By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 26 October 2008)
Ever since Norman Cousins, Saturday Review editor, almost completely cured the pain of an excruciating spinal disease by reading humourous literature and watching funny movies, scientists have been studying the therapeutic benefits of laughter. Thus far research indicates that laughter can increase pain tolerance and immune function, reduce stress hormones, improve circulation, burn calories, and reduce blood sugar.
Laughter causes the pituitary gland to release pain-suppressing opiates. A number of studies have found increased pain tolerance in those who supplement medical treatment with humour. A recent study found that children and adolescents had a far higher pain tolerance when given the opportunity to watch funny programs, a finding that has important implications for easing pain during unpleasant medical procedures (University of California – Los Angeles, 24 October 2007).
Immune cell production increases when people laugh. Cortisol, a hormone that exists in high levels in the bodies of stressed individuals, suppressing immune function, is dramatically reduced. Antibodies, which help fight illness, increase, and the population of natural killer cells also increases, helping the body to more aggressively fight carcinogens (Griffin, 10 April 2008; Liebertz, 21 September 2005).
According to the American Physiological Society (7 April 2008), in addition to reducing cortisol by approximately 39%, laughter can reduce epinephrine (adrenaline), which can contribute to heart disease, hypertension and anxiety, by 70%. Laughter can also reduce a dopamine catabolite called dopac, which aids in the production of adrenaline, by 38%.
It’s well known that laughter reduces stress, which is why it’s often used as a psychological defense mechanism by people in highly stressful job situations, such as medical and emergency response personnel and law enforcement professionals. However, researchers have found that even anticipation of laughter lowers the levels of stress hormones in the body. This suggests that those who seek out humourous experiences are more likely to maintain good health in the long run, benefiting not only from the laughter itself but also from knowing that it will occur in the near future.
Laughter improves oxygen flow and circulation within the body. A study that had subjects watch either a comedy or a drama found that the comedy audience had blood vessels that expanded and contracted easily, whereas the drama watchers experienced blood vessel constriction, which restricted blood flow (Griffin, 10 April 2008).
A particularly intriguing study had subjects eat a meal and then watch a tedious lecture on the first day, then eat the same foods on the following day but watch a comedy afterwards. Subjects’ blood sugar was lower after watching the comedy than it had been after attending the lecture (Griffin, 10 April 2008). Unfortunately, no research was undertaken to test the blood sugar affects of attending an interesting lecture.
Twenty seconds of laughter equates to approximately three minutes working out on a rowing machine (University of Michigan Health System, 5 May 2008). , and laughing for 10 to 15 minutes burns 50 calories (Griffin, 10 April 2008). However, a person would have to laugh long and hard on a daily basis to lose a significant amount of weight, so laughter should be viewed as a supplement to good nutrition and exercise, rather than a weight loss strategy in and of itself.
Laugh Yourself Healthy
The University of Michigan Health System (5 May 2008) describes a new yoga trend that has been gaining ground in both India and North America which makes use of hearty laughter to provide mental and physical health benefits. Known as hasya or laughter yoga, participants gain the stress reduction and immune boosting benefits of laughter while also toning abdominal muscles and getting exercise.
There are critics of laughter’s benefits who point out that those more inclined to laugh may have other personality traits that provide immune protection and facilitate more adaptive coping strategies. Thus, laughter may be an effect rather than a cause of good health. However, many researchers agree that laughter can provide health benefits, although more research is required to determine the exact causes and effects.
For more health and fitness articles, see the main Mind/Body Health page.
- American Physiological Society (7 April 2008). “Anticipating a Laugh Reduces Our Stress Hormones, Study Shows.” ScienceDaily.com.
- Griffin, R.M., Reviewed by M.W. Smith, MD (10 April 2008). “Give Your Body a Boost—With Laughter.” WebMD.com.
- Liebertz, C. (2007). “A Healthy Laugh.”Scientific American Mind, 16(3).
- University of California – Los Angeles. (24 October 2007).“Watching Funny Shows Helps Children Tolerate Pain Longer, Study Finds.” ScienceDaily.com.
- University of Michigan Health System. (5 May 2008). “Laugh Your Way To Wellness With Yoga Trend.” ScienceDaily.com.