Is Laughter the Best Medicine?

Let’s start the year with a good, deep belly laugh, the kind that makes you cry and may even leave you gasping for air. The kind of laugh that can turn heads is contagious and can fill a room. With the challenges we face every day, adding more laughter to your life can help to lighten up some dark times while adding many health benefits.

The origin of the phrase, “laughter is the best medicine” is unknown. However in 1964, Dr. William F. Fry, then a professor of psychology at Stanford University in California, was the first scientist to propose that laughter could be a field of study and published research on the beneficial physiological processes that result from laughing. He also coined the word “gelotology,” the study of laughter and its effects on the body.

When you laugh your muscles in the abdominal area contract, similar to exercises that focus on the abdomen. It can stimulate the heart to beat faster, provide extra blood and oxygen to the body, and trigger the brain to release endorphins which can help you to feel more relaxed both physically and mentally. Mirthful laughter may increase natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell that attacks cancer cells. There are even yoga teachers offering classes in laughter yoga.

Norman S. Cousins wrote the best-selling classic Anatomy of an Illness: As Perceived by the Patient in 1979. The book suggests combating life-threatening illnesses through humor and patient participation in one’s own healing process. He said that laughter produces a natural body anesthesia.

Several studies have shown that laughter can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease, boost the immune system, enhance mood, decrease pain, relieve anxiety and tension, relax muscles, improve brain functioning, and nurture relationships.

Dr. Lee Berk, a professor at Loma Linda University in California, has spent decades studying how a wave of laughter can affect one’s mental and physical state. He says, “Our mind, hormone system and immune system are constantly communicating with one another in ways that impact everything from your mood to your ability to fend off sickness and disease.” He also believes that laughter counters the effects of stress, shutting down the release of stress hormones like cortisol and triggering the production of feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine, as well as providing calming, anti-anxiety benefits. “Think of laughter as the yin to stress’s yang,” he advises.

Substantial research on psychoneuroimmunology, the study of the effects of the mind on health and resistance to disease, reinforces the belief that our emotions, mind, and body communicate through an elaborate flow of hormones, cytokines, and neuropeptides. The research also confirms that mood, thoughts, and feelings have an impact on our health. So go ahead and get started on laughter medicine, let out a big guffaw, and reap the rewards!