Here’s why laughter is the best medicine—besides actual medicine

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published December 13, 2018

Key Takeaways

As the old saying goes, laughter is the best medicine—but for what? Can laughter cure cancer or defeat the common cold? Can laughing fix erectile dysfunction? Hmm, probably not.

We know that laughing has the intangible ability to make us feel better—it reduces tension and helps us cope. But laughter has also shown measurable clinical effects in the body: It releases endogenous opioids and endorphins in the brain, increases the activity of natural killer cells to strengthen the immune system, and lowers cortisol levels in blood circulation for stress reduction. Moreover, laughter is known to increase tolerance to pain and improve vascular function.

All in all, that’s pretty good medicine. Here are a few more examples of how laughter can be effective (if not the best) medicine.

Improv improves ADLs in Parkinson’s patients

There’s nothing funny about Parkinson’s disease—but maybe there should be.

After performing in an improv comedy course, people with Parkinson’s disease showed significant improvement in activities of daily living, reported researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, IL, in Parkinsonism & Related Disorders.

For this study, the researchers recruited patients with Parkinson’s disease to participate in a 12-week course operated by The Second City®, an improvisational comedy group known for launching the careers of professional funny people like John Belushi, Bill Murray, Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, and many others. At the end of the course—in which all but one participant attended at least 80% of the once-weekly classes—patients showed significantly improved scores on a ratings scale of activities of daily living (ADLs).

For people with Parkinson’s disease, “as mobility becomes limited, spontaneity of thought and action also becomes impaired,” the researchers wrote. “Because the success of an improv scene requires an element of risk-taking, playfulness, and support, the personal development benefits of practicing may include a greater ability to ‘live in the moment’ and focus.”

A laugh a day keeps the cardiologist away

Can laughter prevent cardiovascular disease? Researchers in Japan have found that people who said they never or almost never laugh had 1.21 times higher prevalence of heart disease compared with people who reported laughing every day, even after adjustment for confounding risk factors. The prevalence ratio for stroke was even greater: 1.60 times higher among never-laughers compared with daily laughers, the researchers reported in the Journal of Epidemiology.

For this study, the researchers analyzed cross-sectional data of 20,934 men and women aged 65 years or older from the Japan Gerontological Evaluation Study. After adjusting for hyperlipidemia, hypertension, depression, body mass index, and other risk factors, the researchers determined that daily laughter is associated with lower prevalence of cardiovascular diseases.

“Although our study could not clearly show any preventive effect of laughter on cardiovascular diseases due to its cross-sectional nature, the present findings are consistent with such an effect, since those who reported having been diagnosed with stroke or heart disease were found not to laugh as often as those who did not have a history of stroke or heart disease,” the amusing authors hilariously concluded.

They acknowledged that their study did have limitations. For one, they couldn’t rule out “reverse causality”—meaning that people with serious illnesses, such as stroke and heart disease, may have less frequent occasions to feel cheerful. Another limitation: Laughter itself may be a sign of having a physically and/or mentally positive lifestyle.

“People who have a more positive outlook on life may be more motivated to engage in healthy behaviors, such as exercise, healthy diet, and moderation in alcohol consumption,” the authors wrote. “Although we controlled for many of these behaviors, the possibility of residual confounding cannot be ruled out.”

Laughter lightens chronic pain in seniors

“Humor therapy” is an effective nonpharmacological intervention for chronic pain in nursing home residents, according to researchers in a study published in the Journal of Aging Research.

Because many older people simply accept pain as a part of aging, they don’t seek help until their pain becomes severe and unbearable. To add insult to injury, chronic pain not only impairs functional mobility and increases health-care costs, but also often results in social isolation, loneliness, and depression in older folks, the researchers observed.

To that end, they recruited two groups of similar residents in similar nursing homes to find out if humor therapy could reduce chronic pain and loneliness, and improve happiness. In one nursing home, 36 residents participated in an 8-week humor program, while 34 residents in another nursing home were evaluated but not offered the program. About two-thirds of all residents reported chronic pain.

During the humor program, participants made a “happy” scrapbook, heard and told jokes, had laughing exercises, and participated in other funny activities and games. Researchers found that at the end of the program, participants had significant reductions in pain scores and loneliness measures, as well as significant increases in happiness and life satisfaction scores. Sadly, those in the control group had no such improvements. (But don’t worry—the team visited these folks after the study and provided humor activities for them, too.)

The researchers concluded that humor therapy is an effective—and appealing—intervention for reducing pain and loneliness, and increasing happiness and life satisfaction.

“Nurses and other healthcare professionals can incorporate humor in caring for their patients. Telling a joke and encouraging clients to tell a funny story may have a therapeutic effect,” the authors suggested. “Regardless of their physical condition, patients need to allow themselves to be happy, to let humor play a greater role in their lives, and to enjoy life.”

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