Laughter really is the best medicine
There’s no doubt that laughter is contagious. Who hasn’t experienced breaking out into uncontrollable laughter just by watching someone else laugh, even without having any idea what was so funny? A unique case out of Tanzania details a reported “laughter epidemic” that started with 3 girls, spread throughout their boarding school in Kashasha, and affected 95 of its 159 students. The epidemic lasted 16 days until the school was forced to close, but it didn’t stop there. It further spread to neighboring villages, ultimately lasting 6 to 18 months, closing down 14 schools, and affecting 1000 people in total.
As infectious as laughter is, it’s also quite good for your health. Humor has been used in medicine for thousands of years. One of the first mentions of laughter in medicine dates back more than 2000 years to the book of Proverbs in the Bible and surgeons used humor to distract patients from pain as early as the 13th century. The health benefits of laughter were also heavily studied during the early 20th century, but the first well-known study of the subject is credited to American journalist Norman Cousins. In his 1979 book Anatomy of an Illness, Cousins wrote of how he cured himself of an unknown spinal condition with a self-prescribed regimen of laughter and vitamins. He claimed that 10-minute intervals of intense laughter helped him get 2 hours of undisturbed sleep, despite the pain that had previously kept him from dozing off.
Today, laughter therapy is common in many hospitals. Although there is no concrete evidence that laughter can cure cancer, it is used in many patients for its abilities to reduce stress and enhance a person’s quality of life. In addition, laughter has been credited with:
- Promoting relaxation
- Improving sleep
- Strengthening social bonds
- Improving overall attitude
- Producing a general sense of well-being
Laughter has been shown to provide many physical benefits as well, such as:
- Boosting the immune system
- nhancing oxygen intake
- Stimulating the heart and lungs
- Relaxing muscles
- Easing digestion
- Relieving pain
- Improving blood pressure
- Improving mental functions
- Releasing endorphins
One study found that humor led to increased pain tolerance, believed to be caused by the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers. Laughter therapy even works if patients can’t find anything to genuinely laugh about, as forced or fake laughter still releases endorphins. Another study found that neuroendocrine and stress-related hormones decreased during laughter. In one particular case, an 88-year-old female patient was diagnosed with advanced gastric cancer and opted not to receive cancer treatment. Instead, she was prescribed laughter therapy, which took place in a laughter-inducing environment. The program was structured so that the patient felt safe and relaxed, and that it increased her joy of living. Just over a year and a half later, an endoscopy revealed that her condition significantly improved, and 5 years after her initial diagnosis, she remained in good condition.
An additional study looked at the physiological effects humor may have on immune functioning for 33 healthy adult women. The women were divided into 2 groups and were each shown different videos. The treatment group watched a humorous video, while the control group watched a video on tourism. The groups were then measured for self-reported stress, “mirthful laughter,” and natural killer (NK) cell levels. Compared to the control group, the women who watched the humorous video reported a significant decrease in stress following treatment, which appeared inversely correlated to their level of laughter. Furthermore, those who watched the humorous video had a significantly higher amount of NK cell levels than those in the control group. The researchers concluded that laughter seemed to reduce stress and improve NK cell levels, which can benefit cancer patients.
Even though laughter therapy can’t cure cancer, it can definitely help patients better cope with their pain, provide an improved sense of well-being, and boost immune function. Stress is a main cause of detrimental effects to physical and mental health and laughter is one way to fight it off. During such stressful times such as living with cancer, laughter is certainly the best medicine.
- Bennett MP, McCann J, Rosenberg L, Zeller JM. The effect of mirthful laughter on stress and natural killer cell activity. Altern Ther Health Med. 2003;9(2):38-45. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12652882.
- Humor therapy. American Cancer Society website. Revises November 1, 2008.
- Laughter therapy. Cancer Treatment Centers of America website.
- Noji S, Takayanagi K. A case of laughter therapy that helped improve advanced gastric cancer. Jpn Hosp. 2010 Jul(29):59-64. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21706962.
- Rodriguez D. Humor therapy and cancer. Everyday Health website. Updated February 9, 2010.
- Sebastian S. Examining 1962’s ‘laughter epidemic.’ Chicago Tribune website. July 29, 2003. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2003-07-29/features/0307290281_1_laughing-40th-anniversary-village.
- Vogt V. Can laughter cure illness? How Stuff Works website. http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/emotions/laughter-cure-illness1.htm.