is the upper part of your throat. For all my singers reading this post: how many of you have been taught to “raise your soft palate”? Turns out that working it out a little bit can help with snoring as well as sleep apnea! Because those are caused by a “repetitive collapse of the upper airway during sleep”, it does make sense that toning it up would help.

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Since it promotes healthier breathing techniques, singing also improves lung capacity in addition to oxygenating the brain (yes, the brain again) and the rest of the body. It does have potential to offer relief in people with COPD and asthma but that is yet to be confirmed.

Another Unlikely Benefit

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Ever heard the words “stress wrinkles”? Cortisol, which we discussed higher in this post, accelerates the aging process on top of increasing sebum production in the skin, causing wrinkles and/or acne. We also discussed how singing is a great anti-cortisol activity, making it a fun and ideal addition to your skincare routine.

Not convinced? It could also save you money on a facial yoga session! It tones up facial muscles a great deal, helping to reduce wrinkles and fine lines further. You can ditch your search for the fountain of youth and start belting ’til the sun rises. And if your concerns are below the face, it also burns a few calories (don’t count on it as your only workout, though).

The Bottom Line

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If you’re looking for a healthy way to make life more enjoyable, I strongly recommend singing. You don’t need to sound like Adele; and if you want to, you don’t need to be born with her voice. Anyone with a healthy voice can learn to sing. Don’t take it too seriously and simply enjoy yourself, whether you do it alone in the shower or want to take it further.

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