We've all heard the saying that laughter is the best medicine. But can laughter really help our bodies to heal? New research into laughter and humor therapy reveals that not only does laughing make us feel better emotionally, it can actually cause physical changes within our body improving our respiratory, circulatory, and immune systems as well as providing great physical exercise and muscle toning.
Why is Laughing Good For Us?
Dr. Lee Berk of Loma University Medical Centre in California has been studying the benefits of laughing since the late 1970s. His research has measured the effect of laughter on cortisol (a hormone released under stress) and immune system response. The results? Laughing decreases stress hormones and increases the levels of killer immune system cells, responsible for fending off viruses and tumour growth.
When we're stressed, our adrenal glands produce cortisol, a hormone that prepares the body for a fight or flight response by giving our large muscles a good dose of glucose for instant energy. Nature designed our bodies this way so that we could deal with stressors efficiently. The problem is that in today's society we tend to be in a steady state of stress. Even low-level stress when constant can, over time, cause illness.
Studies have shown that cortisol decreases in people who are exposed to something funny for a prolonged period of time. Cortisol can wreak havoc in the body in large quantities so we can literally laugh our way to health by reducing our stress levels and the effect that stress has on our bodies and creating disease.
When we laugh, our bodies release endorphins which lower our levels of stress and act as natural painkillers. In his book Anatomy of Illness, Norman Cousins outlines a regimen of laughter and vitamins that helped him to alleviate the severe pain he suffered from an ongoing illness. The great thing is that our bodies cannot tell the difference between genuine and fake laughter. The physical response is the same.
Additional research has demonstrated that the benefits of laughing also include improved cardiovascular health, digestion, sleep, mental function and reduction in pain.
What Is Laughter Therapy?
Medical doctors have been at the forefront of championing 'Laughter Therapy,' as they seek to bring their patients a deeper healing than what drugs or surgery could provide. Perhaps most famously, Dr. Hunter "Patch" Adams, memorably played on film by Robin Williams, created a therapeutic clown program to bring the healing benefits of laughter to thousands around the world.
"Laughter is a built-in medicine cabinet," says Cheryl Ann Oberg. Oberg is executive director of Calgary's Caring Clown Association, and takes a turn twice a week as "Sparkle the Clown" at the Alberta Children's Hospital.
It can be hard to conjure a laugh when you're in pain or experiencing depression or chronic illness. Amazingly, the body responds with a flood of healing endorphins (the 'feel-good hormones') whether your laugh is genuine or fake.
Laughter therapy can be done in individual or group sessions. It's the therapist's job to develop activities that will get you to laugh. The advantage to group therapy is that laughter is contagious. If a group is laughing, chances are you'll join in because our brains respond to the sound of laughter by prepping us to do the same.
Some scientists even believe that we may have learned to laugh before we learned language which helped us to interact socially within groups. With our fast-paced, get it done now society, laughter and humor therapy can bring us to a more balanced, relaxed and positive place in our lives where we can laugh our way to good health.
Dr. Madan Karia, inspired in part by the research of Dr. Berk, developed 'Laughter Yoga,' now a worldwide program that has brought the health benefits of laughing to thousands. Because the benefits of laughing are triggered even by a fake laugh, Laughter Yoga and other laughter therapy programs get you giggling through physical exercises and role-playing. It doesn't usually take long for the laughter to become the real thing!
Have a laugh - it's good for you!