Why laugh­ter some­times re­ally is the best medicine.

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Muiris Hous­ton:

“The best doc­tors in the world are Dr Diet, Dr Quiet and Dr Mer­ry­man.” – Jonathan Swift

Ihave a soft spot for med­i­cal apho­risms. Some are true: the 19th-cen­tury phrase of Welsh ori­gin –“an ap­ple a day keeps the doc­tor away” – is true of a diet replete with fruit and veg­eta­bles. “Feed a cold and starve a fever”, de­spite its Hip­po­cratic ori­gins, lacks sci­en­tific ve­rac­ity.

What about Voltaire’s “the art of medicine con­sists of amus­ing the pa­tient while na­ture cures the dis­ease?” In­deed is there any ev­i­dence that “laugh­ter is the best medicine”?

Dr Wil­liam Osler, the doyen of med­i­cal teach­ers, thought it im­por­tant for doc­tors to main­tain good hu­mour: “Hi­lar­ity and good hu­mour, a breezy cheer­ful­ness, a na­ture ‘slop­ing to­wards the south­ern side’, as James Rus­sell Low­ell has it, help enor­mously both in the study and the prac­tice of medicine,” he wrote.

There is some sci­en­tific ev­i­dence to show that com­edy is good for your heart. In one study, re­searchers asked 20 healthy peo­ple to watch 15 min­utes of King­pin, a 1996 Woody Har­rel­son com­edy. Af­ter a 48-hour break, the same vol­un­teers were asked to view the open­ing bat­tle scene from Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan.

Af­ter watch­ing each film seg­ment, re­searchers car­ried out a non-in­va­sive ul­tra­sound test to mea­sure the changes in the re­ac­tiv­ity of blood ves­sels. They found that blood flow in­creased by 22 per cent af­ter watch­ing King­pin, but de­creased 35 per cent af­ter Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan. The av­er­age in­crease in blood flow af­ter ex­er­cise is sim­i­lar to that achieved by watch­ing com­edy.

Re­lease of en­dor­phins

Study au­thor Dr Michael Miller, pro­fes­sor of medicine at the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land School of Medicine, says watch­ing a film or a sit­com that pro­duces laugh­ter has a pos­i­tive ef­fect on car­dio­vas­cu­lar func­tion and may be as ben­e­fi­cial as go­ing for a run.

How­ever, the laugh­ter must be in­tense – “more of a deep belly laugh”, Dr Miller said – and needs to last for about 15 sec­onds to be ef­fec­tive. Af­ter a hearty laugh, it has been es­ti­mated our mus­cles stay re­laxed for up to 45 min­utes.

He be­lieves that laugh­ter ex­erts its car­diac ben­e­fits through the re­lease of en­dor­phins by the brain which in turn leads to the re­lease of ni­tric ox­ide by the lin­ing of blood ves­sels. Ni­tric ox­ide is known to di­late blood ves­sels, re­duce in­flam­ma­tion and help pre­vent choles­terol be­ing de­posited in ar­ter­ies.

And the power of laugh­ter is not con­fined to heart health. There have been pre­vi­ous re­ports of skin rashes dis­ap­pear­ing when pa­tients with der­mati­tis watched a Mr Bean video. And a stand-up com­edy act ap­par­ently helped lower blood glu­cose lev­els in pa­tients with di­a­betes.

In the case of Mr Bean, the re­searchers demon­strated lower lev­els of a stress-re­lated chem­i­cal in the blood, sug­gest­ing that laugh­ter trig­gered a pos­i­tive re­ac­tion in the im­mune sys­tem of peo­ple with der­mati­tis.

Im­mune sys­tem

Fur­ther ev­i­dence of a di­rect ef­fect on the im­mune sys­tem comes from US re­search which found that peo­ple shown a com­edy had higher lev­els of nat­u­ral killer (NK) cells in the body.

Watch­ing a film or a sit­com that pro­duces laugh­ter has a pos­i­tive ef­fect on car­dio­vas­cu­lar func­tion and may be as ben­e­fi­cial as go­ing for a run

Low NK ac­tiv­ity is linked to de­creased dis­ease re­sis­tance in peo­ple with HIV and can­cer.

Of course it can be hard to sep­a­rate out the di­rect ef­fects of laugh­ter on the body from other fac­tors. Could a good gig­gle’s im­mune sys­tem ben­e­fits be me­di­ated by re­duc­ing stress? And since most laugh­ter oc­curs in the com­pany of others, might its health ben­e­fits be due, at least in part, to so­cial in­ter­ac­tion and con­nect­ing with other peo­ple?

There is some ev­i­dence that laugh­ter is an anal­gesic and may in­duce a dose-re­lated re­sponse; but again the ques­tion of whether this is due to sim­ple dis­trac­tion from pain or some in­her­ent chem­i­cal ben­e­fit re­mains to be seen.

And fi­nally the “true” sci­en­tific an­swer to does an ap­ple a day keep the doc­tor away? Only if you aim it well enough.

Have a good one.

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