Only when I laugh: how laughing helps your health

Only when I laugh: how laughing helps your health
There’s no shortage of benefits to laughing. Studies have shown that laughter helps to ease pain and discomfort.

Laughter is the best medicine in these strange times

You've got to laugh, don’t you?

It turns out you do, actually. Thanks to Covid-19, we’re all dealing with a mix of anxiety, frustration, boredom and in some cases, outright grief. 

Laughter can’t mend everything, but it comes with an incredible list of health benefits, that are good for mind and body. Some people even claim that it’s better than a rowing machine for toning your abs. More on that later.

There’s no shortage of benefits. Studies have shown that laughter helps to ease pain and discomfort. It lowers blood sugar levels; it helps to release endorphins that can induce a form of euphoria; it naturally activates the release of serotonin, mimicking the behaviour of some anti-depressants. A

nd perhaps most interestingly of all, it’s good for your heart.

A 2009 paper called The Effect of Mirthful Laughter on the Human Cardiovascular System reported that a period of laughter can have the same benefits as aerobic exercise. The focus of the paper is our largest organ, the vascular endothelium, which is the inner lining of our blood vessels. 

The authors of the report found that mirthful laughter, the type associated with humour, induces the
release of nitric oxide that helps to relax or dilate the endothelium, which prevents hardening and can help to reduce blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

One of the authors of that report is Michael Miller, from the University of Maryland. He says he often prescribes one good belly laugh a day for his patients, going so far as to write it down on a prescription pad. 

It’s not enough to just go ha ha though according to Michael - you need a good hard laugh, one that brings tears to your eyes if possible.

I asked him via email how he and his partner carried out the study.

“We studied laughter in response to watching funny TV and movie segments with friends to heighten the
physiologic response.” (That’s an automatic response to stimulus.)

Does it only work if the laughter brings tears to your eyes? “Actually, you should not have to laugh too hard to elicit these responses but you do need to enjoy the experience”, he says. 

That rules out tickling, before you ask. Dr Miller says this is not an enjoyable experience for a lot of people and therefore unlikely to bring about the right kind of mirthful laughter.

Belly laugh

So is it possible to force this mirthful laughter without stimulus, can you learn how to do it? 

“Yes, but you would want to find things that trigger laughter. They might include reliving funny memories through old photos which can be coupled to more readily available stimuli such as funny websites, joke books and laughter yoga”, said Dr Miller.

It also helps to tell your favourite joke. I was telling mine to the kids the other night (I won’t repeat it here, it’s a
bit off colour) and ended up creased-over laughing just before the punchline. 

If laughing at your own jokes isn’t your thing, then maybe try the aforementioned laughter yoga.

It was founded in 1995 by Madan Kataria from Mumbai, India, after he discovered that some of his patients recovered quicker when they engaged in a good laugh. 

As with Dr Miller, he believes you need 15 minutes of laughter to get the full benefit. 

There are now a number of instructors in Ireland, including Marie Angeline Lascaux, director of which is based in Sandyford, Dublin. 

A yoga practitioner for 22 years, she first started teaching laughter yoga in 2011.

I asked her, what is the idea behind it?

“An adult laughs on average 17 times a day, while a child does it 400 times a day. So we want to bring you back to that child-like state. 

"When we laugh, we are really in the moment, not thinking about how it was yesterday or how it will be

This is particularly important now, according to Marie Angeline. 

“If I think about how things were two or three months ago, I will become very nostalgic, if I think about the next few months, I can get anxious. 

"But when I’m in the moment, it’s okay. Things that are stressing us today, in a few months they will seem insignificant. So laughter is very helpful for anyone suffering from stress, anxiety or sadness.

“The brain doesn’t know the difference if you’re fake laughing or not. When I have a class, I invite people to make the action of laughing and, of course, laughing is contagious anyway.

“I usually start the class by talking gibberish. That’s placing your tongue in front of your teeth and trying to say your name, that is always very funny. I have people moving around during the class, a lot of interaction and bonding and it ends with meditation to calm everything down.”

How long should you laugh for? “My classes last for an hour. I’d build it up so get to belly laughing, where you don’t even remember why you’re laughing, and you can’t stop. That laugh is the most beneficial.

“I also use laughter to process our emotions. We all have those silly things we keep doing like looking for your keys, and they were in your pocket all the time. 

"So we’d laugh compassionately at ourselves, it would be like ‘here I go again’.”

Like other instructors, Marie Angeline now hosts online laughter yoga classes via Zoom, which she says work out fine because the important thing is you can see people’s faces.

You’ll hear various claims on the exercise benefits of laughter, with some people stating that laughing 100 times is the equivalent of 15 minutes on an exercise bike, and others saying it can help give you a six-pack. 

I couldn’t find a reputable source to back up either of these claims, though one paper from the University of Leicester
indicated you’d have to laugh continuously for 19.7 hours to get visible abs, so it would want to be a very good joke.

Obviously, laughter in itself is not enough to keep you healthy. 

Dr Miller recommends 30 minutes of exercise three times a week, combined with 15 minutes a day to stay healthy. Laughter isn’t the cure for all.

Sharing a laugh

What about the psychological benefits? 

For one thing, laughter brings us together. Dr Miller found that laughter is particularly infectious when you like the people you are laughing with.

A study at the University of Carolina concluded that laughing at the same thing with another person shows that you share their view of the world, it helps to foster a sense of belonging.

It also fosters intimacy. 

When you think about it, the best times with a friend or lover are when you’re having a laugh. 

A study in California found that laughing during a film elevates the pain threshold and can help break the cycle
between pain, sleep loss, depression, and immunosuppression. 

We know that the endorphins released during laughter can both lift our mood and calm us down.

Laughter is like a gift for mind and body.

It’s free. So go on, have a laugh.

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