How can laughter make you healthier?
It Boosts the Immune System
One of the best reasons to start laughing has to do with your immune system. Perhaps laughter will one day join the ranks of immune-boosting staples like multivitamins and antibacterial hand soap. Decreasing stress hormones, improving circulation and oxygen intake, and releasing negative emotions can boost your immunological responses and keep you healthy.
For example, laughter has been shown to increase levels of salivary immunoglobulin A (IgA), an important antibody that fights bacteria and infections, especially those in the respiratory system [sources: Brain, Pattillo and Itano].
Laughter keeps the stress hormones under control and brings in the big guns when it comes to immune response. NK cells are able to do what they do best — attack potentially cancerous and infected cells. Other white blood cells that seem to respond positively to laughter are lymphocytes, which originate in bone marrow and include B cells (to fight infections) and T cells (to attack viruses and manage immune responses) [sources: National Cancer Institute,Pattillo and Itano]. Interferon-gamma levels have also been shown to increase with laughter (interferons assist immunological responsiveness and deter tumor growth) [source: National Cancer Institute].
It Energizes Organs
As we mentioned earlier, laughter improves blood flow, suppresses stress hormones and gives you a burst of exercise. In other words, laughter sends a wake-up call to the heart, brain and lungs and stimulates these organs into action.
For example, let’s take the lungs. Remember when you watched “The Aristocrats” for the first time? You could barely catch your breath because of all your chuckling (and eventual snorting). This change in normal breathing patterns eventually can lead to coughing or hiccupping, which helps to loosen mucus and clear airways [source: Brain].
Heart disease may not seem like a laughing matter, but laughter is a great addition to any treatment plan. Blood pressure and circulation benefit from a hearty sense of humor, and your body will experience a boost of aerobic activity each time you guffaw.
Laughter is even believed to aid in digestion [source: Pattillo and Itano]. Some laughter yoga enthusiasts believe this type of therapy can help with symptoms related to conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and diverticulosis.
It Reduces Aggression
Your friends Mark and Mandy just ended their relationship, and all three of you are going to dinner for the first time since the big breakup. The tension at the table is undeniable, so you do the first thing that pops into your mind: Tell a joke.
Laughter is the hypothetical knife that cuts tension from a room, allowing you to relax. You become calmer and less aggressive, which may help you form clearer perspectives about what’s actually going on around you. In one study, students who watched a funny video in their classroom responded with lower levels of aggression in tense situations [source: Recker].
Releasing negative emotions, like aggression, fear or anger, in a positive way through laughter provides important psychological benefits. Laughter also relaxes muscles, which can help reduce stress and offer some relief for people dealing with spasm-related muscle pain. This is part of the reason why some doctors and nurses tell jokes right before giving shots — they’re trying to relax patients so they don’t tighten their muscles in anticipation of the injection [source:McGhee].
It Manages Pain
Laughter may be one of the best natural pain relievers around — it’s effective, free and available everywhere. You don’t even need a prescription!
OK, so the idea of laughing hysterically might not pop into your head if you’ve just fallen off the roof or accidentally sliced your hand open, but it can help. Laughter eases fear and anger, allowing us to deal better with a bad situation. Also, it may increase our tolerance for pain by releasing endorphins (peptides that offer a feeling of well-being and help with pain management) [source: Pattillo and Itano].
In fact, laughter may serve as the perfect distraction when dealing with a painful situation. The good feelings triggered by laughter may stick around a little longer even after the pain has subsided.
So the next time you smack your funny bone against the corner of a table, just tell yourself it’s your elbow’s attempt at stand-up and laugh.
Next, learn how laughter can make you a little more popular.
Anatomy of an Illness
Norman Cousins, a patient suffering from a painful, debilitating disease, found that using laughter as part of his treatment offered relief (even if temporary) from crippling symptoms. He published these observations in his autobiography, “Anatomy of an Illness,” in 1979. It became one of the first books featuring a patient advocating for his own health.
It Impacts Blood Sugar Levels
When you get a case of the giggles, your doctor may thank you. That’s because in a few small studies, researchers discovered that laughing may positively affect blood glucose (sugar) levels.
In the study, people with type 2 diabetes and those without the disease ate a meal, and then attended a boring lecture; the next day, the subjects again ate the same meal, but then joined a comedy show audience. The subjects recorded that blood glucose levels didn’t increase after the meal for the diabetic patients at the comedy show. Researchers haven’t pinpointed the exact cause — perhaps laughter impacts the neuroendocrine system and restrains blood sugar levels from spiking, or it may cause the acceleration of glucose use by muscle motion [source:Hayashi et al].
