According to an Irish proverb, a good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book. Sure, the sleep part makes sense, but laughter?
Turns out, laughter actually can fight disease. (Yes—literally.) And as “medicine” goes, a good sense of humor is a whole lot stronger than most people could ever imagine.
Laughter and the Brain
Believe it or not, your sense of humor is some of the strongest psychological armor at your disposal. Scientists have known for years that genuine, joyous laughter can squelch stress and chase away depression. And given its measurable effect on key mood-regulating chemicals, this benefit makes perfect sense.
One small clinical trial showed that subjects who watched an hour-long humorous video showed marked decreases in levels of cortisol and epinephrine—two fight-or-flight hormones involved in the stress response—versus those who didn’t. More recent research has shown a similar effect on another stress marker called chromogranin A (CgA). And scientists also think that laughter may be able to help reverse depression by stimulating areas of the brain implicated in the development of depression.
But it’s not just your attitude that benefits from this positive influence. New research shows that your brain’s cognitive functions get a boost from laughter too.
As part of a recent randomized, controlled trial, researchers tested cortisol levels and short-term memory—including learning ability, delayed recall and visual recognition—in 20 older adults, half of whom watched a 20-minute humor video beforehand.
As in previous studies, results showed that the subjects who laughed experienced predictable drops in cortisol levels. But they also performed better on memory tests—by a significant margin. Delayed recall nearly doubled in this group, while learning ability shot up by more than 25 percent.
Laughter and Chronic Disease
Believe it or not, laughter’s mental benefits are just the tip of the iceberg. After all, there’s a reason chronic stress contributes to disease. Elevated cortisol levels erode your physical health too. And a good sense of humor goes just as far in this department.
First of all, it can dial back high blood pressure. Back in 2005, researchers from the University of Maryland found that watching funny movies helps the endothelium—that is, the lining of your blood vessels—to relax and widen.
This, in turn, allows circulation to move more freely—specifically boosting blood flow by a whopping 22 percent. Which means that 15 minutes of laughter a day seems to be as important as regular exercise when it comes to keeping your heart in shape.
In fact, this same team of researchers found that people with heart disease are also far less likely to find humor in uncomfortable situations—suggesting that the ability to “laugh it off” might actually be the most basic source of cardiovascular protection you have.
Blood sugar levels also get some help from a good giggle. According to a 2003 study published in Diabetes Care, hearty laughter can lower post-meal blood sugar levels in people with Type 2 diabetes.
And if all that wasn’t enough, research shows that humor packs a punch against pain as well. In a study published in 2011, researchers found that social laughter floods your body with feel-good endorphins. In a series of six experiments, researchers observed significant increases in pain threshold after laughter, independently of positive mood changes. In other words, the physical act of belly laughing alone can dull your discomfort—no drugs necessary.
Lengthen Life and Boost Immunity
Of course, laughter’s benefits aren’t restricted to chronic disease. Everyone can capitalize on a case of the giggles.
One seven-year study of more than 50,000 Norwegians showed that a good sense of humor drops the odds of dying before the age of 70 by roughly 20 percent. And yet another study of 33 Midwestern women revealed that subjects with a keener humor response also benefit from stronger immunity—particularly in natural killer (NK) cell activity.
This benefit has far-reaching implications, as NK cells are your first line of defense against cancer. To make matters worse, standard treatments ravage your immune system. But a recent Japanese study showed that chemotherapy patients who received “laughter therapy” had significantly higher levels of immunity than those who didn’t.
With results like that, it’s easy to see how a little extra laughter could actually mean the difference between life and death. Of course, laughter can make a big difference in everyday battles too.
Fend Off Fat Rolls and Infertility
If you’re trying to lose weight, a little more laughter could actually give you an edge—no grueling workouts required. As I mentioned earlier, laughter has a similar effect on your body to aerobic exercise. But those effects aren’t just cardiovascular—laughter also burns calories!
A 2007 study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that laughing out loud increases energy expenditure by as much as 20 percent, while 10 minutes of laughter could burn as many as 50 extra calories. That’s right—simply laughing for a few minutes every day could leave you five pounds lighter inside of a year.
But if you think that’s strange, consider this. A recent study found that women undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF) had a higher pregnancy rate when they enjoyed a performance by professional clowns after embryo implantation.
IVF was a success in 36 percent of these women, compared to a success rate of just 20 percent among women who weren’t treated to post-procedure comedy. And, ultimately, the women who laughed were almost twice as likely to become pregnant, once other factors like age and infertility factors entered into the equation.
The bottom line? Laugh loud and laugh long at least once every single day. Your life may very well depend on it!