They say laughter is good for the soul. Did you know that laughter is good for your bodily health too? When you laugh, protective hormones and immune cells spring into action. Your blood flows better, and you feel less pain. Many scientific studies support using humor for healing. When it comes to being packed full of health benefits, laughter is no joke. Plus, the harder you laugh, the better. Let’s find out why.
The King’s Court
In the palaces of the ancient Egyptians, Romans and English royalty, the jester was a prominent figure. His jokes delighted kings, queens and guests. Jesters were highly regarded because humor brought relief to stressful situations. Little did they know that the jokes were modifying their levels of cortisol, epinephrine, growth hormone, dopamine and serotonin.
Hardly Catch Your Breath
Did you ever laugh so hard that you had trouble breathing? Well, when you laugh long and hard, it helps ventilate your lungs. This may help remove residual air from your lungs and allow for oxygen-rich air to enter.
Another physical benefit to laughter is improved circulation of lymph. When you enjoy prolonged laughter, a large portion of your body muscles contract. This pushes lymph forward, which is important for proper immune function.
A study done in Japan tested how laughter affects elderly people with mild cognitive impairment. There were 27 participants who watched a comedy show once a week for 10 weeks. The use of humor led to significantly higher cognitive scores in exercise, word memory and animal name recall. For those without impairment, there’s a good chance that laughter helps maintain or improve thinking ability. It may even be useful in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.
Besides the physical aspect of laughter, humor is also a great brain exercise. When you hear a joke, you think on an abstract level. A joke doesn’t describe something like a news story. Instead, humor draws upon shared human experiences to draw a conclusion that you identify with. When you “get” a joke, it requires a different kind of brain effort. Think of it like cross training for your neurons.
There’s even a dark side to laughter to be aware of. If someone starts to find humor in things that aren’t funny — like natural disasters or someone having an asthma attack — it could be a sign of dementia. Exaggerated or highly inappropriate laughter might be a warning sign.
When one person laughs, others tend to join in. Some people even have a special laugh that is highly contagious. This social aspect of laughter reveals its deeper value to mental health. We know that social connections are good for brain function. Very social people are less likely to develop dementia. So, when you share a good laugh, neurologic protective mechanisms are busy keeping the joke going.
Research shows that laughter is a potent stimulator of endorphin release into the bloodstream. A study done in Finland used positron emission tomography (PET) scanning to measure laughter-induced endogenous opioid release in 12 healthy males. First, the men sat in a room alone for 30 minutes. Then, they watched funny videos with a group of friends. Social laughter triggered increased endogenous opioid release in the thalamus, caudate nucleus and anterior insula portions of the brain.
This feel-good chemical had been sometimes referred to as your body’s natural morphine. The natural way of feeling good has no downside, however. Except that you might become obsessed with reading the funny pages.
Influence on Serotonin
The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant medications work by keeping serotonin around longer. This neurotransmitter helps improve mood and reduces anxiety. In one study, women with different levels of depression were treated with laughter therapy. For all the groups, serotonin levels increased and depression scores improved. Those who had the most severe depression seemed to benefit the most.
Serotonin has many other effects besides just mood. It also helps regulate intestinal movement, wound healing, sleep patterns and sexual function. It’s not a stretch then to see that laughter might help with problems such as weight control and sexual dysfunction.
It might not surprise you that laughter decreases stress, but research shows it also decreases the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine. These hormones are important when your body has to react to an emergency. However, with chronic stress, the hormones may stay elevated and damage your cells. Excess cortisol may cause:
- Anxiety and depression
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
- High blood sugar or diabetes
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
If laughter can help prevent all of these problems, it’s certainly worth getting a healthy dose of the giggles now and then.
Like superfoods that seem to help nearly every body system, a big part of laughter’s benefit may be due to its effects on inflammation. This circles back to the fact that laughter increases endorphin levels. This, in turn, can:
- Lower blood pressure: Helps reduce your risk for heart attack and stroke
- Reduce stress hormone levels: Leads to an improved immune system response
- Elevate the number of T-cells: Specialized immune system cells that fight off illness and infection
- Dilates (widens) blood vessels: Improves circulation to reduce your risk for heart disease
- Increase levels of HDL: Also known as “good” cholesterol
- Reduces levels of pain: Includes chronic pain problems
How to Get More of a Good Thing
We’re convinced that laughter is good for you. This is proven from human experience and scientific studies. So what are some of the best ways to get more humor into your life? Here are some suggestions:
- Watch a funny show: You probably have a favorite already, but try new ones that are popular; watching with someone else is even better since laughter is social and contagious
- Go to a comedy club: Nothing can make you laugh quite like a great live performance, and being with others magnifies the benefit as you all come out smiling; make sure you check ahead of time that the show won’t offend you in any way
- Be social: Getting together with good friends or family members is sure to stimulate laughter
- Pull out old photos or videos: Try to remember amusing moments in the past and relive the laughter
- Play a game: It might sound old-fashioned, but playing a game like charades is certain to bring out genuine laughs
- Laugh on purpose: Begin laughing for no reason at all, and then keep it up; the next thing you know, you’ll be laughing for real (works best in a group)
- Start with smiling: Intentionally decide to smile more; this helps break down emotional barriers that might stop you from laughing
Back Your Way into Joy
Nobody has to tell you that it’s healthy to be happy. Beyond all the scientific information, everyone has a deep desire to have joy in their lives. For some, you might have to work backward. What does this mean? Start with laughter.
The suggestions showing how to get more laughter into your life — did you skim over them and shrug? Go back and read them again. Make a conscious effort to put them into practice. Even if you don’t feel particularly joyful right now, you can change this.
Why not try it now? Once you finish reading this article, close your eyes. Remember a funny moment in your life. Smile about it. Then, let out a big ho ho or little hee hee. Let the giggle roll out into a laugh. Go with it. Let it out. Feel your body changing. Go ahead — laugh your way to health!
DiSalvo, D. (2017, June 5). Six Science-Based Reasons Why Laughter Is The Best Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2017/06/05/six-science-based-reasons-why-laughter-is-the-best-medicine/#21b80c637f04
Effect and Path Analysis of Laughter Therapy on Serotonin, Depression and Quality of Life in Middle-aged Women. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://synapse.koreamed.org/DOIx.php?id=10.4040/jkan.2015.45.2.221&vmode=PUBREADER
Elgot, J. (2017, September 20). Signs of dementia could include sense of humour getting darker, says study. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/nov/10/darker-sense-of-humour-could-be-sign-of-dementia-says-study
How Laughter Benefits Your Heart | UPMC HealthBeat. (2014, December 23). Retrieved from http://share.upmc.com/2014/12/laughter-can-benefit-heart/
J.Y. (n.d.). Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter in Mental Health: A Theoretical Review. – PubMed – NCBI. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27439375
Measuring the Cognitive Impact of Laughter on Elderly People with Mild Cognitive Impairment in Japan. (2012, November 7). Retrieved from https://www.scirp.org/Journal/PaperInformation.aspx?PaperID=24400
Social Laughter Triggers Endogenous Opioid Release in Humans. (2017, May 23). Retrieved from http://www.jneurosci.org/content/early/2017/05/23/JNEUROSCI.0688-16.2017