The Crowds. Photo Credit: Leah Gerber.

Five Alarm Funk. Photo Credit: Leah Gerber.

“Happy Hillside!”  I heard this very specific well-wish ring out a thousand times last weekend. I was attending Hillside, the eclectic, diverse music festival held annually in Guelph, Ontario. The Hillside Festival is three days of good food and drink, good music, and big crowds in the hot sun.  

As a healthcare practitioner, I always look for practical ways to reduce the impact of stress on my patients. Could a summer music festival be part of the solution? I definitely had fun last weekend, but I was exhausted afterwards. So was the festival good for my health and my stress level?  Let’s take a deeper dive.

The Science of Stress

Stress is so commonplace in today’s society, I don’t have to bother spewing out statistics regarding how many of us report feeling stressed. My patients are often juggling work and family life; they are busy, overwhelmed, and have no time to practise self-care.  Their stress load is leaving them tired and moody; and it can affect almost any system in the body, from digestive to immune. (for a blog post about just how stress impacts our health, go here)

Sometimes the best way to manage the symptoms of stress is to think in almost mathematical terms.  Look at your day as a series of activities that either reduce or contribute to your stress load. You can more easily reach homeostasis or balance, simply by decreasing the time you spend in the stressed state and increasing the amount of time you spend in a non-stressed state.  Having intention around how you spend your time can make all the difference.

There are many strong studies that can help guide us towards choosing the right stress-reducing activities. Most of these studies use a reduction in inflammatory markers or the stress hormone cortisol as a measure of stress relief from the intervention (eg. a walk in the woods, or a visit to an art gallery).  A quick review of the science can help me understand how attending Hillside music festival can impact our stress level.

Hillside Festival

Music is the main attraction at Hillside, offering a range of styles from ambient and experimental to pop, country and rock ‘n roll.  When I looked at the research, I found this study which shows a decrease in cortisol after listening to choral music. That said, it may be a bit of a stretch to apply these findings to Hillside (I didn’t hear any choral music).  But this study shows decreased salivary cortisol when listening to any kind of music in the presence of others - which is very Hillside-y.  There also appears to be a large number of studies showing many clinical benefits of music within the context of music therapy as well.

Hillside has a number of workshops available each day.  The Active Living and Mind and Body workshops include kundalini yoga, qi gong, and mindfulness -- all of which are well-represented in the literature for reducing cortisol and in some cases, inflammation, which is linked to all kinds of diseases and conditions.

Another big part of Hillside for many is the social aspect. Research confirms the importance of socializing to help with stress levels. Studies show that social isolation can produce cortisol patterns that increase morbidity and mortality; and social interaction can improve cortisol levels. "

Photo Credit: Leah Gerber.

Laughter can reduce stress.  At one point last weekend, I listened to a friend read pages out of the Ladybird Book of The Hangover with passages like this one: “What a confusing world it can seem with a hangover. Sit as still as you can. Do not attempt to make any decisions. Look out of the window. Can you recognise simple shapes or colours? Is there a moon or a sun in the sky? What sort of a name might you have? Where might there be bacon?” Ha ha ha!  ‘Happy Hillside’ indeed!

Food is a big part of the Hillside experience. As a naturopath, I know that choosing foods like fruits and vegetables and avoiding high sugar and highly processed foods will reduce stress in the form of inflammation. The variety of foods available at Hillside does allow people to make smart choices if they wish. Go here for a naturopath-approved inflammation rating system on most foods.

There are aspects of a music festival like Hillside that could increase your stress load too. Crowding does seem to elevate cortisol levels, at least in animal studies.  At points in the weekend, I did experience some discomfort because of the crowds. Also, it was hot last weekend. Animal studies like this one definitely show heat stress as a factor in cortisol levels.

But on balance, despite being tired at the end, I likely spent more time in a non-stressed state than a stressed state last weekend. And by tweaking it next time, that balance could be even better. So I think it’s highly likely that a summer music festival like Hillside could be a very practical way to increase our resilience against stress*.

(*It’s quite possible that I took the fun out of a summer weekend for you by over-analyzing it.  If that’s the case, I apologize.)


Michael manages A\J's finances on Mondays and Tuesdays. The rest of the week, he dons his naturopathic hat and works with his amazing patients at Healing Path Centre for Natural Medicine. He loves canoe camping, cycling, indie music and co-operative housing.

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