Monday, April 20, 2009

Health Care and Laughter

Americans love to laugh. According to About.com, research has shown health benefits of laughter ranging from strengthening the immune system to reducing food cravings to increasing one's threshold for pain. There's even an emerging therapeutic field known as humor therapy to help people heal more quickly, among other things. Humor also has several important stress relieving benefits. Laughing while you are sick is not the first remedy that any sane person would consider. However, the benefit of using humor to lighten a serious health issue can help the patient to recover with a better attitude and improve his overall mental and physical health.

Some researchers, according to WebMD, think laughter just might be the best medicine, helping you feel better and putting that spring back in your step. Yet researchers aren't sure if it's actually the act of laughing that makes people feel better. A good sense of humor, a positive attitude, and the support of friends and family might play a role, too. But while we don't know for sure that laughter helps people feel better, it certainly isn't hurting. People who believe in the benefits of laughter say it can be like a mild workout -- and may offer some of the same advantages as a workout. And laughter appears to burn calories, too. A researcher from Vanderbilt University, conducted a small study in which he measured the amount of calories expended in laughing. It turned out that 10-15 minutes of laughter burned 50 calories. While the results are intriguing, don't be too hasty in ditching that treadmill. One piece of chocolate has about 50 calories; at the rate of 50 calories per hour, losing one pound would require about 12 hours of concentrated laughter!

However, most studies of laughter have been small and not well conducted, according to WebMD. Too many researchers have an obvious bias: they go into the study wanting to prove that laughter has benefits. Studies of laughing have often not looked at the effects of other, similar activities such as screaming. the most convincing health benefit he's seen from laughter is its ability to dull pain. Numerous studies of people in pain or discomfort have found that when they laugh they report that their pain doesn't bother them as much. One of the biggest problems with laughter research is that it's very difficult to determine cause and effect. For instance, a study might show that people who laugh more are less likely to be sick. But that might be because people who are healthy have more to laugh about. Or researchers might find that, among a group of people with the same disease, people who laugh more have more energy. But that could be because the people who laugh more have a personality that allows them to cope better. So it becomes very hard to say if laughter is actually an agent of change, or just a sign of a person's underlying condition. But we all know that laughing, being with friends and family, and being happy can make us feel better and give us a boost -- even though studies may not show why. Regardless of whether laughter actually improves your health or boosts your energy, it undeniably improves your quality of life.

According to Oxford Journals online, there are a few studies that have examined the effects of humor or laughter on psychological outcomes, such as stress. However, there are a very limited number of studies that document the effects of laughter on physiological outcomes, and no controlled studies have been identified that document the effects of laughter on clinical health outcomes. So what do we really know about the role of sense of humor, use of humor by patients with various illnesses, or the effects of laughter on various health related outcomes? Is use of humor an approach that physicians should implement in their practices and/or recommend to their patients? A full discourse on humor theory is beyond the scope of this review, but certain basic definitions are essential. From a psychological perspective, humor involves cognitive, emotional, behavioral, psycho-physiological and social aspects. The term humor can refer to a stimulus, which is intended to produce a humorous response (such as a humorous video), a mental process (perception of amusing incongruities) or a response (laughter, exhilaration). Laughter is the most common expression of humorous experience. Humor and laughter are also typically associated with a pleasant emotional state. Humor can be defined as a stimulus that helps people laugh and feel happy. Laughter is a psycho-physiological response to humor that involves both characteristic physiological reactions and positive psychological shifts. Sense of humor is a psychological trait that varies considerably and allows persons to respond to different types of humorous stimuli.

