“Always laugh when you can, it is cheap medicine.” – Lord Byron
It’s Week 40! And this week will be extra fun, because our More Than Healthy Tip is all about the health benefits of laughter.
Over the past 39 weeks, we’ve shared a lot of health tips – everything from including healthy oils and fats in your diet to which supplements to use to incorporating healthy habits like cold thermogenesis and red light therapy. Every tip we’ve shared has powerful potential to help you reclaim your health. But the healing power of laughter might be our favorite tip yet, and it’s one that is frequently underestimated.
Most of us started laughing when we were about four months old as an uncontrollable reflex. Before long, we are giggling about 400 times a day. But somewhere along the way, we become much more serious, because the average 40-year-old laughs a mere four times a day.
We love to laugh
Fortunately for me, there are not too many days that go by that I don’t laugh. I have my built-in comedy show with David around. And, now that I’ve learned how important laughter is for my health, I usually laugh before I tell him his comment was inappropriate.
As David puts it, “I’ve always been a class clown. I can’t count all the times I was put in a corner, set on a chair outside the classroom, or sent to the principal’s office for clowning around. I love to make people laugh. It’s one of my favorite things to do. It’s also the way I’ve dealt with the pain of my health challenges and some of my childhood trauma. You can read more about that in our book, Unlocking the Leaky Gut Code. In it I get pretty personal about all my health challenges, and humor has always been one of my favorite ways to distract myself and others from pain.”
When we were dating, one of the first things I loved about David was his sense of humor. He made me laugh all the time. He is so quick-witted and comes up with the most bizarre ways of observing life. I’ve said to him many times, “How did you even think of that so quick?” He responds with a wink, “I thought of 10 more things I shouldn’t say before I picked that one. You should be happy I’ve got such a good filter!”
Over the years I’ve tried to help David filter his one-liners, but the problem is that everyone else is laughing while I’m trying to keep a straight face. “David!!!” I reproachfully respond as I attempt not to laugh. One time I told my grandkids I need to stop saying, “David!!!” as I know they love how goofy their papa is. Their response was, “No grandma, don’t stop. As soon as papa says something goofy we love to hear you say, “David!!” That always makes it even more funny!”
Speaking of grandkids, I have to say that they’re one of my favorite forms of humor. I just love hanging out with them and watching and listening for them to say or do something hilarious. I think they provide me almost as much laughter as David does.
Laughter can become a lifeline
Laughter has been our lifeline, especially during the extremely difficult years when David’s life was in jeopardy due to his difficult health problems. In addition, science says that laughter might have literally helped to save his life.
Let’s take a look at five of our favorite benefits of laughter, and why a good belly laugh can make all the difference. There really is some remarkable science behind the health benefits of laughter.
Five of the best health benefits of laughter
Benefit #1: Laughter reduces stress
“A good, hearty laugh relieves physical tension and stress, leaving your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes after.”
Think of how you felt the last time you had a good, deep belly laugh. That kind of laughter is highly therapeutic. It’s also great for your health because it relieves stress. This is one of the best short-term effects of laughter, and it’s not just because you’ve lightened your mental load. You actually experience physical changes. When you laugh, you take in more oxygen-rich air. This in turn stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain. Those endorphins are natural, “feel-good” chemicals.
Laughter revs up and then cools down your stress response, ultimately reducing your heart rate and blood pressure. This helps you to feel relaxed. Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, relieving physical tension in the body and relaxing the muscles for up to 45 minutes after you laugh.
Dr. Anna Vedina of James River Internists uses laughter as medicine in her clinic. When she tells patients a good joke, the benefit is immediate. “I see a difference in their blood pressure when I recheck it,” she says, noting that patients’ blood pressure goes down after laughing.
