Singing boosts the immune system in cancer patients

18 April 2016

choir singing

18 April 2016

Clare Pain

Preeliminary research in Welsh cancer choirs suggests that singing affects both mood and the immune system, giving both a boost.

Saliva of 55 cancer patients, 72 carers for cancer patients and 66 bereaved carers was tested before and after a 70-minute choir rehearsal to check the levels of certain chemical messenger cells called cytokines - substances released by the immune system which have an effect on other cells. People were also asked to fill out a questionnaire gauging their mood before and after the singing.

The tests revealed significant positive changes in the levels of 5 cytokines involved in immune system function, indicating the immune system was boosted by the singing session.

Levels of the 5 cytokines (GM-CSF, IL-17, IL-2, IL-4 and TNF alpha) increased in all 3 groups of people after the hour of musical warm-up, learning new songs and singing other songs from their repertoire, the authors report.

The findings were also consistent across 5 choirs (and several Welsh valleys).

The underlying cause of the change in cytokines may be a fall in cortisol (the stress hormone) which was also found in all 5 choirs and across all 3 participant groups, hypothesise the authors, who include medical and musical experts.  

Mood was also affected across all 3 groups, assessed by questionnaires before and after the practice.

People who were angry, afraid, sad, tense, anxious, stressed, confused or tired became less so, while reported levels of energy, happiness and relaxation increased after singing. Mood improved most in those with the lowest mental well-being.

“Previous studies involving singing have demonstrated that [it]can modify cortisol levels. However this is the first study to demonstrate that singing is associated with the modulation of cytokines…involved in immune response,“ the authors say.

But there is more work to be done to determine whether it is singing itself, the sound of the music, or just being in a group that is modulating components of the immune system, say the study authors.

The choirs are run specifically for people involved with cancer in South Wales, an area of Britain famous for its musicality. No participants were currently receiving chemotherapy or radiotherapy and 81% were women.

Last Reviewed: 18 April 2016

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