01.05.2013 Natural Health

The Best Cure

A good laugh seriously boosts health, says public health advocate Peter Dingle PhD

"A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast." ~ Groucho Marx

Laughter really is the best medicine. Humour and laughter are integral to the social, physiological and biochemical heath of all humans.

Unfortunately, as we age we lose our humour and forget to laugh. We tend to get more serious and forget a lot of the lightness in life and get bogged down. On average, children laugh 400 times a day, and adults only laugh 15 times a day. And yet it is so good for us. Humour is associated not only fun but also with good physical health, and with superior psychological and social adjustment.

The benefits of humour include:

  • Stress relief
  • Pain relief
  • Stimulation of the immune system
  • Coping emotionally
  • Thinking creatively
  • Problem solving
  • Improved social interaction
  • Graceful ageing
  • ncreased productivity
  • Physical fitness
  • Control of diabetes
  • Reduced risk of heart attack and stroke (but don't laugh too hard!)

If the benefits of laughter could be bottled, they would sell for millions of dollars. Laughter has dramatic effects on decreasing stress and improving a sense of well being. And, interestingly enough, your display of happiness benefits the people around you. Even a big, fake smile can make you feel better because it will still cause chemicals associated with feeling good to flow through your bloodstream and nervous system. Laughter breaks the ice, bonds us, generates good will and dampens hostility and aggression. Humorous events provide important bonding experiences between people in close relationships. Laughter as a relief from tension results when people laugh after a mentally or physically tense time has been relieved; the degree of this tension determines the "depth" of the laughter. When a situation that causes tension turns out to be harmless or mildly amusing, laughter accompanied by a switch from the sympathetic nerves to parasympathetic nerves of the autonomic nervous system occurs. This is important for good health and as a social lubricant, lifting spirits and encouraging smooth communication and cordial relations. As humour also improves psychological well being by allowing the release of emotional tension, humour helps us cope with depression and anxiety.

A major biochemical effect that results from laughter is a reduction of concentrations of dopamine, adrenaline and cortisol associated with stress response. This represents a reversal of the classic physiological changes that occur during stress. Laughter may also release endorphins, which may help reduce pain. One study found that laughter reduces anxiety and lifts mood, and that its effects are comparable to or possibly stronger than a bout of exercise of similar duration.

Research at Stanford University demonstrated that the simple act of smiling and laughing provides some of the same benefits as exercise. Perhaps we can liken it to a form of internal jogging.

Laughter is a motor reflex that requires the coordinated movement of 15 facial muscles and a change in the normal breathing pattern. Laughter increases blood supply just enough to provide our tissues with increased oxygen. During laughter, muscles in the head, neck, chest and pelvis tense and relax in a way that reduces stress, keeping the muscles limber and allowing them to relax more readily. That doesn't mean you can stop exercising, just add laughter to your exercise regime - something they forgot in 'The Biggest Loser'.

Humour also increases people's tolerance for higher levels of physical discomfort. In his book Anatomy of an Illness, Norman Cousins wrote about having been diagnosed with a debilitating and progressive disease that had made him bedridden with pain and stiffness. Once the specialists said there was nothing that could be done for him, Cousins decided to take things into his own hands. He rented a hotel room where he watched funny programs including Candid Camera and The Marx Brothers. He found that a good belly laugh gave him up to four hours of pain relief. Later, he supplemented this approach with Vitamin C and virtually cured the disease. He was working within a few weeks of beginning his unorthodox treatments. Millions of people have read his book and applied his technique. In a survey of 53 chronic cancer patients testing self initiation intervention, they rated laughter as the most effective therapy. The use of humour directly as a health intervention is becoming common practice in hospitals, where clowns use visual and verbal humour to help in the healing process.

When we laugh it relaxes the body and reduces the flow of stress hormones. When stress hormones are secreted, the heart rate increases and more blood flows to muscles. Laughter negates this process and tells the body to relax. Following laughter, the body produces proteins, which stops bacteria and other germs from getting into our lungs. It also strengthens your stomach, face, leg and back muscles. Laughter will increase the release of endorphins into the bloodstream, with resultant pain relief and euphoria. Laughter also disrupts the normal cyclic breathing pattern, increasing ventilation and accelerating exchange of residual air, which enhances blood oxygen levels.

In some hospital intensive care units, bone marrow transplant units, emergency rooms and other acute facilities, clowns are used to entertain child patients and make them laugh. The journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published a study of the effect of clowns on the anxiety level of children about to receive anaesthesia prior to surgery, and the stress levels of patients' parents. Research concluded that both the parents and the children were significantly less anxious during the administration of anaesthetic as a result of the laughter.

Laughter has been found to help patients with chronic respiratory conditions, such as emphysema, by aiding ventilation and clearing mucus plugs. Therapists find laughter more readily accepted than conventional therapy as patients preferred laughter and joking more than traditional aggressive treatments. Laughter and humour also have major effects on the immune system. In one study, people with a poor sense of humour were found to have a greater suppression of immune function in response to stress. Laughter stimulates the release of certain neurotransmitters called catecholamines, which raise alertness and mental functioning. It increases the concentration of antibodies in the bloodstream, protecting the body and making it more resistant to infection and disease.

A study was conducted involving 52 male subjects watching a 60 minute humorous video. The activity of natural killer cells, which assist in immune surveillance and cancer prevention, was found to be elevated in the subjects for at least 12 hours after watching the video. Other studies have found many other cancer fighting components of the immune system stimulated after bouts of laughter.

One study found blood sugar levels to be lower in both those affected by Type 2 diabetes and those without the disease when exposed to a 40 minute comedy show. This study correlates with a similar study in Japan, which observed significant drops in blood sugar levels in diabetics on days when they laughed.

In the business world, the main benefits of humour include increasing motivation, enabling learning and problem solving and promoting personal survival. Humour is associated with the limbic system, which functions in motivation and emotional behaviours in humans. Humour is also essential to health and wellbeing, as well as productivity and achieving outcomes in a business environment. It does this through stress relief, relationship building, and enhanced managerial communication and effectiveness. Humour and laughter also produce beneficial biochemical changes in the central nervous system. Humour has been associated with improved ageing through improved physical, mental and social health. So go out and laugh. It's time to stop being serious and have some fun. I have the biggest belly laughs when I play with Sienna, my 20 month old granddaughter, or watch our cat or dog play. Other things you can do include buying a joke book and learning a few jokes a night. Then share it with your friends. Even badly told jokes can be funny. Watch some funny movies. I love reruns of Candid Camera and The Big Bang Theory. Make time to have fun and muck around, to play. Fun is underrated. It's the source of much of our joy in life. One look at children at play is enough to confirm this. Walk around your workplace or home with a big, big smile and check out the reaction of others.

"A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book." ~ Irish Proverb

DISCLAIMER: Dr Peter Dingle is a researcher, educator and public health advocate. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor.

Peter Dingle

Dr Peter Dingle (PhD) has spent the past 30 years as a researcher, educator, author and advocate for a common sense approach to health and wellbeing. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor. He is Australia’s leading motivational health speaker and has 14 books in publication.