How delightful to learn that laughter really is the best medicine and will perhaps add as many good years to your life as other familiar health tips. Could it be so simple that a positive attitude reduces heart disease and stress-related hormones, improves the immune system and leads to a longer life? The scripture teaches that “a joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (proverbs 17:22) and it turns out science supports this notion.
Happy people tend to live longer and experience better health than their unhappy peers according to a review of more than 160 studies of human and animal studies. The lead author, University of Illinois professor emeritus of psychology Ed Diener, summarized “the general conclusion from each type of study is that your subjective well-being – that is, feeling positive about your life, not stressed out, not depressed – contributes to both longevity and better health among healthy populations.”
The cardiovascular system is our “Achilles heel” when it comes to health and the leading cause of death is heart disease. Studies of artery health focus on how well the cells that line the arteries function – like the canary in a coalmine they are the sentinels of health and disease in the system. These cells are called endothelial cells and they control blood pressure and keep cholesterol from oxidizing and making plaque. Many cardiac studies look at endothelial function as the marker for arterial health.
Japanese research printed in the American Journal of Cardiology shows that mirthful laughter increases beneficial endothelial function. Participants watching a comedy had positive markers of endothelial health while those watching a serious documentary had a decline in artery health.
A study from the Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine called “The divergent effects of joyful and anxiety-provoking music on endothelial vasoreactivity” showed that listening to joyful music was good for artery health while anxiety-inducing music was bad for the arteries. Self-selected joyful music was associated with increased endothelial function to a magnitude previously observed with aerobic activity or statin drug therapy! Their conclusion was that listening to joyful music may be an adjunctive life-style intervention for the promotion of vascular health.
An interesting study titled “Effects of laughing and weeping on mood and heart rate variability” points out that laughing has strong but transient effects on the autonomic nervous system, while weeping or feeling sad has moderate but sustained effects on it. It would seem that having a “heavy heart” really does have physiologic significance.
Laughter has been shown to benefit the immune system by increasing protective natural killer cells that help fight infection while lowering both the stress hormone cortisol and the inflammatory marker interleukin-6. Laughter will increase beneficial growth hormone, the anti-aging hormone that helps keep us young. Patients with cancer and other terminal illnesses benefit by laughter and show improved outlook, less pain and longer survival.
A study looking at the effect of humor on well being of nursing home residents showed that upon completion of a humor therapy program, there were significant decreases in pain and perception of loneliness, and significant increases in happiness and life satisfaction. The use of humor therapy appears to be an effective non-pharmacological intervention. The authors suggest that nurses and other healthcare professionals could incorporate humor in caring for their patients.
As science continues to tease out the exact mechanisms of how laughter improves health we can rest assured that it works. In the bleakest of times, with both psychological and physical stress, good humor and positive attitude are potent tools to help us along. While happiness might not by itself prevent or cure disease, the evidence that positive emotions and enjoyment of life contribute to better health and a longer lifespan is stronger than the data linking obesity to reduced longevity.
Eat right, exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight, and don’t smoke, but most importantly, remember that attitude determines thought, thought determines action, and apparently thought determines health. Good humor is good medicine. So dance like no one is watching, sing like you are the star, whistle while you work, and laugh until your eyes water, your belly shakes and you gasp for air!
Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement for men and women, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call (970) 245-6911 for an appointment or more information.