Laughter is the best medicine

We have all heard the saying, ‘Laughter is good medicine’, but is there any scientific evidence to support the claim? Our Founder of Toddler Sense & Baby Sensory has written a fabulous article on the theory and science of laughter.

Medical studies show that a regular dose of laughter, together with a balanced diet, exercise and plenty of sleep, can be good for our health. Laughing triggers healthy physical and chemical changes in the brain, muscles and organs of the body. A good bout of laughter strengthens the immune system, increases pain tolerance, boosts energy levels and protects against the damaging effects of stress. Laughter is especially important for children. It can relieve tension and frustration, help them communicate their feelings and emotions, gain social skills, build relationships and develop intellectually. Babies and children naturally smile and laugh when they are happy, and because they are uninhibited. Adults tend to be more serious and they play less. However, playful interaction with family and friends, sharing a joke, watching a comedy show together or seeing the funny side of things can make life less serious and more fun. Development of laughter Laughter is a universal language and all humans are born with the capacity to laugh. Babies as young as 17 days old combine sounds with a facial gesture known as a relaxed open-mouth display. The behaviour is thought to have originated in ancestral nonhuman primates and may be the evolutionary root of human laughter. Smiling develops earlier than laughing and it is of great importance in ensuring attachment to the primary caregiver. Although smiling and laughter take place separately, they also occur in the same social context. Most babies exhibit social smiles in their fifth or sixth week in response to positive stimuli. The first true laugh emerges in the three-month-old in response to playful swinging, bouncing or tickling. The baby realises that the play is safe and emits a relief-cry. However, if the balance between security and fears tips over, the baby rapidly switches to crying. Scientists think that laughing evolved as a coping mechanism in response to the passing of danger, and as a secondary bonding signal (after smiling) to keep the parent close and attentive. Children’s humour develops in stages in line with their cognitive and emotional development, and their understanding of the world and how it works. As language skills develop, children start to play with words and ideas. Two-year-olds will giggle uncontrollably when they hear nonsense syllables or see things that are odd or out of 2 place, such pink hair or exaggerated behaviour. Three and four-year-olds are usually enthralled by ‘bathroom’ humour and by slapstick comedy. Five and six-year-olds laugh the most and they find amusement in books, comic strips, cartoons, games and silly songs. Laughter also becomes a regular part of their social interaction with others. By the time they are ten years-old, jokes define membership in a particular social group. Those who get the joke gain acceptance, but those who don’t may be outsiders. Adults may use laughter to gain social acceptance or dominance. In the workplace, employers laugh less than employees, who may laugh more to display compliance or solidarity. However, roles may reverse in different social circumstances. Studies show that people laugh thirty times more in social than solitary situations. Women generally laugh more than men. They also laugh more enthusiastically in male company. Men laugh more when conversing with other males, but generally refrain from joining in with female-initiated laughter. Men also seem to be the main instigators of humour. This may be one reason why there are more male comics than females. Laughter therapies Being funny is serious business and numerous industries have been built around humour. Stand up comedy festivals have become increasingly popular, attracting millions of people from numerous countries annually. The growth of the Internet and YouTube has also dictated the direction of the comedy industry. Different types of comedy have evolved to make people laugh. Stand-up comedians and sitcoms for example, illuminate the little things that adults overlook or take for granted. People tend to laugh when they recognise a truth about themselves. Humour can fulfil several functions in the workplace. Everyday jokes and banter can provide an important means of accessing consensus, resolving conflict and promoting group bonding. Some organisations use laughter clubs to develop personality and leadership qualities or to enhance teamwork. In a classroom setting, group laughter can improve communication, liberate creative abilities and reinforce desired behaviours. It can also help children to deal with stress, make decisions, solve problems and gain new friends. However, inappropriate humour can cause embarrassment or ridicule. Laughing with and not at children is important. Other group therapies include laughter yoga, which incorporates breathing and stretching exercises along with laughter. Laughter meditation has also become increasingly popular in the past decade. The theory is that laughter and concentrated thinking synchronise the sense organs, relieve stress and boost cognitive skills. Many hospitals now offer laughter therapy as a complementary treatment to help improve the quality of life for children and adults with chronic illnesses. 