Benefit #2: Laughter can reduce pain
The way I’ve watched David use laughter the most is to distract himself from the pain he was in constantly. For years, David battled debilitating pain. In our book, he describes how despite taking lots of pain medications, he still dealt with pain at a level of 7-9 on a pretty consistent basis. That kind of chronic pain takes a real toll on both physical and mental health, but David never gave up, and how he used laughter to deal with his pain was very inspiring to me.
Laughter can reduce pain by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers. This was discovered, documented, and named “laugh therapy” by a man named Norman Cousins. Cousins was the editor of The Saturday Review, an incredibly demanding and stressful job. In 1964, he contracted a crippling connective tissue disease and was told he had a 1 in 500 chance of survival. He decided to work to overcome the pain with high doses of vitamin C and self-induced bouts of laughter.
Cousins would watch the television show Candid Camera and other comic films. He discovered that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give him at least two hours of pain-free sleep. When it would wear off, he’d turn on another show, laugh, and get another pain-free interval. You can read more about this in his book, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient.
When David was battling chronic pain, he had no idea about the science of laughter. He just knew that it distracted him from his pain and provided him with some much-needed relief. Now we’ve learned that one of the reasons it worked is because laughter improves blood flow and causes a release of endorphins, our body’s natural painkiller. Research confirms that “humor therapy” is an effective nonpharmacological intervention for pain.
Prescribe yourself a funny movie for pain relief
My favorite study on this was conducted by Dr. Michael Miller, lead researcher and Director of Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Dr. Miller randomly assigned 20 healthy volunteers to watch 15-30 minutes of a light, funny movie, such as Kingpin, or a heavy, violent movie, such as Saving Private Ryan. The participants included both men and women, averaged 33 years old, and had their initial blood flow measured after an overnight fast.
A total of eight tests were given to each participant, and 160 measurements of blood flow were taken. The study’s results were dramatic. Almost all participants, 95% of them, experienced increased blood flow while watching the funny movie, while 74% had decreased flow while watching the ravages of war onscreen. Overall, blood flow increased 22% while laughing, and it decreased 35% during mental stress. Additionally, these changes lasted 30-45 minutes after watching the movie segment.
Researchers were able to confirm, for the first time, that laughter causes the endothelium (the inner lining of blood vessels) to dilate. This increases blood flow, which is good for cardiovascular health. Healthy blood flow is also directly related to pain levels and your ability to relax.
Laughter is as good for you as aerobics
The positive changes measured were similar to the benefits of exercise. “The magnitude of change we saw in the endothelium is similar to the benefit we might see with aerobic activity, but without the aches, pains, and muscle tension associated with exercise,” says Dr. Miller. “We don’t recommend that you laugh and not exercise, but we do recommend that you try to laugh on a regular basis. Thirty minutes of exercise three times a week, and 15 minutes of laughter on a daily basis is probably good for the vascular system.”
“Hearty laughter is a good way to jog internally without having to go outdoors.”
– Norman Cousins
Benefit #3: Laughter boosts your immune system
But that’s not all! Researchers at Loma Linda University in California have been studying the effects of laughter on the immune system for more than 20 years. In one study, participants watched Laurel and Hardy comedy shows (some of you are probably too young to even know what that is) with IVs in their arms, while researchers drew blood samples.
The results were astounding. Natural killer cells that attack viruses and tumor cells significantly increased in number and activity. The immune system’s T Cells, along with signaling components such as antibody Immunoglobulin A, Immunoglobulin G, and gamma interferon (which helps antibodies attack dysfunctional or infected cells) all increased. And – all of this not only happened during the bout of laughter, but it also lasted well into the following day.
As Dr. Lee S. Berk, DrPH and Associate Dean of Research Affairs for Loma Linda University School of Allied Health Professions, explains, many of the benefits of laughter overlap with each other. Laughter releases endorphins, our body’s natural painkiller. It releases serotonin, our natural anti-depressant. It produces good neuropeptides, which are the body’s chemical communicators. Laughter decreases cortisol, which in turn reduces stress, lowers our blood pressure, and increases oxygen intake. All of these effects of laughter positively affect stress levels, decrease pain, and enhance the immune system.