Another study tracked the effect of long-term laughter therapy on the renin-angiotensin system (regulates blood pressure) in subjects with type 2 diabetes. Most notably, plasma renin levels dropped dramatically, an indicator that laughter may help diabetics avoid microvascular-related complications [source: Nasir et al].
It Provides a Burst of Exercise
The next time you’re at the gym, don’t be afraid to chuckle at the person wearing a leotard circa 1983. After you’ve made sure the ’80s exerciser can’t hear you, release the giggles — laughter can offer a burst of aerobic exercise.
According to researchers, laughing 100 times is equivalent to 10 minutes on a rowing machine or 15 minutes on the stationary bicycle [source: Godfrey]. And the best part is that you don’t need to break a sweat in order to have really good laugh!
Besides the spurt of internal energy, laughter can momentarily clear the respiratory system. Just like with exercise, people tend to take deep breaths in and out during heavy laughter, which helps unclog airways and enhances inhalation and oxygen intake [source: Pattillo and Itano]. No wonder your body feels exhausted after a night spent LOLing.
Read on to learn why laughing really is a sweet deal for your body.
Let’s Go Clubbing!
Get a group of people together and start yukking it up, and you’ve created a laughter club (also known as a laughter yoga club). Members meet to practice laughter yoga techniques, which are believed to help many people deal with physical (migraine, pain) and psychological (depression, anxiety) issues [source: Laughter Yoga International].
It Improves Blood Pressure and Flow
When it comes to cardiac health, seriousness may be, well, as serious as a heart attack. That’s because laughter has been shown to lower or balance blood pressure and increase vascular blood flow [sources: Brain, Pattillo and Itano]. By reviving blood circulation and increasing oxygenation of the blood, laughter may be a powerful ally in the fight against heart disease.
The University of Maryland conducted a study linking laughter to cardiovascular health. The results indicated that laughter seemed to cause the endothelium, tissue that composes the lining of blood vessels, to expand, allowing for better blood flow [source: University of Maryland]. Because the endothelium plays an important part in the fight against atherosclerosis (thickening of the arteries), it’s crucial to pay attention to these cells.
No one’s suggesting that heart disease patients should use comedy clubs in lieu of medication, but laughter can have some astounding therapeutic results on cardiovascular health. Finding something to laugh about may help a patient’s heart as well as his soul.
It Helps Coping Skills
Life is out of our control, and that feeling of helplessness can be very scary and stressful. A negative prognosis, the loss of a job and even a breakdown on the highway are sudden, and usually unwelcome, events that we rarely can prepare for. Laughter is a good way to cope with life’s unexpected curveballs and help us get over the shock.
Though we can’t control what happens in life, we can control the way we react to these events. Responding with laughter can protect the mind, body and spirit and put other people at ease. A bleak situation, such as a death in the family, doesn’t seem as daunting or hopeless when there’s laughter in the room.
Find out why blood pressure is a barrel of laughs on the next page.
A Therapist Walks Into a Bar…
Some therapy sessions can be very serious and emotionally draining. But laughter therapy is just the opposite — the time is spent getting in touch with your happy side. Patients usually meet as a group and use laughter to reduce stress, relieve pain and boost immunological responses [source: Cancer Treatment Centers of America].
It Decreases Stress
It’s hard to worry about that big test after seeing your cousin fall head first into the cream pie on your kitchen counter. While you roll on the floor in hysterics, the only thing you’re stressed about is what’s for dessert.
Levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine tend to decrease during bouts of laughter [sources: Brain, Pattillo and Itano]. These hormones can suppress the immune system, opening the floodgates to a host of infections, illnesses and general poor health. One study found that laughter helped reduce stress and improve immune function — or natural killer (NK) cell activity — an indication that laughter may be an extremely beneficial addition to treatments for cancer and HIV patients [source: Bennett et al]. NK cells are a type of white blood cell that attacks tumor cells and those infected with virus.
Physical and emotional stress can also throw prolactin, insulin, thyroid and other hormones out of whack. Again, the inconsistent production and release of various hormones may have an immunological effect on the body.
So the next time you’re feeling stressed after reading about what’s going on in the world, flip the newspaper to the comics and lighten the mood.
Source: Melanie Winderlich