Laughter: Is It Really the Best Medicine?

by David Spero, RN

Laughter: Is It Really the Best Medicine?

Did you hear the one about the 26 Japanese women with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) who went to the hospital in Tokyo? They had their blood drawn, but then, instead of receiving medical treatment, they were ushered into a small theater. There they watched a performance of rakugo, traditional Japanese comic storytelling.

But in this study, published in 1996, the joke was on them. After the perfor­mance, the women reported that their pain levels were much reduced. Not only that, their blood levels of cortisol and epinephrine had dropped, suggesting a reduction in stress. And their levels of interleukin-6 and interferon gamma, indicators of inflammation, had also dropped.

We have all heard that “laughter is the best medicine,” but now there is some evidence to support the old saying. Though research into laughter and its effects is far from conclusive (and some critics believe that much of it has not been done well), several small studies have found a connection between laughter and improved cardiovascular and immune system health. Add these effects to those everyone knows about — reduced stress and improved mood — and laughter may indeed be good for us.

The history of laughter

If laughter is good for us, why didn’t we know about its benefits before? Actually, people have known about the benefits of laughter for ages. An old Irish proverb states “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” And as early as the 1300’s, Henri de Mondeville, a French professor of surgery wrote: “Let the surgeon take care to regulate the whole regimen of the patient’s life for joy and happiness, allowing his relatives and special friends to cheer him, and by having someone tell him jokes. The surgeon must remind the patient that the body grows fat from joy and thin from sadness.” (This was in the days when fat was good.)

Interest in laughter increased in modern times when journalist and author Norman Cousins wrote in the 1960’s about his recovery from ankylosing spondylitis, a sometimes-severe form of arthritis that can fuse the vertebrae of the spine. Cousins believed that negative emotions had a negative impact on his health, and he thought that positive emotions might have a healthful effect. So with doctors putting the odds for his recovery at 500 to 1, Cousins checked himself out of the hospital and into a hotel room, bringing with him videos of Candid Camera, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel and Hardy, humorous books, and anything else that might make him laugh. After a while, he found that 10 minutes of hearty laughter gave him 2 hours of pain-free sleep. He treated himself by eating healthy food, taking vitamin C, and laughing as much he could. Cousins amazed doctors by eventually recovering.

Many studies have been performed to test Cousins’s claims. For example, in one study, Dr. Margaret Stuber at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCLA had children watch funny videos before, during, and after putting their hands in ice cold water. The kids were able to better tolerate the water when they laughed. Studies such as this built a preliminary case for laughter’s therapeutic effects.

The effects of laughter

In addition to the study discussed at the beginning of this article, several other Japanese studies have explored the benefits of laughter for people with RA. One, published in 2005, showed that laughter causes the blood level of growth hormone, usually elevated in people with RA, to drop significantly after a period of mirthful laughter (again induced by rakugo). Growth hormone is thought to contribute to joint pain and swelling. Another study, published in 2006, found that blood levels of interleukin-6 (an inflammation-causing molecule) decreased in people with RA after a period of laughter. In the same study, levels of TNF-alpha, another inflammation-causing molecule that plays a major role in RA, also decreased after laughter, but only in people whose RA was easily controlled. These studies suggest that laughter has at least a temporary effect on several molecules involved in RA.

Many studies have focused on other benefits of laughter. Lee Berk, DrPH, has been at the forefront of the study of laughter for many years, examining whether laughter has the power to bring about a wide variety of health benefits. In a study published in 1989, he reported that laughter brought about reduced blood levels of cortisol and other hormones associated with stress. In a study published in 2001, Berk and his colleagues found an increase in natural killer cells and other immune-system cells in the blood of people who watched a funny video. Stress is known to decrease the levels of these cells.

Two studies from the University of Maryland have helped clarify laughter’s effect on the cardiovascular system. In a 2001 study, 150 people who had had heart attacks or bypass surgery were compared with 150 controls, who had not had heart problems. The study found that people without heart problems were more likely to have a humorous perspective on life, finding greater comedy in everyday events. In other words, it’s possible that laughter protects heart health. In a 2006 study, healthy volunteers were shown either a scene from a funny movie or one from a tense movie. Measures of blood flow were taken before and after these viewings. In all, people’s blood flow increased 22% during laughter and decreased 35% during mental stress brought on by the tense film.

Last Reviewed on February 24, 2013

David Spero is a nurse/educator and author of The Art of Getting Well: Maximizing Health When You Have a Chronic Illness (Hunter House, Alameda, California, 2002). You can visit his Web site at www.davidsperorn.com.

Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.

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