Dr. Berk’s research has confirmed a whole host of physiological changes that happen when we laugh. A good belly laugh can have the following physical results:
- The pituitary gland releases its own opiates, which suppress pain.
- The production of immune cells increases.
- Cortisol, the stress hormone which suppresses the immune system, is reduced dramatically.
- Epinephrine, which affects hypertension and heart failure, decreases.
- Antibody levels in both blood and saliva rise.
- The number of natural killer cells increases, accelerating the body’s natural anticarcinogenic response.
Benefit #4: Laughter improves memory
Another benefit of laughter that I’m interested in is the research that shows that laughter can improve your memory. I’m doing all I can to try to reduce those “senior moments” that increase with age. Learning ability and delayed recall are more challenging the older we get, so I love that there are things we can do to keep our minds sharp. Laughter is one of the best and easiest ways to do that.
In another study at Loma Linda University, results confirm that laughter makes a measurable difference when it comes to memory. Researchers took 20 normal, healthy older adults and had them watch funny videos distraction-free for 20 minutes. The control group sat calmly with no video. Afterward, they performed memory tests and had saliva samples analyzed for stress hormones.
You guessed it; those who got to laugh the 20 minutes away with the funny videos scored better on short-term memory tests. And, salivary levels of the stress hormone cortisol – which is kind of a memory enemy -– were significantly decreased in the humor group as well.
Laughter = good medicine for the brain
Here’s why it works: Research shows that the less stress you have, the better your memory is. Humor works because laughter reduces stress hormones, lowers blood pressure, and boosts your mood. When we laugh, our body produces endorphins and sends a hit of dopamine to the brain, which provides a sense of pleasure and reward. All of that makes the immune system work better and actually changes brain wave activity towards a “gamma frequency,” which amps up memory and recall.
Gamma frequency is important, because it is the only frequency found in all parts of the brain. “Mirthful laughter” actually sustains these gamma-band oscillations in the brain. Dr. Berk, who led this research at Loma Linda, explains why that’s so powerful: “It’s as if the brain gets a workout because the gamma wave band is in sync with multiple other areas of the brain that are in the same 30-40 hertz frequency. This allows for thinking more clearly and having more integrative thoughts. This is of value to individuals who need or want to revisit, reorganize, or rearrange various aspects of their lives or experiences to make them feel whole or more focused.”
If watching 20 minutes of funny videos amps up my brain power, count me in!
Benefit #5: Laughter may lower blood sugar
Another benefit we’ve discovered is that laughter can reduce your blood sugar. Researchers at the University of Tsukuba in Japan have found surprising results related to blood sugar levels and laughter. In this study, they collected blood-sugar measurements from participants with type 2 diabetes both before and two hours after a meal. After dinner on the first day, the patients attended a boring 40-minute lecture. No jokes were told. Then on the second day, participants ate the exact same meal they’d eaten the day before, but this time it was followed by a 40-minute comedy show.
The after-meal rise in blood sugar was significantly lower following the comedy show compared to the lecture. The same results were found even in healthy subjects without type 2 diabetes. Researchers concluded, “The present study elucidates the inhibitory effect of laughter on the increase in postprandial (after meal) blood glucose and suggests the importance of daily opportunities for laughter in patients with diabetes.” Or, in other words, a good laugh after dinner keeps your blood sugar in check.
Aren’t all of these studies on laughter fun? I love that science has found a way to verify that laughter is, indeed, the very best medicine.
It’s true that laughter really is cheap medicine. It’s a prescription anyone can afford. And best of all, you can fill it right now. – Steve Goodier
It turns out that the duration of the laugh (how long you laugh) is not nearly as important as the reason for the laughter. “Mirthful laughter,” or laughter that is based on something that truly tickles your funny bone, is what we’re after. Nervous or embarrassed laughter doesn’t count. According to Dr. Berk, the specialist we’ve quoted above who has studied laughter for over 20 years, mirthful laughter promotes a myriad of beneficial physiological changes that are conducive to happiness. This kind of laughter even promotes good (HDL) cholesterol.
