Is laughter the best medicine?
Is laughter the best medicine? Well, I suppose that depends on your affliction! But one thing is for sure, it’s certainly very good for you. Aside from the general sense of warmth and well-being that we all feel after a good chuckle, there are plenty of other ways the body benefits when something gets us giggling.
Laughter has been shown to relax the body and mind, bring down stress levels, lower blood pressure, numb pain and even protect against heart disease. I know this may sound too good to be true, but I can assure you it’s not – and there’s plenty of science to back it up.
A recent study by Oxford University in England found that laughter can act as a powerful antidote to stress and conflict while reducing the body’s sensitivity to pain. Similar studies in the US found the effects of laughter to be comparable to those of light exercise – lowering blood pressure, kick-starting the immune system and increasing blood flow.
A book from way back is worth referencing here: Anatomy of an Illness by Norman Cousins. In it the author describes how he was able to cure himself of severe ankylosing spondylitis (an inflammatory disease) by watching Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy movies.
Of course, we’re not naive enough to think that it is laughter itself that is causing these powerful reactions, but rather the physical and chemical reactions that it sets off. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what goes on behind the scenes every time we snigger, howl and guffaw.
Good for the body
If laughter were a painkiller, it would be one of the fastest sellers on the market. Less than a second after exposure to something funny, the brain’s cerebral cortex springs into action, flooding the brain with endorphins. These ‘feel-good’ chemicals are the body’s natural painkillers, and they work to lift your mood, relax your muscles and, most importantly, reduce your stress levels.
Stress as we know is a major contributor to a number of the most serious non-communicable diseases (NCDs) we face today – including heart disease, autoimmune disease, and even cancer. By having a good social life where laughter and good time are a regular feature, we reduce the production of stress hormones, which lowers blood pressure and increases the production of immune cells and infection-fighting anti-bodies.
There’s good news for the heart and lungs too. The physical act of laughing – in particular drawing air in and out of the lungs – increases the vascular blood flow, which improves the function of blood vessels and helps to protect against heart attacks and other cardiovascular issues.
Less than a second after exposure to something funny, the brain’s cerebral cortex springs into action, flooding the brain with endorphins.
The workout the lungs get from a hearty laugh rids them of residual air which is then replaced by fresh air containing much higher levels of oxygen – cleansing the respiratory system and saturating the lungs with oxygenated blood.
And the expansion and contraction of the diaphragm, which takes places more readily than usual during laughter, also works to stimulate the lymphatic system and massage the internal organs – helping to rid the body of toxins and boost the immune system.
Fair to say that laughter is a serious business indeed.
Good for the mind
While laughter may give our organs a great workout, its ability to stem the production of the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine and dopamine, and thereby lower our risk of stress-related diseases such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s, that is really worth shouting about.
What’s more, research conducted at the Loma Linda University in California suggests that lower stress levels in the brain caused by laughter have been shown to boost both memory function and cognitive ability – while increasing emotional intelligence, improving decision-making, and making us less prone to mistakes.
Laughter also has a great bearing on our emotional response. Those who laugh loud often tend to have a sunnier disposition, taking a more positive, optimistic view of the world. This is because humour allows us to see things in perspective – creating a psychological distance between ourselves and the stresses of day-to-day life, which actually allow us to make more level-headed decisions.
Laughter works its magic once again when it comes to mental health, and has long been known to help those suffering from depression – relieving tension and stress and reducing feelings of sadness, anxiety and irritation. In fact, a study published by Geriatrics and Gerontology International found that the use of laughter therapy in elderly patients reduced cases of depression and increased feelings of happiness and general well-being.
Tricking the mind
But what if you’ve got nothing to smile about? Can you then still make the most of the health-boosting benefits that laughter has to offer?
The answer to that question is ‘maybe,’ with evidence suggesting that physically expressing an emotion can send a biochemical signal to the brain which then ‘loops back,’ meaning that you are able to make yourself laugh, by, well, forcing yourself to laugh – much in the same way that we tend to laugh when we see others doing the same.
The idea is that you can set out to ‘fool’ the body into kick-starting the chemical and physical response that comes from genuine laughter by faking it, because the mind cannot distinguish between genuine and fake laughter.
So as we can see there is a lot of scientific theory built up over the years in attempting to answer this age-old question that is so often dropped into casual conversation. The reality is that there indeed is a lot to be said about joy and health, and we all know that the genuine laughter that starts from your gut and takes over your body is one of the greatest pleasures a human can experience.
So on a final note (and it is hard not to sound trite when I tell you this), making an effort to enjoy life more often is about the best gift you can give your health. As we get older we tend to get more serious. The responsibilities of life – coupled with the steady realization that this is a way more difficult journey than we thought it would be – means many of us adopt a rather serious outlook that robs us of those smiles we used to display much more often, especially as children.
I find that the best solution to this is to enjoy a rich social life. This is something some of us do well, and others do very poorly. Make an effort to surround yourself much more regularly with good friends, family – and even casual acquaintances – because even if laughter isnt the best medicine, its always a part of that mix.
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Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.