Laugh It Off

“A joyful heart is good medicine, But a broken spirit dries up the bones.” (Prov 17:22)

Did you know that children, on average, laugh and smile 400 times per day while this number drops to 15 for adults? Is this statistic a comment on our loss of joy as we mature, or do we become “too adult” for such childish behavior? Whatever the reason, we now understand a variety of healthful benefits from laughter, and I want to itemize a few of these this week.

Laughter stimulates the brain as well as the body. Endorphins, which are positive pleasure making chemicals, are released during laughter and serve as natural pain killers and mood elevators over time. Conversely, research has also shown that “stress hormones” such as cortisol, dopamine, and adrenalin are actually damped by laughter. These are the hormones that promote fear and a desire to flee. We know that we “feel” less burdened when humor and laughter are part of our days, and these studies provide the physiologic explanation.

Hearty laughter is exercise. Stomach muscles are worked by a good belly laugh. Heart rates increase initially with rigorous laughing but later fall, and blood pressure readings can drop as much as 20 mm pressure after 10 minutes of laughter. Improved lung ventilation occurs because air is moved more forcefully in and out, and laughter stimulates the diaphragm and chest wall muscles. Additionally, laughter is an excellent exercise for facial muscles; it tones the facial muscles, improves facial expressions and increases facial blood supply (which gives that ruddy, healthy glow). One researcher has termed laughter “an aerobic experience, an internal stationary jogging.” Remember, too, that regular laughter also provides a whole body massage.

Approximately 2000 years ago, the prestigious physician, Galen, reported that cheerful women were less likely to get cancer than their depressed counterparts. In a more modern context, John Steinbeck remarked “A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.” Laughter research has demonstrated specific benefit to immune system function. One significant study examined the blood activity level of interferon-gamma(IFN) in subjects before, during and after they had watched a funny video. For over 24 hours, the activity of this important immune-boosting substance was increased. IFN activates T cells, B cells, immunoglobulins, and NK cells. As a consequence of these immune changes, the body is more efficient at fighting viruses and even certain tumor cells. So, the benefits of laughter are nothing to sneeze at!

Laughter is a powerful way to reduce tension and stress, create a sense of well-being, increase alertness, and to help us place our problems of life in a more balanced perspective. Laughter should be used as a coping mechanism for stress, though many of us still see it only as a outlet for the emotions produced by humor or happiness. Do we laugh because we are happy, or are we happy because we laugh? Consider the medicinal qualities of laughter and make a conscientious effort to use them more freely and more often. We all know that we are attracted to other people with a good sense of humor; we have an intuitive knowledge that someone who can see the absurd, the ridiculous and the entertaining in both serious and trivial moments, can help us stay mentally stable and emotionally healthy.

With Father’s Day just celebrated, I feel it is only fitting to acknowledge my Dad’s punning ability. He passed this trait to all four Hines children. Many nights at the dinner table, he, my three siblings and I would create “Tom Swifties” and amuse ourselves thoroughly. I value that legacy, and to this day when we congregate, the tradition persists. The medicine of laughter is powerful and contagious. So, my patients and my friends, if I use this treatment modality on you. . .please humor me.

May our mouths be filled with laughter and our tongues with songs of joy(Psalms 126)

Stephen L. Hines, M.D.
June 2000