Dr. Friedman’s Health Blog

Laughter is the Best Medicine and Science Proves it!

By: Dr. David Friedman

Whether you snicker while watching a sitcom on TV or giggle at a cartoon you see in the daily newspaper, laughing does a body good! A good belly laugh triggers healthy physical and emotional changes that help boost your immune system and protect you from the innumerable ravaging effects of stress. Humor lightens up your burdens, inspires hope, and immediately connects you to others. When we laugh, oxygen intake increases, which stimulates circulation and decreases cortisol levels (the body’s stress hormone.)  Laughing releases endorphins (the body’s “feel good” chemicals) in our brain via opioid receptors. Yes, these are the same receptors that highly addictive opioid drugs also bind to, suggesting that laughter induces euphoria in much the same way of a narcotic, without negative side effects.  In addition, humor reduces epinephrine. High levels of this hormone have been linked to hypertension, blood pressure, anxiety, and sleep disorders.  

Hippocrates, the father of medicine said, “Food is medicine” and in my clinic, I can attest to that! The results I’ve seen with patients are what inspired me to spend over 6 years researching and writing my International award-winning #1 bestselling book Food Sanity, How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction. Then I read about a renowned surgeon from the 13th century named Henri de Mondeville, who coined the phrase “Laughter is the best medicine.”  He used humor in his practice and found telling patients jokes actually eased their pain and sped up the recovery process. However, the health benefits of laughter are even mentioned in the Bible: "A cheerful heart does a spirit, soul, and body good like medicine.” (Proverbs 17:22.) 

I’ve been incorporating humor, silly banter, and magic tricks in my practice since the day I opened my clinic.   But things really escalated twenty-five years ago while working on the cast and crew of the Golden Globe Award-nominated film Patch Adams, starring Robin Williams. It was then that I would learn about an amazing doctor that brought friendship and laughter to his practice. Patch showed me early in my career that it was okay to loosen up my tie and combine humor without compromising my skills as a doctor. Fast forward to 2022 and I had the honor of interviewing Patch on my show To Your Good Health Radio and thanking him personally for his many decades of inspiration.  

I’m often referred to as, “The only holistic doctor that leaves his patients in stitches.” Being a Chiropractic Neurologist, I have a habit of talking behind patients’ backs and getting on their nerves.  I compiled thirty years of true tales, hilarity, wit, and puns from my 30 years in practice and share them in my new book Funny Bones.  The day it was published, Funny Bones knocked Jerry Seinfeld’s book out of the top position. I guess that means “no soup for me!”  While food and laughter are the best forms of medicine, don’t do both at the same time or you might choke.

The Origins of Laughter

Laughter was the original way humans related to one another, millions of years before developing the ability to convey language. The laughter mechanism is so ingrained into the human brain, infants not even two weeks old can giggle.   Even children born blind and deaf still have the innate ability to laugh. It’s not something we learn to do. We are all born to laugh. As adults, we continue to embrace hilarity!  The most popular and memorable Super Bowl commercials are the ones that make us laugh.  In fact, people enjoy laughing more than listening to music. Sirius Radio offers 13 comedy channels, more than any other genre including classic rock and jazz music combined!     

The science-backed health benefits of laughter are profound. Laughter can prevent and reverse disease, extend our lifespan and even help us to lose weight.  I’ve compiled some of this research and will also share a few tips on how to add more laughter to your life (even if you are dealing with stressful situations or hardships.) 

  

IMMUNE-BOOSTING BENEFITS OF LAUGHTER

When it comes to boosting the immune system, instead of vitamin C, zinc, and echinacea tea, turn on Comedy Central!  Research shows marked beneficial effects of laughter on biomarkers for immune function. The Journal of Rheumatology concluded, “Laughter decreases inflammation and increases infection-fighting antibodies.”  In a clinical trial published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, researchers discovered that after people viewed a one-hour humorous video they had an increase in natural killer cell activity, IgG, IgM, and other infection-fighting leukocytes.  Another study published in the International Journal of Molecular Medicine, corroborated these findings and determined that natural killer cell activity was higher in the group watching a comedic video compared to the controls that did not.

Saliva tests also show that comedy increases the immune system. In a randomized study published by the International Journal of Psychiatric Medicine, they found laughter affects SIgA levels was examined. SIgA levels determine the body’s antibody response at the mucosal level.  Experiencing humor was positively correlated with better SIgA levels. In addition, Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine concluded, “Laughter helps improve NK cell activity. Low NK cell activity is linked to decreased disease resistance and increased morbidity in people with cancer and HIV disease.”

