By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Numerous surveys indicate that adult Americans regard themselves under much more stress than a decade or two ago. The continuing economic, financial, and employment crises have ramped up the stress level appreciably. We live in stressful times. And stress can be very harmful to health. It can cause heart attacks and stroke. I know, because I’ve treated many patients whose health problems were caused largely by stress and toxic emotions.
One simple and enjoyable way to ease stress in our daily lives and defuse this very real, but widely underestimated risk factor for trouble, is to laugh more, and follow the age-old advice so succinctly expressed in the Bible: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” (Proverbs 17:22)
The Sinatra Solution: Let laughter be a regular part of your lifestyle
If you are old enough you may remember Norman Cousin’s 1979 bestseller Anatomy of an Illness in which he described his recovery from a debilitating spinal disease on a diet of Laurel & Hardy and Marx Brothers comedies, along with megadoses of vitamin C. Cousins felt strongly that laughter mobilized a full range of spiritual, emotional, and physical resources in the fight against illness.
One of Cousins’ disciples was Lee Berk, a researcher at the University of California-Irvine who had discovered that exercise-induced endorphins could benefit the immune system. Berk’s subsequent research showed that laughter, just as exercise, produced a high tide of endorphins, opoid-like neurotransmitters that reduce pain and generate a sense of well-being. In numerous experiments, he confirmed that laughter went far beyond a surface ha-ha effect. It impacted the physiology in specific ways to bolster the healing potential of mind, body, and spirit, among them by lowering stress hormones, raising beneficial hormones, and boosting natural killer cells and antibody levels.
Many different cultures and religious traditions have considered humor as “good medicine.” The Greeks, for instance, erected healing temples next to their amphitheaters so that infirm individuals could view the entertainment.
Growing numbers of studies now support the benefits of laughter in such areas as cardiac rehabilitation, pain perception, discomfort thresholds, coping with stress, and immune enhancement. One of Berk’s experiments involved 48 cardiac patients with diabetes who had suffered a heart attack and were receiving conventional rehabilitation care. He randomly assigned half the group to watch a 30-minute humorous video or sit-com of their choice on a daily basis. At the end of a year, the data showed that the comedy group had significantly lower blood pressure, needed fewer medications, registered healthier electrocardiograph readings, and most significant of all, experienced only two new heart attacks compared to ten in the non-comedy group.
University of Maryland cardiologist Michael Miller, M.D., has further shown that laughter creates healthier functioning blood vessels. Specifically, laughter appears to cause the endothelial lining of blood vessels to dilate more robustly and increase blood flow.
As a long-time advocate of mind-body medicine, I have often told patients to watch comedies as kind of a laughter prescription to reduce stress. My favorites over the years have been the 1987 film “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” with Steve Martin and John Candy, and the earlier Pink Panther films with Peter Sellers.
My wife Jan, a cardiac rehabilitation nurse for many years, used to encourage her patients to bring cartoons about cardiology topics to the rehab sessions. The levity always helped elevate the mood of people who were burdened with anxiety over their health. She told me it helped them open up and talk about their situations as they exercised.
In these very stressful times, laughter provides needed relief. As Milton Berle once said, “laughter is an instant vacation.” Think of your body as one big pharmacy manufacturing a countless array of chemical substances based on your emotions. For your own well-being you need more chemicals based on humor than on stress. So get down on the floor and play with the grandkids in your life or watch a favorite sit-com or movie comedy. Let laughter be a regular part of your lifestyle.
- Berk LS, Tan SA, et al. Humor, as an adjunct therapy in cardiac rehabilitation, attenuates catecholamines and myocardial infarction recurrent. Adv Mind Body Med, 2007; 22(3-4):8-12.
- Miller M, Fry WF. The effect of mirthful laughter on the human cardiovascular system. Med Hypotheses, 2009;73(5):636-9.
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