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Is Laughter the Best Medicine?  #WisdomToWellness 

Neuroscientists have begun to not only understand the health benefits of laughter, but also the mechanism behind it. Here’s what we know…

Ruby Deevoy

A happy, healthy life is something we all strive for. Striking the fine balance between work and play, eating well but with ‘everything in moderation’, keeping fit without putting too much strain on the body. We know that to keep ourselves well, we must take many things into account. But there’s one activity researchers all over the world are consistently finding to be a highly effective, completely free, accessible to all and thoroughly enjoyable way to keep both your mind and body fit and well that perhaps we should be prioritising: laughing.

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Photo by Ashkan Forouzani

Yes, you read that right. Laughter may in fact be ‘the best medicine’ – or at least one of the best, natural therapies available at the drop of a joke or a new Netflix comedy, according to a swathe of international studies into the effects of mirthful laughter, and laughter therapy, since the 1980s.

The Wellbeing Benefits of Laughter

If you’ve ever had a good belly laugh you’ll know that you’re left positively glowing after. Science confirms this isn’t just down to the endorphin rush - studies show this is a direct result of the wellbeing benefits of laughter, which research has shown to reduce artery inflammation, relax muscles, decrease cortisol, increase in blood flow, support a whooshing release of negative emotions, promote social bonding and much more besides. A 15 year review of a 2007 study performed in Norway found that people with a strong sense of humour actually outlived those who don't laugh as much, impressively, with the difference being particularly notable for those battling cancer. More recently, neuroscientists and psychologists have begun to not only understand the astounding power of laugher, but also the mechanism behind it.

Laughter: One of Nature’s Best Natural Therapies

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Photo by Courtney Cook

Dr John Morreall, Doctor of Philosophy at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and author of 70 articles and six books dedicated the medical, psychological, and social benefits of humour has concluded that the first human laughter may have originated as ‘a gesture of shared relief at the passing of danger’. Of course, the use of laughter has evolved along with human beings and society, but laughing remains a social interaction with the same old side effect of inhibiting the biological fight-or-flight response. This reaction, (despite now in lieu of danger) still induces a state of relaxation and this is what many experts feel is at the core of laughter’s health and wellbeing benefits.
 
A lot has changed since our ancestors may have used laughing as a safety signal, but our body’s automatic reactions have yet to catch up, in many respects. As a part of modern life, the fight or flight response has a lot to answer for, as it is still frequently shot into un-required action. Without some sort of release (such as laughter) this causes serious surge of stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system, increases the number of blood platelets (potentially causing heart disease) and raises blood pressure. Laughter is one of the best ways to save your system from this toxic overload, as a fit of the giggles shuts off cortisol production and instead, increases antibodies, natural killer cells that wipe out tumours and viruses and Gamma-interferon - a protein that fights disease.

Laughing is a Great Workout!

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Photo by krakenimages

Further biophysical studies have shown that simply the physical motion of laughing works its own special wonders for the immune system too. Uproarious belly laughing is not only a full-body workout (Really. Laughing 100 times is equivalent to ten minutes on a rowing machine.) but it also accomplishes the diaphragmatic breathing necessary to cleanse your lymphatic system, increasing the flow of lymphatic fluid by up to 15 times its normal rate. Acting as a very pleasurable pump, laughing manually moves the natural killer cells around your body, meaning increased immunity for all disease, particularly cancer.

The Power of Positivity

But it’s not only laughing that is good for your health, just finding ways to be happy can give your body a boost too because on the flipside, it would appear that negative thoughts can make you ill. In 2009, a study from the journal ‘Circulation’ explored information provided by nearly 100,000 women and discovered that the most negative participants were more likely to have heart disease than the least cynical. A second study published in the journal Neurology in 2014 linked high levels of cynicism to a greater risk of dementia even after taking into account for many other risk factors.

Laughter Therapy

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Photo by Aikomo Opeyemi

The positive impact laughter and happiness can have on overall physical and mental wellbeing is so clear that lots of doctors specialising in this field are calling for the roll-out of laughter ‘prescriptions’. The hope being that instead of patients being immediately offered medication with potentially harmful side effects, a course of laughter therapy (or Laughter Yoga) might be tried first. And indeed, there are professionals available to help you get the most of your laughter sessions.
 
Laughter Therapist, Cathy Hill, has been teaching laughter classes in Kent since 2004 and has repeatedly witnessed the healing power of laughing. ‘Laughter Therapy is a unique system that teaches anyone how to generate natural laughter, even if there’s nothing funny happening! It’s a fantastic tool to help anyone access laughter anytime, anyplace, anywhere, for the benefit of themselves and others around them.’ She explains. ‘Many people who suffer from depression might argue that you can’t just ‘be happy’, but by learning to trigger natural laughter even if you’re feeling low you can set off an internal, positive, chemical, chain reaction, that results in happiness, health and wellbeing. One laugh leads to another and another. Before you know it, you’ll be feeling quite giggly, and giggling leads to proper good, deep laughing and all the amazing benefits.’

Expert Tips from a Laughter Therapist

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Photo by Lucas Lenzi

Here, Cathy offers easy, actionable ways for you to find your ‘inner happy’ and bring a little Laughter Therapy into your own life:
 
  • Laughing on your own is great, but laughing with others is better. Fortunately, even if you’re home alone there is a way for you to laugh with a group. Call the free ‘Rise & Shine Laughter Line’ Monday – Friday 8am – 8.10am on 0333 3000 310 and then enter the pin number: 55511151 You’ll be connected to the group call with other laughers! Simply take a deep breath and join in.
  • Smile at yourself in the mirror every day, for ten seconds. Smiling kicks off a chemical reaction in the brain, releasing certain hormones including dopamine and serotonin. You’ll feel an instant lift!
  • Watch funny films that you know will make you laugh and laugh bigger than you usually do. Just as in a laughter class, if you give your body a nudge it will soon run with it.
  • Listen to music and sing along, or dance! Both singing and dancing release endorphins and offer a ‘fight or flight’ release similar to laughing. 
  • Develop an attitude of gratitude. Spend 5 minutes a day listing what you have to be grateful for in your life. Or as you come across them during the day, speak out loud or make a mental note – “I am grateful for this…”

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