[dropcap]I[/dropcap]nstead of reaching for pain relievers in your medicine cabinet or paying for expensive treatments to alleviate pain, try this age-old trick known as the best medicine on Earth…
That’s right; you don’t have to resort to over-the-counter medications with dangerous side effects to experience pain relief – you can simply laugh more and get the same results for free. The best thing about laughter is that it’s easily accessible everywhere – you can laugh at funny movies, your children, your friends, your family, and even yourself!
Experts believe that a hearty chuckle can release endorphins in the brain which can ease muscle tension, decrease pain, and even boost the immune system. In addition to those benefits, laughter also has been proven to reduce stress, improve blood flow and even reduce the risk for high blood pressure.
In 2009, two studies presented at the American College of Sports Medicine’s yearly meeting in Seattle concluded that laughter allows for dilation of blood vessels, which increases blood flow and vascular health.
The first study performed by researchers involved a handful of healthy adults who watched either a comedy or documentary. During the films, the doctors checked their carotid arteries, which are the main arteries in the neck that transport blood to the brain and face. People who watched the comedy showed higher “arterial compliance,” or the amount of blood that flows through the arteries. If blood flow is restricted, it can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease, according to an American College of Sports Medicine news release.
In the second study, the researchers found that the group of adults who watched a comedy had further dilated blood vessels than the group who watched the documentary. Constricted blood vessels can lead to high blood pressure, according to the news release, and the documentary actually restricted the participant’s blood vessels by 18 percent.
In both cases, the positive effects of laughter lasted for a full 24 hours, proving that laughter can contribute to health long after the initial laughing occurs.
Another study performed in 2009 by cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore revealed that laughter, paired with a lively sense of humor, may even help ward off heart attacks. The study found that people with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh in many instances compared to people in the same age bracket without heart disease.
Michael Miller, M.D., director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said that mental stress can impair the endothelium, or the protective barrier lining the blood vessels. He explained that this can lead to various inflammatory reactions that lead to fat and cholesterol build-up in the coronary arteries, which ultimately results in a heart attack.
In the study, researchers compared the reactions of 300 people. Half of the participants had either experienced a heart attack or undergone coronary artery bypass surgery. The other half did not have heart problems. The researchers passed out two questionnaires, one which had a series of questions with multiple-choice answers to discover how much or how little people laughed in certain conditions, and the second one listed statements in a true/false format to measure anger and hostility.
Miller revealed that the most noteworthy finding from the study was that “people with heart disease responded less humorously to everyday life situations.” Generally, they laughed less, even in positive situations, and displayed higher levels of anger or hostility.
“The ability to laugh — either naturally or as learned behavior — may have important implications in societies such as the U.S. where heart disease remains the number one killer,” says Miller. “We know that exercising, not smoking and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease. Perhaps regular, hearty laughter should be added to the list.”
Possibly the most interesting fact about laughter is its ability to relieve pain and even increase the pain threshold of people. They may feel less pain after laughing because the body releases chemicals which act as a natural painkiller. In a study performed by researchers at the University of Oxford, they wanted to see how laughter would play a role in people’s pain tolerance.
The researchers first tested the pain thresholds of volunteers, who were split into two groups. The first group was shown 15 minutes of comedy videos, while the other was shown more “boring” programs, such as golf tournaments. The study concluded that the participants who had recently experienced deep belly laughs were able to withstand up to 10 percent more pain than they could before viewing the videos. Interestingly, the other group tolerated less pain after watching 15 minutes of “boring” programs.
The type of laughter also played a role in the study: chuckles and giggles did not produce any physiological effect; only a long, hearty belly laugh did the trick.
Professor Robin Dunbar of Oxford University, who directed the research, believes that uncontrollable laughter releases endorphins into the body which elicit mild euphoria and reduce pain.
“It’s the emptying of the lungs that causes [this effect],” he told BBC News.
“It’s exactly what happens when we say ‘I laughed until it hurt’. It seems to be extremely painful and it’s that pain that produces the endorphin effect.”
In addition to better heart health, decreased stress, higher pain tolerance, and better blood flow, studies have also shown that regular laughter can boost the immune system as well.
Dr. Patch Adams, well-known for his promotion of laughter and humor in hospitals, has even started a free “silly” hospital in rural West Virginia. Remarkably, a poll of rural Midwestern cancer patients revealed that doctors utilized humor as one of the most frequently practiced CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) therapies. Scientists have also begun to explore the benefits of laughter by conducting clinical trials that measure targeted changes in psychological and physical health after laughter occurs.
In one study, conducted at the Indiana State University Sycamore Nursing Center, 33 healthy adult women were separated into two groups. The treatment group watched a funny video, while the control group viewed a tourism video. All participants filled out surveys asking their stress and humor levels before and after watching the videos. In addition, the researchers drew blood before and after treatment to test for natural killer cell levels.
In comparison to the control group, the treatment group reported a significant decrease in stress after watching the videos. Their stress level appeared inversely correlated with the amount of “mirthful” laughter they experienced. Participants with high scores on the questionnaire also had significantly higher numbers of natural killer cells after treatment, and the treatment group showed higher levels of these natural killer cells than the control group as well.
The researchers concluded that laughter seems to reduce stress and improve activity of natural killer cells, which could even reverse cancer.
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Research on how laughter plays a role in our mental and physical health is ongoing, but the studies performed in recent years have proven that consistent laughter can make a significant difference in our heart health, immune system performance, and overall mood. Laughter is also infectious, so by laughing, you can also spread these positive effects to all your friends and family as well. If you need a good laugh, just put on your favorite comedy, go watch kids goof around with each other, or bring out your own inner child to play! The opportunities to laugh are endless, and the benefits you experience from laughter will probably keep you coming back for more in the future!