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  • Lloyd Price

Is laughter the best medicine?

Laughing costs nothing, you can do it (almost) anywhere at anytime, there are no restrictions on the amount you chuckle each day and by its very nature, it’s something we all enjoy. Numerous studies have shown the real health benefits of a good belly laugh, yet so many of us fail to receive our daily dose of comedy.

In an attempt to combat our lack of merriment, several groups and societies dedicated to laughter therapy have sprung up to help people tap into this wonder drug. The ‘laughter line’, founded in 2004 is a phone line that connects you with other people to have a giggle (it is contagious after all). The help line is part of the Laughter Network comprising of 8,000 healthcare professionals in the NHS and social care sector, fully trained in the use of laughter as a complementary therapy.

There are also independent support groups available that harness the health benefits of laughing to improve our moods and physical health. A form of laughter yoga even exists, hasyayoga, that combines elements of breathing techniques with laughter therapy to produce a fun, unique and healthy experience.

Associate Professor Dr Anne Kennedy of the University of Southampton directed the research, which investigated the emotional effects of funny cartoons on patients.

The most recent study into the effects of humour comes in the form of a cartoon series, created by researchers at the University of Southampton. The results of the investigation revealed that the cartoon sketches, based around real patient experiences, not only helped those living with chronic conditions feel better emotionally, but also provided a greater sense of empowerment and served as educational tools. The researchers concluded that patients would benefit a great deal from humour being used within clinical environments more often.

But laughter also has a positive physiological effect as well as emotional. Let's explore 10 benefits of laughing ...

1. Laughing increases your pain threshold

Political journalist and activist, Norman Cousins wrote in his 1979 memoir, Anatomy of an Illness, that he successfully managed his painful condition, spondylitis, by watching hours of funny movies. After his account was published, scientists began to take more of an interest in the physical health benefits of laughing.

Norman Cousins, who suffered from a painful condition, discovered laughter was indeed the best medicine.

Researchers at Oxford University found that laughing could make you less sensitive to physical pain. This is because the body releases chemical endorphins that act as natural painkillers. The study involved two groups being assessed for pain threshold by placing a bag of ice on the arm of each participant, before being shown comedy TV shows or non-comedy shows for fifteen minutes. From the group of comedy watchers, those who had belly laughed their way through were able to take up to 10% more pain than they had done previously. The researchers found that slight chuckles didn’t work and increased pain thresholds were only exhibited by those who laughed with their whole bodies.

2. Laughing tones your abs and burns calories

Laughing hard for a sustained period of time is akin to a real aerobic workout. If you’ve ever laughed so hard it hurt, you’ll know that your stomach muscles expand and contract with each bout of laughter. This is great news for those who want to tone their abs and have fun doing it. Vanderbilt University researcher Maciej Buchowski found that 10-50 minutes of laughing burns around 50 calories. Laughing also increases your heart rate. Another leading researcher on the benefits of laughing discovered that one-minute of laughing raised his heart rate to the same level as 10 minutes of exercise on a rowing machine.

3. Laughing boosts your fertility levels

If you’re trying to conceive, you should probably stop worrying and find the nearest clown to entertain you instead. In a study that involving 219 women undergoing IVF treatment, the rate of success almost doubled for those who were visited by a medical clown straight after their embryos were implanted. The results, published in the Journal of Fertility and Sterility showed a 36% success rate for women who experienced the comedy routine in comparison to 20% who did not. Researcher Dr. Shevach Friedler, stated this could be because IVF is an incredibly stressful process, and anything that helps to alleviate that stress will help the process. With this sort of success rate, it’s a wonder there aren’t more IVF clinics are employing the services of comedians and entertainers. ‘After all’, said Dr Friedler ‘this is one of the least hazardous interventions in our field.’

4. Laughing increases blood flow, lowers your blood pressure and improves heart function

Good circulation is essential to our health as our blood helps transport oxygen and nutrients around the body. A study conducted by Baltimore’s Maryland University of Medicine found that laughter increases blood flow around the body. The study’s volunteers were shown movies ranging in genre from comedy to drama to investigate the effect of different sorts of films on cardiovascular health. Researchers concluded that the act of laughing ‘appears to cause the tissue that forms the inner lining of blood vessels, the endothelium, to dilate or expand in order to increase blood flow.’

5. Laughing reduces blood sugar levels

While some emotions, like fear and sadness increase blood sugar levels, other emotions like happiness reduce it. In a study conducted by Japanese researchers, in which 19 patients with Type 2 diabetes were monitored over a period of 2 days, glucose levels were found to decrease after a live comedy was performed. The research concluded that ‘daily opportunities’ were therefore recommended to those suffering from diabetes.

6. Laughing boosts your immune system

Robin Williams starred in the 1998 comedy film Patch Adams, a film about an American physician who tours around the world bringing joy and laughter to thousands of patients each year.

When we laugh we produce more of the antibodies that protect us from infections that cause colds and flu. A survey of American cancer patients found that laughter was frequently used as a complementary therapy. As well as inducing a positive emotional response, laugher can improve NK cell activity. (NK’s cells are essential for a well functioning immune system) In their study, the researchers concluded that ‘As low NK cell activity is linked to decreased disease resistance and increased morbidity in persons with cancer and HIV disease, laughter may be a useful cognitive-behavioral intervention.’

7. Laughter improves lung function

When we laugh we take in much more oxygen than usual, giving our lungs a bit of a workout. Deep breathing is known to help us relax, which is why we often feel loosened up after laughing hard. For those with respiratory conditions, comedy shows are sometimes prescribed as a complementary treatment to increase lung capacity and help clear mucus from the bronchi.

8. Laughter supplies nutrients to your skin and may even reduce wrinkles

Although there is a common belief that laughter causes wrinkles around the eyes, some skin experts actually believe that laughter reduces the onset of wrinkles by working out our facial muscles. Laughter also helps us to relax, doing away with the stress and tension that causes us to frown for long periods of time.

Laughing until we’re red in the face even leaves our skin with a healthy glow. As our blood pressure increases and our heart races, the capillaries near the skin dilate and fill with blood. This in turn releases extra oxygen and nutrients into the skin.

9. Laughing helps to prevent stress

We often eat when we are feeling stressed. Laughing reduces stress hormones such as Cortisol and helps us feel energised naturally, meaning we are less likely to crave sugar-laden foods. Cortisol has also been associated with decreased learning and memory capabilities, heart disease, bone density and more. Combatting this hormone with laughter is an easy and effective way to reduce its harmful effects.

10. Laughing can help you feel younger.

Laughing is often associated with children, and for good reason. While adults on average laugh around 12-15 times a day, children are estimated to laugh around 300-400 times! With all the stresses and responsibilities of modern living, it’s easy to see why taking time out to laugh is low down on our priorities list. But if we surround ourselves with people and things that make us laugh well into adulthood, we may find that getting in touch with our inner child and the feelings of joy and freedom that accompanies it is easier than we thought.

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