Fri | Dec 9, 2016

Laughter is great medicine

Published:Monday | April 6, 2015 | 12:28 AMDr Michael Abrahams

The expression 'laughter is the best medicine' is well known, and while it may not cure or prevent diseases, there is strong evidence that laughter and humour improve one's quality of life.

The World Health Organization defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity". Laughter has beneficial effects on all three above-mentioned constituents of health.

A good belly laugh boosts energy. With it, one inhales a good volume of oxygen-rich air, resulting in stimulation of the heart and lungs and increased circulatory activity. The University of Maryland conducted a study which found that participants who were shown laughter-provoking movies displayed better blood vessel function than those who were shown stress-inducing films.

The improved function not only facilitated increased blood flow, but also involved the production and release of substances that fight inflammation and decrease the likelihood of blood clotting in the circulatory system. These findings suggest that laughter may be beneficial to cardiovascular health. Also, a Vanderbilt University study found that 10-15 minutes of laughter a day can burn up to 40 calories. 

Other studies have shown that during laughter, endorphins, the body's 'feel-good' chemicals, are released from the brain. In addition to making us feel good, endorphins are also natural painkillers, which empower us with the ability to ignore pain.

One study had shown increased pain thresholds in persons who had watched funny videos, and another had shown decreased analgesic requirements (less need for painkillers) among post-operative patients after viewing similar material.

Laughter also causes muscle relaxation, and muscles may remain relaxed up to 45 minutes after a good laugh. This beneficial effect on tense muscles and muscle spasm may also impact positively on pain relief. The immune system also appears to benefit from laughter as well, as the activity raises the levels of infection-fighting antibodies and immune cells in the body.

The effects of laughter on stress are well documented. A certain amount of stress is not necessarily a bad thing, as it may help to keep us on our toes. But too much stress can be detrimental and has the ability to affect us not only mentally, but also physically, with the potential to negatively influence multiple organ systems.

One of the most remarkable studies on the positive effects of laughter came out of Israel and concerned women undergoing in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). Following the embryo-transfer procedure (transferring embryos to the womb), the women were divided into two groups. Women in one group were placed in quiet rooms, while those in the other group were entertained by a clown.

The fertility rate among the women entertained by the clown was approximately twice that of the other group (36% vs 20%). It is thought that by reducing stress, fertility was enhanced. The level of the stress hormone cortisol has indeed been found to be lowered following laughter in a study conducted by Loma Linda University, which also found laughter to significantly improve short-term memory among its elderly participants.

Regarding specific disorders, laughter has been found to lower blood sugar in diabetics, to increase anti-inflammatory substances in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and to assist those suffering from depression to cope with their condition, as after a hearty laugh, a feeling of well-being may persist long after the activity has ended.

When it comes to our mental health, the ability to laugh easily and frequently is a valuable asset. In addition to reducing stress and apprehension, a sense of humour empowers us to be able to have positive and optimistic outlooks, and allows us to view difficult situations from different and more tolerable perspectives. For our own health, it is a good idea to for us to learn to laugh at ourselves, and to keep people who make us laugh in our personal spaces.

As for the social benefits, laughter has a tendency to be infectious. It binds people together and increases happiness and intimacy. Sharing laughter heals and unites and helps to strengthen relationships with our partners, family, friends, co-workers, teammates and others.

Of course, there can be a downside to laughter. If you are the one being laughed at, the laughter can induce, rather than relieve, stress. Also, in rare instances, laughter has induced asthma and heart attacks or even death.

Zeuxis, a 5th-century BC Greek painter, was reported to have died laughing at his painting of the goddess Aphrodite, after the elderly woman who commissioned him to do it insisted on modelling for the portrait herself. I guess that is a classic case of 'dwl'.

- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.