Few things are as emotionally satisfying as having a good,
deep, belly laugh. Laughter is extremely powerful. Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” Many people became familiar with laughter as medicine thanks to the work of Robin Williams in the movie “Patch Adams.” This film was actually based on the true life of Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams who, in 1972, established the Gesundheit Institute which was dedicated to spreading humor, fun, and joy to patients. The use of humor and laughter as an integral part of the healing paradigm began long before this, however. Back to the times of the earliest physicians in Ancient Greece, prescriptions were made for visits to the hall of comedians and the theater as part of the overall healing process.(Baker, 2017) In the 1300s, French surgeon Henri de Mondeville felt so strongly about the role humor played in healing that he told jokes to his patients in the recovery room. (Manger, 2020)
But perhaps the most influential account of the health benefits of laughter came from the book, Anatomy of an Illness by Norman Cousins. The text was an anecdotal account of Cousins’ return to health after being diagnosed with a devastatingly painful, inflammatory condition known as ankylosing spondylitis for which he was told there was nothing doctors could do. The book was so profound that Cousins was eventually hired as a professor and researcher at top-ranked UCLA School of Medicine where he spent the next 20 years teaching and researching the true merits of laughter in healing. (Baker, 2017) As it turns out, that old adage of “laughter is the best medicine” may actually ring truer than once thought and there is even science to prove it! Here are 5 scientifically supported health benefits of laughter:
1. Laughing is a super fun ab workout!
Anyone who has performed an intense abdominal workout can confirm that the physical act of laughing causes contraction and relaxation of the abdominal muscles in much the same manner as intentional workouts do. In a study of laughter yoga (a yoga practice focused on breath and laughter), researchers found that compared to traditional crunch and back lifting exercises, engaging in laughter yoga resulted in significant activation of 5 different muscle groups found in the trunk. The study further concluded that the activation level of the internal oblique muscle group during laughter yoga was higher compared to the traditional exercises. (Wagner, 2014)
2. Laughing lowers blood
High blood pressure is a very insidious condition that many people only find out they have as an incidental finding at an appointment for something else entirely. It has few outward symptoms early on, but make no mistake, it is wreaking havoc on cells and organs inside the body. (Mayo Clinic, 2014) High blood pressure is a known precursor to more severe cardiovascular disease including death or serious disability due to heart attacks and strokes and the earlier one develops the condition the higher these risks are. (Kotsis, 2018) Luckily, a number of studies have shown the beneficial impact of laughing on blood pressure. One 2017 study evaluated the impact of laughter on the blood pressure of patients undergoing hemodialysis treatments. Participants saw a decrease in blood pressure after listening to 16-30 minutes of recorded comedy over an 8 week time period. (Eshg, 2017) Another study exposed participants to either laughter or music. They found that immediately following the sessions, the laughter group’s blood pressure was lowered by 7mmHg vs only 6mmHg in the music group. (Hendrick, 2011)
3. Laughter reduces stress hormone levels.
Stress is associated with changes in levels of both hormones and neurotransmitters including dopamine, serotonin, and cortisol. (Bruno, 2011) Research reveals that humor and laughter have been shown to stimulate several physiological mechanisms known to decrease levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine and to increase activation of the dopamine producing reward system in the brain. (Mobbs, 2003) Additional studies that involved viewing a comedic film found reductions in a variety of hormones related to the stress response. (Bennett, 2013)
4. Laughter supports immune function.
Never a more poignant time for this one! While getting a virus is nothing to laugh about, the next time flu season rolls around might be a good time to start laughing it up more often! Several studies have shown how powerful laughter can be when it comes to enhancing the power of the immune system. Researchers have found that in some instances, laughter has shown the ability to positively impact the function of a particular type of immune cell, the natural killer or NK cell. (Bennett, 2009) NK cells are specific cells that are best known for killing virally infected cells, and detecting and controlling early signs of cancer. Another study where college students viewed either a humorous video or an instructional video revealed that those that saw the humorous video had increased levels of salivary IgA (a marker of immunoenhancement). (Eissmann, 2020)
5. Laughing is heart
The American Heart Association supports the use of laughter as a means to protect heart health. (2013) They go on to say that laughter has positive benefits on cholesterol levels as well as reduced arterial inflammation. Additional research found powerful benefits of laughter on the heart and cardiovascular system. The study exposed participants to comedy clips like SNL (Saturday Night Live) or bleak scenes known to increase stress such as the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan. They then used a special ultrasound to assess brachial artery reactivity. Participants who watched the stress inducing scenes experienced a 35% reduction in flow mediated dilation (FMD). FMD is a measure of how blood vessels dilate or contract and a reduced rate is associated with increased risk for atherosclerosis. However those who viewed the comedy clips experienced a 22% increase in FMD meaning their blood was flowing better. (Miller, 2006)
Andrea Pryce, N.D., received her baccalaureate degree from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and is a 2006 graduate of Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona. Following completion of her N.D. degree she went into private practice in Scottsdale, Arizona. She has a strong background in biomedical research with significant experience in both bench top and field research. She has worked as a bench top research associate performing genetic oncology assays for a major biomedical research foundation. Additionally, she served as a project coordinator for a homeopathy study co-conducted by the Southwest College Research Institute and the University of Arizona’s Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. She maintains a research interest in the epigenetics and nutrigenomics particularly as they relate to oncology. In 2009, she moved to Florida and began working at Life Extension in Fort Lauderdale where she was Medical Editor for their monthly magazine. Dr. Pryce joined the faculty at Hawthorn University in April of 2014 and also serves on the faculty of Everglades University. She has recently joined the team at the Integrative Health Institute in Boca Raton, Florida.
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Bennett, Mary P.; Zeller, Janice M.; Rosenberg, Lisa; and McCann, Judith. (2003). The Effect of Mirthful Laughter on Stress and Natural Killer Cell Activity. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 9(2), 38-45.
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Miller, M., Mangano, C., Park, Y., Goel, R., Plotnick, G. D., & Vogel, R. A. (2006). Impact of cinematic viewing on endothelial function. Heart (British Cardiac Society), 92(2), 261– 262. https://doi.org/10.1136/hrt.2005.061424