Saturday, September 17, 2011
Laughter: a serious business
Doctors are discovering that a good dose of humour can help treat conditions from eczema to heart disease
By Roger Dobson
Laughing is a serious business, according to researchers, who say it can help in conditions as diverse as diabetes and eczema, heart disease and asthma. It can boost the immune system and help fight infections, and laughter yoga – clapping and chanting ho ho ha ha ha – can be an effective therapy for depression.
What's more, 15 minutes of laughter can burn up 40 calories, while 10 minutes of belly laughter has a considerable analgesic effect on people with chronic pain. But while moderate amounts of laughter have been shown to be beneficial in more than two dozen conditions, too much can result in health problems, including giggle incontinence and Pilgaard-Dahl syndrome, a respiratory condition named after two Scandinavian comedians.
Laughter is broadly defined as a psycho-physiological response to humour or other stimuli. It involves contractions of the diaphragm, repetitive vocal sounds produced by the resonating chambers of the pharynx, mouth and nasal cavities, the movement of up to 50 facial muscles, mainly around the mouth, and, in some cases, tears. For researchers, these physical responses are the starting point. According to Dr Ramó* Mora-Ripoll, a specialist on laughter and health, and author of Manual de Medicina y Terapia de la Risa, there are four ways laughter improves health.
It can trigger changes in muscles, and in the immune system and hormone production. It can also lead to more positive emotions, which improves quality of life. Third, it can pave the way for better strategies for coping with stress and, fourth, it can increase social skills, leading to health-enhancing benefits.
It is the first of these, the direct physiological effects, that have been the focus of much of the research, with attention directed to the effects on the immune system and hormone levels. Laughter can increase levels of natural killer cells, boost levels of natural painkiller, improve anti-inflammatory activity and reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Some studies have also shown a good laugh increases levels of the "cuddle hormone" oxytocin and melatonin, as well as the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine, both targets of antidepressant and other medication.
Direct physical effects of laughter have included improved breathing and relaxed muscles. Laughter has been shown to have an effect on the heart, lungs, muscles and even the gut, where it was shown to lead to beneficial bacteria changes. It is also increasingly being used as a therapy, from hospital-based clowns to laughter yoga.
"There is evidence to suggest that laughter has some positive, quantifiable effects on certain aspects of health," says Dr Mora-Ripoll, author of a new review of the health effects of laughter in the medical journal, Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. "It seems appropriate that laughter therapy should take its place as a complementary medicine in the prevention and treatment of illnesses. Add laughter to your working and daily life, remember to laugh regularly, share your laughs, and help others to laugh, too."
The benefits of laughter
Laughter increases pain-tolerance and discomfort thresholds. It is thought to work as a distraction, but some studies show it also boosts levels of endorphins, our bodies' natural painkillers.
According to a University of Athens study, laughter reduces arterial stiffness, an indicator of cardiovascular disease risk. It also results in a drop in stress hormone levels. Studies also show that people with a greater propensity to laugh have a lower risk of heart disease and a lower risk of suffering heart attacks. It also lowers the incidence of heart attacks in high-risk patients with diabetes.
Watching a funny film can improve bacteria in the gut in people with eczema. Researchers say that alteration of intestinal bacteria is involved in the development of the condition and in a study at Moriguchi-Keijinkai Hospital in Japan, people watched several different comedies and then had their faeces analysed before and after each viewing. Interestingly, the results showed that laughing changed the bacterial make-up only in the eczema patients.
Laughter yoga is as good as a conventional exercise routine for depressed older women, according to a study at Allameh Tabatabai University, Tehran. Laughter Yoga is a combination of unconditioned laughter and yogic breathing.
The laughing doesn't rely on humour, jokes or comedy, and is simulated as a group body exercise. The theory is that both fake and real laughter have the same effect on the body.
A good giggle reduces blood levels of pro-inflammatory cytokine levels and growth hormones, and increases anti-inflammatory cytokine levels. The effects may last for 12 or more hours after the laughter has stopped, according to an Oxford study.
Laughter reduces skin reactions to allergens in tests. It also lowers levels of antibodies and improves sleep.
Diabetes type 2
Laughter may have a beneficial effect on blood glucose levels. It also leads to a reduced amount of inflammatory compounds and increased levels of good cholesterol in high-risk diabetic patients, according to a report in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine.
The effect of a hospital clown reduced hyperinflation in severe and very severe patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Laughter causes a 10 to 20 per cent increase in energy use, according to a study.
Smile yourself better
* Laughter costs nothing, and while research is still under way about its precise effects on our health, what's certain is that it makes us feel better.
* Seek out opportunities for laughter. Put on a funny DVD. Or spend time with people who make you laugh. Or visit a comedy club.
* Laughter is infectious, so you're more likely to laugh, and will laugh longer, if you're with others. So throw a comedy movie night or join your friends for a karaoke session.
* Learn to laugh at yourself. Telling embarrassing stories about yourself will make you laugh, and help you take yourself less seriously.