Scientists have declared that ants are the only species that never get sick. They think its because they have anty bodies


LAUGHTER HELPS IMPROVE BRAIN HEALTH AND MEMORY

Neuroanatomy is considered one of the most difficult subjects to learn. At the college I attended, many students failed this class, and the majority that did pass, squeaked by with a C. I remember sitting next to a person that was on his third attempt at passing the course. I ended up being the only student in several years to earn an “A.”  My stellar ability to grasp this tough topic led to me teaching neuroanatomy and eventually writing a textbook on the subject. Most of my students made A’s and B’s because I made the class fun. I taught them how to learn this complex material by using funny songs, silly mnemonics, and humor to explain the different functions of the brain, spinal tracts, and neuronal pathways. To this day, I see doctors at seminars that tell me how much of the info they have still retained because I made the course fun.    

How exactly does laughter help improve memory? When you laugh – or even when you observe someone laughing – you activate the motor cortex that controls the frontal lobe that helps you understand content; and the limbic system that modulates positive emotions.  Laughter has numerous long-term and short-term mental health benefits. Laughing immediately triggers positive physical and mental changes that help relax the mind. A stress-free mind that’s not distracted can learn and retain more.  A good chuckle also causes the brain to release endorphins — hormones that calm the mind and cause feelings of pleasure.   

Loma Linda University  conducted a study comparing people who watched a funny video and laughed for 20 minutes, to a control group that sat calmly with no video. Afterward, they performed memory tests and had saliva samples analyzed for stress hormones. Those who laughed for 20 minutes scored better on memory tests.  In addition, salivary levels of the stress hormone cortisol -- a memory enemy of sorts -- were significantly decreased in the humor group. Another study on older adults published by Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine showed that humor increased learning ability by 38.5%, delayed recall improved by 48.1%, and visual recognition increased by 16.7%.

According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, “Laughing with others releases endorphins [the chemicals that help us to feel good] in the brain via opioid  receptors.”  But, unlike addictive opioid-inducing narcotic drugs, when the brain naturally releases endorphins through laughter, it helps to clear a “fuzzy brain” making you more focused and attentive.  Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans have been conducted on people in a series of tests studying the cerebral response to humor.  Results showed that reading a funny book or cartoon stimulated the frontal lobe, the region of the brain responsible for much of our complex social and emotional behavior.

In addition, research published by Frontiers of Psychology showed the mechanisms of the brain through which emotions modulate information and store memories, especially in the visuo-spatial domain, improve through emotional stimuli such as laughter.  In a report entitled  “Learning Through Laughter,” researchers at Ohio University found adding humor in the classroom  “significantly boosts student interest and participation.”

How much memory does it take to store a joke?  One Gigglebyte.

 

LAUGHTER COMBATS HEART DISEASE

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in America. In fact, someone dies from a heart attack every 36 seconds!  We’ve been told it’s due to a bad diet and lack of exercise. But maybe these folks just need some funny knock-knock jokes?   According to the International Journal of Cardiology, “There is an inverse association between a sense of humor and coronary heart disease.” That means a good chuckle could lower your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Various mechanisms may account for the association between laughter and heart disease or stroke. First, laughter is known to buffer the effects of psychological stress, which is proposed as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The  Alternative Therapy Health Medical Journal  published evidence that laughter can significantly decrease the severity of depression, anxiety, and perceived stress in an experimental group who received laughter therapy compared to those in the control group.  According to the American Journal of Cardiology, laughter improves arterial compliance and  vascular endothelial function. A good chuckle balances neuroendocrine hormones involved in the down-regulation of vasodilatation.  In addition,  laughter functions as a form of exercise or physical activity, which is an important preventive factor for heart disease and stroke.

I know a man that needed a heart transplant, but he refused. His wife finally talked some sense into him, and he had a change of heart.

 

LAUGHTER HELPS PREVENT AND COMBAT CANCER

Cancer is the number two cause of death in America. According to the Complementary Alternative Medical Journal, “Laughter increases natural killer cell activity which destroys cancer cells!” That means, the next time you giggle or laugh so hard you snort, you may be preventing cancer!  Researchers published a study in the Journal of Gerontology  that shows why natural killer (NK) cell cytotoxicity is a strong indicator of immune system functioning. NK cells are lymphocytes capable of killing a wide variety of cancerous cells including leukemia, carcinomas, sarcomas, and melanomas. There is also evidence that natural killer cell activity is important in the prevention of some types of viral illnesses, most notably those induced by herpes simplex type 1, Epstein Barr, and influenza viruses.

