Laugh and be healthy

My friend was getting married. The entire weekend promised to be full of fun. But when I reached the airport, the passengers were already on board and the plane was ready to leave. I was desperate. Two friends in tow, we ran to the gate. We literally begged the gate attendant to somehow let me on the flight. The wedding was too important, and it couldn’t wait. After a few frowns and a mumbled call to the captain, the attendant offered to reopen the door but with one condition: My baggage would have to come on a later flight. But what if the baggage didn’t get on time? Now I was even more desperate: How could I be the bridesmaid with all the clothes in the suitcase? Even before I could explain my plight to the attendant, my friends came to my rescue. I stood horrified to see underclothes and other personal belongings floating into a huge clear plastic bag. I rushed aboard the plane, with my purse in one hand and my plastic nightmare on the other.

Life is such. We find ourselves by accident or by our own making in situations that threaten our sanity or test our humor. If we resist the former and try the latter, life would be so much fun. Humor leaves us with a taste of happiness: life seems good, problems are minimized, colors look brighter, and all heaven seems to smile. Did not Solomon say, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine”?

That was some three thousand years ago. Now, research shows that the wise man’s saying was not just a “good quip,” but a scientific truth.

The immune system

But first a word about how the body’s immune system works. The immune system fights disease and is controlled by neurotransmitters that are made and released by the nervous system. The nervous system is of two kinds: sympathetic and parasympathetic. If someone yells your name as you doze off in class or church, you suddenly become alert, vessels constrict, pupils dilate, and your heart beats faster. This is a sympathetic reaction.

The sympathetic system is designed for utility in short, unsustained periods. If it were constantly revving in high gear, negative effects would result. Like under stress. Stress can cause high blood pressure, damaging blood vessel walls. It can also constrict blood vessels, further narrowing the blood flow. When muscles do not receive sufficient blood and oxygen, we feel pain, and the muscle slowly dies. In the case of a muscle like the heart, we have a heart attack.

Such physical results, associated with the sympathetic nervous system, occur because neurotransmitters, like epinephrine and dopamine, are released en masse in the body under certain circumstances–like when you are under stress or when someone yells your name when you are dozing.

Here’s where laughter has a healing role to play. Laughing reduces the levels of epinephrine and dopamine, thus lessening the time and effect of these neurotransmitters. This also decreases the amount of circulating cortisol, which is a natural immune system suppressant that makes the body more susceptible to disease. Without this suppressing effect, the immune system can fight infection more successfully.

Laughter and the immune system

The immune system consists of white blood cells that fight infection. Does laughter have any influence on these cells? Dr. L. S. Berk and his research team decided to find out. They studied the effect of laughter on three kinds of white blood cells: lymphocytes, granulocytes, and monocytes. The research involved a group of participants who were shown a humorous video that produced mirthful laughter. Blood levels of various leukocytes were measured before, during, soon after, and even the next day after watching the video and laughing out loud. They found that white blood cells and their products increased during laughter and that this statistically significant increase often extended into the next day, implying that the effect may be long term. Significant increase was noted in lymphocyte products such as natural killer cells and gamma interferon that specifically attack viral and tumor cells. Also increased were antibodies, which are B-lymphocyte products that provide immunity against certain diseases. Such increases improve the overall immune system function. More studies are continuing to show positive outcomes of laughter.

Laugh, and get back to normal

Not so long ago, I was almost out of focus. I had been on duty at the hospital all night. I felt very tired. I had lost much sleep. Just as the long night ended, my pager buzzed. I noted a very familiar phone number. I rang, and got a recording. I tried again, and got the answering machine once again. Both the number and the voice seemed familiar, but I couldn’t put a face to them. Anyway, I left a message. About four hours later, a friend called me and asked me to listen to the messages on my machine. When I did, I couldn’t help but burst out laughing: the phone number and the voice on the machine were my own! The laughter took all my stress away. I was ready to face the day.

The more I study and experience the relation between our emotions and the immune system, the more I concur with David that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Someone has well said, “Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone.” I’d rather be with the world free from stress, at the prime of health.

Sarah Uffindell (M.D., Loma Linda University) is a resident at Loma Linda University Medical Center specializing in neurology. Her postal address: 11160 Bellair St., Apt. 1; Loma Linda, California 92354; U.S.A.

References

    J. R. Dunn interviewing L. S. Berk, “New Discoveries in Psychoneuroimmunology,” Humor & Health Letter 3:6 (November-December 1994), pp. 1-8.

    L. S. Berk, “The Laughter-Immune Connection: New Discoveries,” Humor & Health Journal 5:5 (September-October 1996), pp. 1-5.