Can a laugh every day keep the heart attack away? Maybe so, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC). Laughter, along with an active sense of humor, may help protect you against a heart attack, according to a recent study by cardiologists at the UMMC in Baltimore. The old saying that 'laughter is the best medicine,' definitely appears to be true when it comes to protecting your heart. We don't know yet why laughing protects the heart, but we know that mental stress is associated with impairment of the endothelium, the protective barrier lining our blood vessels. This can cause a series of inflammatory reactions that lead to fat and cholesterol build-up in the coronary arteries and ultimately to a heart attack. The most significant study finding was that "people with heart disease responded less humorously to everyday life situations." They generally laughed less, even in positive situations, and they displayed more anger and hostility. The ability to laugh -- either naturally or as learned behavior -- may have important implications in societies such as the U.S. where heart disease remains the number one killer. We know that exercising, not smoking and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease. Perhaps regular, hearty laughter should be added to the list; and it may be possible to incorporate laughter into our daily activities, just as we do with other heart-healthy activities, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

According to HelpGuide.org, laughter activates the chemistry of the will to live and increases our capacity to fight disease. Laughing relaxes the body and reduces problems associated with high blood pressure, strokes, arthritis, and ulcers. A good hearty laugh can help:
--Reduce stress
--Lower blood pressure
--Elevate mood
--Boost immune system
--Improve brain functioning
--Protect the heart
--Connect you to others
--Foster instant relaxation
--Make you feel good.


Among the many salient points about using laughter in health care, the site http://www.helpguide.org/life/humor_laughter_health.htm has much to say about the effects of laughter including the following:
1.) Laughter lowers blood pressure: People who laugh heartily on a regular basis have lower standing blood pressure than the average person. When people have a good laugh, initially the blood pressure increases, but then it decreases to levels below normal. Breathing then becomes deeper which sends oxygen enriched blood and nutrients throughout the body.
2.) Humor changes our biochemical state: Laughter decreases stress hormones and increases infection fighting antibodies. It increases our attentiveness, heart rate, and pulse.
3.) Laughter protects the heart: Laughter, along with an active sense of humor, may help protect you against a heart attack, according to the study at the University of Maryland Medical Center (cited above). The study, which is the first to indicate that laughter may help prevent heart disease, found that people with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh in a variety of situations compared to people of the same age without heart disease.
4.) Laughter gives our bodies a good workout: Laughter can be a great workout for your diaphragm, abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg, and back muscles. It massages abdominal organs, tones intestinal functioning, and strengthens the muscles that hold the abdominal organs in place. Not only does laughter give your midsection a workout, it can benefit digestion and absorption functioning as well. It is estimated that hearty laughter can burn calories equivalent to several minutes on the rowing machine or the exercise bike.
5.) Humor improves brain function and relieves stress: Laughter stimulates both sides of the brain to enhance learning. It eases muscle tension and psychological stress, which keeps the brain alert and allows people to retain more information

About.com has listed Stress Management Benefits of Laughter:
1.) Hormones: Laughter reduces the level of stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), dopamine and growth hormone. It also increases the level of health-enhancing hormones like endorphins, and neurotransmitters. Laughter increases the number of antibody-producing cells and enhances the effectiveness of T cells. All this means a stronger immune system, as well as fewer physical effects of stress.
2.) Physical Release: Have you ever felt like you "have to laugh or I'll cry"? Have you experienced the cleansed feeling after a good laugh? Laughter provides a physical and emotional release.
3.) Internal Workout: A good belly laugh exercises the diaphragm, contracts the abs and even works out the shoulders, leaving muscles more relaxed afterward. It even provides a good workout for the heart.
4.) Distraction: Laughter brings the focus away from anger, guilt, stress and negative emotions in a more beneficial way than other mere distractions.
5.) Perspective: Studies show that your response to stressful events can be altered by whether you view something as a 'threat' or a 'challenge'. Humor can give you a more lighthearted perspective and help us view events as 'challenges', thereby making them less threatening and more positive.
6.) Social Benefits of Laughter: Laughter connects us with others. Also, laughter is contagious, so if you bring more laughter into your life, you can most likely help others around you to laugh more, and realize these benefits as well. By elevating the mood of those around you, you can reduce their stress levels, and perhaps improve the quality of social interaction you experience with them, reducing your stress level even more!

To quote Bobby McFerrin, "Don't worry. Be happy!" Let laughter be a good guide to feeling better.

Until next time. Let me know what you think.

1 comment:

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