Laugh Your Way to Health

Laughter releases just as much endorphins, the feel-good chemical, as a bout of physical exercise. It also offers many therapeutic benefits

Two women laughing to each other

If one's childhood resounded with the "Ho-Ho-Ho-Ho" of Santa Claus, our world today reverberates with the laughter of Pu Tai, the laughing Buddha.

It's not only for its Feng shui significance that we adore this laughing figure. There's something magical about his open-mouthed joyfulness, and his laughter which can be felt without hearing. His exhilaration makes us feel good about having him around.

Come to think of it. It's nice to be surrounded by those who laugh, or those who make us laugh. More so, if you don't find yourself in the best of health.

Laughter's a great, natural therapy, available without prescription, in every corner of the world. It is the only contagious condition where you can start an epidemic, and feel good about it.

Laughter, the stress buster

You feel good in more ways than one through a good laugh. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals that reduce pain and anxiety, and enhance the immune system, and also hold back the aging process.

Notes The Journal of the American Medical Association on laughter's role in decreasing stress-related hormones: "A humour therapy programme can increase the quality of life for patients with chronic problems. Laughter has an immediate symptom-relieving effect for patients, an effect that is potentiated when laughter is induced regularly over a period."

Laughter as medicine

The point-of-view of a layman comes across best in Norman Cousins' riveting book, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient. Cousins, a former editor, who was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful spine condition, unreeled "Candid Camera" episodes and Marx Brothers' films and laughed himself back to the pink of health. His book, which went onto become a best-seller, is also best-known for its experiment in Humour-as-Hippocrates [humour as therapy; Hippocrates is venerated as father of modern medicine].

Laughter is good exercise. As for those who don't move their bodies much they can at least have a good dose of guffaw for good health. A LoL [laughing-out-loud] is known to enhance respiration and combat carbon dioxide levels in the blood.

Some researchers suggest that by laughing we provide a good massage to our internal organs. This is, in part, some compensation for the natural inner rubbing we lost when we, as early humans, attained the erect posture!

Cousins called laughter "Internal jogging."

Writes William Fry, one of the world's leading physiologists and laughter researchers: "Mirth, in contrast to many other emotions, provides physical exercise. Muscles are activated, heart rate increased, respiration amplified, with increase in oxygen exchange, all similar to the desirable effects of athletic exercise."

Remember, how your sides ached the last time you laughed real hard? When we laugh, the muscles in the face, arms, legs and stomach, get a mini-work-out, and so do the diaphragm, thorax, the circulatory and the endocrine systems.

Laughter can lead to muscle relaxation and ailments like tension headaches can be a thing of the past with regular, healthy "ha-ha." When a person is presented with a humorous stimulus, and laughs, the tension of the muscles in the affected area decreases, and the pain is relieved.

Laughter heals body and mind

Laughter has also been credited to reduce the risk of coronary illness. Cousins, himself a heart attack victim, wrote, "It [laughter] acts as a blocking agent against the ravages of panic."

Panic constricts the blood vessels and destabilises the heart. Laughter, or humour, can control panic, and enhance your prospects of recovery. Researchers theorise that mental stress impairs the endothelium, the protective barrier lining our blood vessels. Once the endothelium is impaired, it can cause a series of inflammatory reactions that can lead to cholesterol build-up in our coronary arteries. This can ultimately trigger a heart attack.

Explains psychologist Steve Sultanoff, PhD, President of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor, "With deep, heartfelt laughter, it appears that serum cortisol, which is a hormone that is secreted when we're under stress, is decreased. So, when you're having a stress reaction, if you laugh, apparently the cortisol that has been released during the stress reaction is decreased."

Keiko Hayashi of the University of Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan, and his team, performed a study of 19 people with Type 2 diabetes. They reported that "Chemical messengers made during laughter may help the body compensate for the disease." Laughter seems to create a harmonious environment for healing of body and the mind.

Laughter for positive emotions

Psycho-neuroimmunology has proved that negative emotions like depression, anxiety and anger, weaken the immune system, making us susceptible to a whole range of illnesses. Positive emotions, like laughter and humour have the opposite effect and can defend us against a host of health problems.

Laughter helps you "loosen up" in a group, and it eventually builds better confidence and, in time, improved self-esteem. It also helps you relax, leading to better sleep. Researchers have found a curative link between laughter and insomnia. A healthy laughter before sleep is known to induce good sleep in insomniac [sleepless] patients. This means less irritability and a fresh, more alert mind.

Laughter and humour can also help one gain insight into one's own eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, and be able to laugh at one's own failings. This eventually turns into a therapeutic tool and an effective coping mechanism.

Word of caution

Experts say no to laughter therapy under certain conditions. They suggest that patients with hernia, advanced piles, eye complications, anginal [chest] pain, and those who have just undergone major surgery, should not venture into laughter therapy without the advice of a doctor.

Pregnant woman should also preferably avoid deep laughter sessions till conclusive data regarding safety are available. People suffering from tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory infections, must take precaution against spread of infection - through laughter.

Even though controlled scientific studies measuring the chemistry of laughter are not numerous, available data suggest that good humour promotes good health. Good health relates to body, mind and spirit, life and harmonious relationships. In addition, the social benefits of a good laugh have been accepted throughout human history. Also, the value of humour in business, management, and education, are now extensively acknowledged because a positive frame of mind helps you see issues in clear light. It facilitates problem-solving, interpersonally and in group settings too.

Laughter, or humour, puts people at ease, promotes communication and exchange of ideas.

Laughter seems to be also special for one more reason - the overall wellbeing of the world. As a not-so-famous-but-wise quote puts it, "When people are laughing together. they are not killing each other!"

World Laughter Day was created in 1998 by Dr Madan Kataria, founder of the Worldwide Laughter Yoga Movement. It is celebrated on 1st Sunday of May every year.

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