Blood samples taken from individuals after watching a comedy for thirty minutes display a significantly increased NK cell activity, while the control group did not.  The Clinical Journal of Oncology, in a report titled The impact of humor on patients with cancer, concluded “Humor can be an effective intervention that impacts the health and well-being of patients with cancer."

A blonde learned that 1 in 8 women get breast cancer so she only hangs out in groups of 7 or fewer.

  

LAUGHING IMPROVES DIGESTION AND GUT HEALTH

Our good gut bacteria (microbiome) can have a direct correlation to an array of diseases including arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, depression, dementia, and colon cancer. While a healthy diet can play a key role (skip the roll!) a good belly laugh improves digestionThe vagus nerve controls the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system. Laughter stimulates diaphragmatic breathing, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system helping food to assimilate better.  In addition, the  International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found an  association between laughter and dyspepsia (burning pain, or discomfort in the digestive tract.)  Researchers found evidence suggesting that laughing with friends and family can inversely diminish dyspepsia.

For inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, a study concluded that chronic stress, adverse life events, and depression increases the risk of a relapse. Because laughter stimulates the vegas nerve, this helps us to calm down and relax. The vegas nerve is crucial to our brain-gut axis.  This is what creates communication between the central and the enteric nervous system, linking the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with intestinal functions. 

A patient told me, “I can’t get rid of my big belly!  I blame it on all the crunches I do.  When I eat potato chips, they make a crunch.”

  

LAUGHING HELPS PEOPLE LOSE WEIGHT

People have been taking supplements, following fad diets, and exercising for half a century,   yet there are more people who are obese today than ever in history!  Instead of counting calories and counting how many steps you take in a day, perhaps you’ll have better success counting daily laughs. Cracking up at just one joke can burn 40 calories, according to a Vanderbilt University study. Researchers found that the increase in heart rate and oxygen consumption during funny moments makes the heart beat faster helping the body to burn fat.   

Research conducted by University Of Maryland Medical Center, found that laughter is also a great form of exercise and affects hormones in the same way that exercise does. When you laugh for 15 minutes, this increases the diameter of your blood vessel just like when you run, jog or do an aerobic-like activity.   The physical act of laughing and resulting biochemical reactions increase heart rate, help blood travel better to the muscles, and cause the same endorphin release as running. Instead of a “runner’s high,” go for a “laugher’s high” (it’s safer on the hip joints.) 

A patient said, “Dr. Friedman I need some advice on how I can lose weight.  My husband weighs the same as he did the day we got married but I’ve gained so much, when we walk side-by-side, we look like the number 10."

 

LAUGHTER IS THE ULTIMATE PAIN RELIEVER

A good belly laugh is the ultimate pain reliever. (Shhh! Don’t tell my patients, they think it’s from my treatments.)  Research published by the Journal of Behavior Medicine showed that laughter lowers pain intensity and tolerance. Several other studies have linked laughter and humor with increased levels of pain tolerance. In one published by the medical journal PAIN, 200 subjects were subjected to a painful stimulus after being shown a film. Those who viewed a humorous film had a significant advantage in pain tolerance time after a 30-minute wait period. In addition, a study of threat-induced pain found that those exposed to humorous tape recordings consistently rated themselves as less anxious and concerned about being hurt from exposure to an electric shock.  In another clinical study published by Physiological  Reports, discomfort thresholds for pain were assessed and a significant increase in pain thresholds was noted in the humorous treatment compared to those not subjected to humor.  

Patient: “Dr. Friedman, my right hip hurts. I guess it’s just old age.”
Me:  “How’s your left hip?”
Patient: “Oh that one is fine."
Me: “Then how can you blame ‘old age?' Both of your hips were born on the same day and have taken the exact same number of steps.” 

 

LAUGHTER HELPS RELIEVE STRESS AND DEPRESSION

A good belly laugh is the best form of stress relief, and that's no joke. Research shows, after watching an hour-long humor video, stress hormones drastically reduce. Some therapists and psychologists are now incorporating laughter into their sessions. A 2021 study from Current Research in Physiology found that laughter therapy is a non-invasive, cost-effective, and easily implementable intervention that helps reduce the mental health burden. Incorporating laughter into counseling sessions can physiologically lessen the pro-stress factors, and reduce anxiety and depression. 

