Remember when we were all just jackass kids, and humming was something we did to punish a substitute teacher for the crime of trying to enrich our minds? We may not have known it at the time, but it turns out we may have inadvertently been boosting our health all along – because as weird as it may sound, humming may have genuine, scientifically backed benefits, helping everything from our general mood to our bodies’ immune response.
“When a person first hears that the simple act of humming has various benefits, it sounds way too simple, almost ridiculous,” Hong Kong-based breathwork specialist Brian Lai told VICE. “But when we take a look under the hood of the human body, we can begin to understand why it has been used for centuries, and why the science is finally beginning to catch up.”
It’s certainly true that humming – or, as it’s known among yoga aficionados, “Bhramari Pranayama,” meaning “breathing like a big black bee” – is an ancient skill. After all, even gorillas are known to hum happy lil tunes now and then. But “old” isn’t necessarily the same as “good” – so is there really a legitimate basis for calling humming a scientific biohack?
Well, there’s certainly more than you might have expected when you originally read the headline. “The effect of [Bhramari Pranayama] is pronounced,” concluded a 2018 meta-analysis on the potential effects of the practice. “All the studies directly or indirectly have found the effect… to have parasympathetic predominance and this was the basis for their results derived, namely; reduction in heart rate and [blood pressure], reduction in response to cold pressor test, improvement in cognition, reduction in irritability in tinnitus, favorable EEG changes and reduction in stress levels.”
Other studies have linked humming with improved cognitive control and response inhibition – that is, it helps you to not accidentally act like a weirdo in public – better heart health, and improved mental health and positivity.
That’s likely because of the vagus nerve, explained Arielle Schwartz, a clinical psychologist in Boulder, Colorado, speaking to Shape in 2021. “This power cord is the bidirectional highway of communication between body and brain,” she explained; it’s a near-magical sounding bundle of fibers responsible for the regulation of our internal organs, our reflexes, and, as evidence is increasingly confirming, our mental health.
Thanks to this, humming can promote a “rhythmic rise and fall of the heart rate in synchronization with the breath in its optimal zone,” Schwartz said, which “is actually putting the brain into what's often referred to as ﬂow state.”
So far so impressive, considering we’re talking about a habit usually employed to hide the fact you’ve forgotten the lyrics to verse two of the national anthem. But it’s another result, found in a study from 2019, that gives a hint as to what might be behind the immune-boosting effects: Bhramari Pranayama’s impact on the sinuses.
“There are several mechanism[s] by which humming is supposed to relieve the symptoms of sinusitis,” explains the paper. “The first mechanism… is that humming acts as a sonic cleanser. Humming creates sound vibrations that encourage air to move back and forth between the sinuses and nasal passage.”
This airflow can help unblock the tiny openings called ostia, the paper explains – blocked ostia being a signature step in the development of sinusitis. The mucus, microbes, and allergens that might otherwise clog up the old tubes are allowed to drain, keeping your sinuses clear and healthy.
But it’s not just pure mechanics. There’s an important biochemical part to this humming hackery too: “it has been proven that humming increases the endogenous generation of nitric oxide level by 15-fold as compared with the quiet exhalation,” explain the authors.
That’s important, because this gas has been shown to have a majorly beneficial effect on our immune system. “Nitric oxide in the lungs will kill or inhibit the growth of many bacteria, parasites, and viruses, especially the coronavirus,” Lou Ignarro, an emeritus professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at UCLA, told Shape.
And he should know: in 1998, his work demonstrating the properties of nitric oxide won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. “Nitric oxide dilates the pulmonary arteries and veins so more blood can get into the lungs and therefore pick up the oxygen,” he explained. “It also widens the airways, the trachea, and the bronchioles so more oxygen can get in and get picked up by the increased blood getting in.”
Humming, then, can massively increase the amount of nitric oxide pumping through our bodies – “after you ﬁnish humming, if you immediately breathe in through your nose, you can capture quite a bit of the nitric oxide,” Ignarro said.
Experts say that with ten seconds of humming, all the air in your sinuses can be cycled out and exchanged with this clean, nitric-rich replacement. And sure, you don’t need to be humming to do that – but with normal breathing, it would take nearly 400 times longer.
“There are other ways to increase nitric oxide in the body, such as diet and supplementation, but humming is simple, fast, and accessible to everyone,” Lai told Vice.
Indeed, he said, for most people, humming is pretty much zero-risk: there’s no reason not to try it, and plenty of potential benefits.
“Sometimes the answer to our problems is closer than we think,” he said. “Or literally right under our nose.”