3 Brain workout The brain is automatically primed to mirror the behaviour of others (mirror neurons), which may explain why laughter is infectious. However, laughter is extremely difficult to produce on command. Genuine laughter depends on several feedback systems in different areas of the brain. When these systems are triggered, explosive laughter will be produced. Laughter is linked to the limbic system, a primitive part of the brain involved in emotions and memory. The primary structures include the amygdala (emotions), the hippocampus (memory), the hypothalamus (hormone production) and the pituitary gland (endorphin release), which is functionally linked to the hypothalamus. Signals from the limbic system reach the frontal lobes responsible for cognitive function or thinking. Brainwave activity also spreads from the sensory processing area of the occipital lobe (visual centre) to the frontal lobes. At the same time, the motor areas of the brain activate the muscles of the face and body to move in relation to the sound received by the temporal lobes (hearing). Sometimes, after brain injury or neurological illness, abnormal laughter may be produced. This is found most often in people who have pseudobulbar palsy, gelastic epilepsy, motor neurone disease or certain brain tumours. Laughing may be suppressed completely in Parkinson's disease or following a stroke. Inappropriate or uncontrollable laughter is usually symptomatic of psychological disorders including dementia and hysteria. Physical workout Although laughter may not have evolved to improve mental and physical health, the psychological and physiological effects on the brain and body are numerous. A brief overview is provided below: Muscles - laughing provides a workout for the diaphragm, abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg and back muscles. Researchers estimate that 15 minutes of deep, heartfelt laughing is equivalent to 15 minutes on an exercise bike. After laughing, the muscles relax for up to 45 minutes, which can help reduce the physical symptoms of stress. Lungs - breathing between laughter pauses becomes deeper, which cleanses the lungs. A good deep laugh may help people with respiratory problems by increasing breathing capacity. Heart - laughter dilates the blood vessels, which reduces the risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease and improves the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the organs and tissues. Increased blood flow keeps the lining of the arteries (endothelium) in good condition, reduces the build-up of cholesterol and adjusts the propensity of the blood to coagulate and clot. Immune system - laughter boosts the immune system by increasing the production of natural killer cells, antibodies and lymphocytes, which protect the body from 4 infection and disease. Laughter also increases the concentration of a natural antibody (immunoglobulin A) in the salivary glands, which prevents infectious organisms from entering the respiratory tract. Anti-stress - stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine, increase heart rate, tighten muscles, restrict blood flow, break down immune responses and damage cells in all parts of the body. Stress also disables the ability to learn, think and solve problems. Laughter acts as a buffer to stress by keeping cortisol levels healthy and under control. Hormones - laughter stimulates the secretion of growth hormones, which are essential for cell reproduction, bone mineralization, immunity and growth. Low levels can result in premature aging, weight loss, low energy levels and reduced immune response to infection and disease. Pain relief - laughter increases feel-good, health-enhancing endorphins, which relieve pain, induce relaxation, promote healing and alleviate depression. Sleep - studies show that 10 minutes of laughter per day can improve the quality of sleep. Laughing also relaxes the muscles of the soft palate and the throat and reduces snoring. Anti-aging effects - laughter provides a powerful antidote to chronic stress, Stress inhibits the body’s ability to produce collagen, which gives skin its elastic quality, and accelerates the aging process. Research Laughter has been used since the 13th century to distract patients from pain. Many cultures over the centuries, have considered laughter to be ‘good medicine’. Scientific study in more recent years has shown that laughter can indeed dull pain, reduce stress levels and enhance immune responses in children and adults. Norman Cousins was one of the first researchers to discover that laughter had an anaesthetic effect on pain and on health in general. Diagnosed with autoimmune disease, he used laughter to help control pain and make his own illness more manageable. Cousins received the Albert Schweitzer Prize in 1990 for his contributions to humanity and the environment. Research by Lee S. Berk at Loma Linda University in the 1980s found that laughter led to a general decrease in the stress hormones, cortisol, epinephrine and dopac, a brain chemical which helps produce epinephrine, and an increase in beneficial hormones (see below). Even the anticipation of a humorous event had a similar effect on hormone levels.

• Beta-endorphin levels increased by 27 percent.

• Human growth hormone levels increased by 87 percent. 5

• Cortisol and epinephrine decreased by 70 percent.

• Dopac levels decreased by 38 percent. The benefits of laughter have been reported in several disciplines including geriatrics, psychiatry, paediatrics and general patient care. Controlled, clinical trials, which measure specific changes in psychological and physical well-being, suggest that laughter may have therapeutic value as a complimentary, integrative medicine. Summary Laughter is good medicine and an essential component of daily life. Here is a summary of the main benefits:

• Laughter is critically important to successful social interactions

• Playful laughter can create positive bonds with other people

• Laughing is a wonderful way to exercise

• Regular laughter strengthens the cardiovascular system and boosts the immune system

• Laughter is one of the best forms of stress management

• Explosive laughter releases endorphins, the body’s natural source of pain killers

• Laughing relieves tension and frustration

• Laughing increases thinking and problem-solving ability

• Laughter is warm and contagious, and it makes people feel good

• Shared laughter can ease adult seriousness

• Laughter can work as an anti-aging formula A regular dose of laughter is a fun way to stay happy, healthy and young. Best of all, laughter is free, natural, accessible and easy to use.

By Dr Lin Day