Wading Through The Research: Laughter Is The Best Medicine

(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on Dec 20th, 2012)

We’ve all heard the old adage that “Laughter is the Best Medicine”. Personally, I’ve always believed it but I’ve never really thought long and hard about it before. Who doesn’t feel better after watching a good comedy, but is it really providing any benefit? Well, I decided it was about time to check it out. Join me in exploring the health benefits of laughter as we Wade Through the Research.

Lots of people talk about how uncontrolled laughter is somehow equivalent to working out and burning calories. I was unable to find any research articles to corroborate this but materials from reliable sources around the net do claim to have proof but fail to cite their sources1,2. The abdominal muscles and diaphragm are involved in a hearty belly laugh3 so it is imaginable that some exercise and stability may be gained through regular laughter. After uncontrolled laughter, the general tone (resting tension/partial contraction of muscles) of the muscles throughout the body decreases as in relaxation3.

Research does support the idea that laughter is similar to cardiovascular exercise in its effect on the circulatory system if not the calories burned. During laughter our heart rate, arterial compliance (the ability of our arteries to expand and contract with differing pressures), and blood pressure all increase4,5,6,7,8. Variability in our heart rate is excellent for heart health as lower variability has been linked with multiple health conditions, so this temporary increase is very important. Arterial compliance should always be high as this provides us with the greatest ability to respond to unexpected changes and decreases the risk of strokes and aneurysms. The increase in blood pressure does seem a little backwards but this jump in blood pressure does apparently lead to a lower resting pressure when it happens regularly1. These effects are heightened when the laughter has an emotional aspect to it rather than a more analytical enjoyment8.

Laughter can take your breath away and leave you on the ground gasping but that is not because we can’t get enough air in. It is because the process of laughter uses a lot of air in the first place. Our respiration volume increases dramatically during laughter and provides more oxygen to our blood5,8. The benefits of greater oxygenation of the blood and tissues are well known and include clearer thinking, less muscular tension, and decreased stress.

Laughter has been shown to decrease stress in another way as well. The hormones most closely associated with stress in our bodies; cortisol, epinephrine (“Adrenaline”), and others are all seen to decrease during laughter9,10 but I was unable to find evidence on how long this effect lasted. Effects like this are generally not short-lived as they require the alteration of hormone synthesis rate within the adrenal gland cells.

This effect could also be behind the claims that laughter boosts the immune system because cortisol is a strong immune suppressor. This is just a theory as there is little research to be found to support any change in immune function with laughter and what there is shows very mixed results11.

Some research exists that shows a connection between laughter and increased pain tolerance12 but this is limited mixed just like the immune literature12.

So there is a growing body of research out there and it is still fairly small but it is definitely enough to convince me to have a good guffaw frequently. I hope you will join me sometime.

Thanks for reading,
Dr. Ben

Resource List
1. http://www.ca.uky.edu/hes/fcs/factshts/hsw-caw-807.pdf

2. http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/give-your-body-boost-with-laughter (accessed 12/19/12)

3. http://center-for-nonverbal-studies.org/laugh.htm (accessed 12/17/12)

4. Sugawara J, Tarumi T, and Tanaka H. Effect of Mirthful Laughter on Vascular Function. American Journal of Cardiology 2010 106(6):856-859

5. Herring DR, Burleson MH, Roberts NA, and Devine MJ. Coherent with laughter: subjective experience, behavior, and physiological responses during amusement and joy. International Journal of Psychophysiology 2011 79(2):211-218

6. Miller M, Mangano CC, Beach V, Kop WJ, and Vogel RA. Divergent effects of joyful and anxiety-provoking music on endothelial vasoreactivity. Psychosomatic Medicine 2010 72(4):354-356

7. McMahon C, Mahmud A, and Feely J. Taking blood pressure — no laughing matter! Blood Pressure Monitoring 2005 10(2):109-110

8. Giuliani NR, McRae K, and Gross JJ. The up- and down-regulation of amusement: experiential, behavioral, and autonomic consequences. Emotion 2008 8(5):714-719

9. Vlachopoulos C, Xaplanteris P, Alexopoulos N, Aznaouridis K, Vasiliadou C, Baou K, Stefanadi E, and Stefanadis C. Divergent effects of laughter and mental stress on arterial stiffness and central hemodynamics. Psychosomatic Medicine 2009 71(4):446-453

10. Berk LS, Tan SA, Fry WF, Napier BJ, Lee JW, Hubbard RW, Lewis JE, and Eby WC. Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter. The American Journal of the Medical Sciences 1989 298(6):390-396

11. Martin RA. Humor, laughter, and physical health: methodological issues and research findings. Psychological Bulletin 2001 127(4):504-519

12. Dunbar RI, Baron R, Frangou A, Pearce E, van Leeuwen EJ, Stow J, Partridge G, MacDonald I, Barra V, and van Vugt M. Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold. Proceedings. Biological Sciences / The Royal Society 2012 279(1731):1161-1167

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