The stress-relieving benefits of laughter have been widely studied.  One study published by the American Journal of Medical Science examined the stress hormone levels of subjects watching an hour-long humor video.  The experimental group had a significantly larger reduction of cortisol levels (stress hormone) compared to the control subjects.  In a randomized, controlled study published by the medical journal  STRESS, researchers concluded that laughter reduced the number of stress hormones that were released in response to antagonizing situations.

Advances in Physiology Education found that “Humor stimulates multiple physiological systems that decrease levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine, and increase the activation of the mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system.” In a recent study published last year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers concluded that humor is an effective coping mechanism that can reduce, cancel, or reverse the negative effects of stressful work situations.

Laughter Yoga is another great way to reduce the cortisol response to acute stress. This type of yoga is a popular method that encourages participants to simulate laughter during yogic breathing exercises. This can negate the negative effects of stress. Laughing Yoga can also positively affect how our autonomic, and endocrine system responds to stress. In other words, it’s the ultimate chill pill that doesn’t require having to swallow a capsule.  Research measuring salivary cortisol levels immediately before laughing yoga, immediately after, and 30 minutes later, has shown a marked decrease in this biomarker for stress. 

 “To whoever stole my antidepressants, I hope you are happy now.”

 
7 Tips to Add More Laughter to Your Life

1) FAKE IT! Even if you’re having a bad day, if you smile or pretend to laugh, the brain eventually can’t tell the difference. Smiling releases tiny molecules called neuropeptides that help fight off stress. Then, other feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins come into play.  If somebody gets on your nerves, just smile at them. This will cause that person to get annoyed and won’t allow them to ruin your 

2) SMILE! One way to remember to smile more is to have smiling cues sprinkled throughout your day. There are a number of ways to do this, including getting yourself a coffee mug with a smiley face on it. This will remind you to smile with each sip of your morning java. When talking on the phone, people can hear a smile. Put a smiley face on a sticky note next to your phone or as your smartphone screen saver to remind you. 

3) STOP TAKING LIFE SO SERIOUSLY. Most people are too serious! This can inhibit your ability to find humor during good times and bad.  This can also make you uptight, which will influence other people’s reactions when they are around you. No one enjoys silly banter or telling someone a joke that has a scowling face.  Start getting comfortable with laughing at yourself.  Showing this vulnerable side makes you look more authentic and is a desirable character trait.  You’ll find that when you allow for more humor in your life, you’ll have less stressful situations.  

4) READ A HUMOROUS BOOK LIKE FUNNY BONES or watch a comedy on TV. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans have studied the cerebral response to humor.  Results showed that reading a funny book or watching a comedy stimulates the part of the brain responsible for much of our complex social and emotional behavior.

5) MAKE LAUGHTER A PART OF YOUR MORNING ROUTINE. Most people reach for their smartphone or tablet the moment they wake up, whether to check email, social media messages, or read the daily news.  Nix doing those things upon rising. Instead,  turn on the Comedy Channel or go directly to a funny meme website, or type in “Dad Jokes” or “Funny Pranks” on YouTube. If you read the newspaper first thing in the morning, start with the daily comics instead of the first-page headlines (which are never funny.) 

6) HANG OUT WITH KIDS. If you have any young children, nieces or nephews, grandkids, or even friends with kids, hang out with them more often. Unlike most adults, children haven’t forgotten how to laugh. They will giggle and crack up at just about anything. Laughter is contagious and soon you’ll be joining in on the snorts and laughs. 


7) PLAY FUN(NY) GAMES WITH FAMILY AND FRIENDS.
Enjoy some competitive party-style games. You will be laughing in no time! Charades always offer some great entertainment but my favorite game that I GUARANTEE will get you laughing out loud is called Speak Out.  Players try to say different phrases while wearing a mouthpiece that won't let them shut their mouths. They try to read phrases as best as they can, but it's not so easy to do when the mouthpiece is hindering them from forming words correctly. The laughter continues as players try to decipher what in the world their teammate is trying to say, and must correctly guess the phrase in order to earn the card.

GET YOUR COPY OF FUNNY BONES TODAY! Enjoy some healthy Hilarity and help out a wonderful Charity (all proceeds go to the Laughter Saves Lives Foundation) 


About the Author

Dr. David Friedman is the author of the award-winning, #1 national best-selling book Food Sanity, How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction. He's a  Doctor of Naturopathy, Chiropractic Neurologist, Clinical Nutritionist, Board Certified Alternative Medical Practitioner, and Board Certified in Integrative Medicine.  Dr. Friedman is a syndicated television health expert and host of To Your Good Health Radio, which has changed the face of talk radio by incorporating entertainment, shock value, and solutions to everyday health and wellness issues.
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