Laugh yourself healthy

Studies show humor-health link
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Prepared by the AVMA Group Health and Life Insurance Trust

It doesn't take a scientific study for one to intuitively know that the capacity for laughing together with colleagues in the midst of a stressful day can be a positive and even healthy experience. But the fact is, there are many scientific studies that actually back up that very notion. Although the relationship between humor and health has been studied for many years, the topic has been cropping up with regularity in this year's headlines.

A study released this past February by Texas A&M University shows that humor may significantly increase a person's level of hope, which, in turn, could help an individual better cope with obstacles and stress. The positive emotion of hope, researchers believe, stimulates thought processes and increases an individual's ability to solve problems creatively.

A smile might brighten the moment and one's outlook, but a good guffaw could be even more powerful, according to recent studies examining the effect of laughter on the body.

On March 7, 2005, at the Scientific Session of the American College of Cardiology, the University of Maryland School of Medicine presented results of the university's study on the effect of laughter on cardiovascular health. The study indicates, for the first time, that laughter is linked to the healthy function of blood vessels. Researchers confirmed that while mental stress causes narrowing of blood vessels, laughter appears to cause the endothelium to dilate and increase blood flow. Specifically, laughing was found to increase blood flow by more than 20 percent, with the positive effect lasting for up to 45 minutes.

On the other hand, stress decreased blood flow by approximately 35 percent. Because impairment of the endothelium is a contributor to heart disease, researchers suggest that the ability to laugh could have implications in a country where heart disease remains the number one cause of death.

Another U.S. health crisis is the rise in obesity, and there are indications that laughter may prove helpful even there. An April 2005 article in The Washington Post examined the connection between laughter and health, particularly weight control. Researchers theorize that laughter reduces the hormone cortisol. Elevated cortisol concentrations are thought to stimulate hunger, so reducing cortisol levels could have an opposite effect.

Researchers point to the aerobic benefit of hearty laughter. Others contend the benefit stems from the correlation between depression and overeating and/or poor eating habits. Individuals who are able to laugh may reduce stress and depression, and may thus be better able to maintain healthy eating habits.

These recent studies confirm longstanding anecdotal reports and other formal studies indicating a myriad of health benefits provided by a regular dose of humor and laughter. Some positive physical effects attributed to humor and laughter include lower blood pressure and lower stress levels. Laughter not only elevates mood, it also provides a boost to the immune system. Many physicians and nurses have noted that laughter seems to provide patients with a higher tolerance of pain and may also enhance healing.

Research has shown that laughter can even change one's biochemical state by decreasing stress hormones and increasing antibodies. Laughter could help an individual fight off illness by increasing the body's infection-fighting cells. There are even studies that indicate humor may play a role in alleviating allergy symptoms.

In addition to physical health benefits, humor offers cognitive, emotional, and social benefits as well. It takes both sides of the brain to actually produce a laugh, prompting researchers to claim that regular laughter can improve brain functioning and enhance learning.

Humor helps people connect with one another. Using a joke as an icebreaker is an age-old social technique. When a group of people share and experience humor, they tend to talk more, to have more eye contact, and to touch more often.

Laughing together breaks the tension and helps people see the lighter side of things. Marriages, families, friendships, and working relationships all benefit when humor and laughter are prevalent.

Laughter can be cathartic. Going to a comedy club or watching a funny movie can help release such negative emotions as anger, sadness, or fear. One tends to feel more relaxed after a good bout of laughing. A night out doing something fun—and funny—could be the perfect end to a stressful week at work.

Because stress is an occupational risk faced by veterinarians, a "laugh" break along with a lunch break could be just what the doctor ordered for every member of the practice. The idea of incorporating humor into one's lifestyle, along with a healthy diet, exercise, and regular check-ups, is certainly an idea worth consideration.