And we agree with him when he says, “Happiness is the optimal immune system responsivity. Laugh as often and as much as you need until you feel good!”
How can we increase our laugh quota?
Now that we’ve given you plenty of reasons to incorporate a good dose of laughter in your day, let’s talk about some fun ways to do that. Some of the best ways we do that, besides David joking around all the time, is to play games with my kids and grandkids. We always seem to laugh while playing games together. We’re also fans of an impromptu dance party. Sometimes our grandkids just yell, “Alexa! Play dance monkey!” and we always laugh as we dance around the kitchen with them.
One of our favorite ways to laugh is by enjoying stand-up comedy. There is a great YouTube channel called “Dry Bar Comedy” (which is family-friendly), and we’ll put it on and laugh so hard – sometimes until we cry – for an hour or two. Some of our other favorite family-friendly comedians are Jim Gaffigan, Brian Regan, and Jim Breuer. Look them up! We promise you’ll get a good laugh out of them. We also like to watch the old Seinfield or Cheers shows for a good laugh.
Who doesn’t like a good prank? Once our friends stayed at our home in St George, where we keep our gold medals from the Huntsman Senior Games on display. The next time they invited us to their house for dinner, they were both wearing gold medals around their necks. It took us a while to figure out they were our medals! We had such a good laugh over that.
Music and costumes
Going a little out of your way to dress up can make people laugh. One year when we were at Lake Powell with our friends, we were supposed to come up with something for a talent show. I dressed David up in a muscle man outfit with a wig and ripped jeans and I lip-synced to “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen (see photo below). We cracked everyone up – including ourselves!
“Call Me Maybe”
Another of our favorites is when we dress David up as “Dr. Heiney.” He wears a lab coat and crazy wig, and we do science experiments with our grandkids. They always howl with laughter, and I know they’ll have memories of Dr. Heiney forever!
Speaking of memories, one of my kid’s most embarrassing moments was when they brought a friend home and David met them at the door dressed in a skirt. We still laugh about that 25 years later. It doesn’t have to be Halloween to dress up in costume and get a good laugh.
Mr. Clean and I
If all else fails, laugh at yourself
If these ideas aren’t your thing, that’s okay! There are so many fun ways to incorporate humor into your day. There are websites and funny YouTube videos that you can watch with lots of ideas. Try to break out of your comfort zone a bit and see if you can find some way to laugh every day. One of the best, healthiest ways to laugh is to be able to laugh at yourself.
That popular saying that, “laughter is the best medicine,” really is true! Laughter makes you feel good in the moment. It helps you get over negative baggage in your past. And it helps you to have a healthy, bright future!
The healing health benefits of laughter
Laughter is important, not only because it makes us happy, it also has actual health benefits. And that’s because laughter completely engages the body and releases the mind. It connects us to others, and that in itself has a healing effect.
– Marlo Thomas
We hope this tip is one you choose to incorporate into your life. If you are able to laugh more, not only will you better your own life, you’ll also make life better for everyone around you. I don’t know if any of our other tips are contagious, but laughter definitely is! And we can all use more laughter in our life!
Did any of the health benefits of laughter surprise you? What is something that always makes you laugh? We would love to hear about it. You can reach out to us on any of our social media pages.
You can also join us on our free More Than Healthy coaching calls. We do them once a month on a Tuesday night at 6 PM MST. Anyone can join us. We discuss all the tips we shared that month and answer any questions. It’s a great venue to learn and to ask any questions you might have. If you’d like to join us, just text COACHING to 1-647-558-9895 to get on our email list or watch our social media pages for the link.
Thanks for joining us, and we’ll see you next week.