Laughing kids

Know the wonderful sense of calm that follows a belly laugh? The ultra-satisfying feeling like you just smiled a thousand smiles and did a hundred crunches? That afterglow is an instant boost that can also have lasting positive effects on your health and well-being. You’ve probably heard the saying laughter is the best medicine, but scientific research has only recently turned toward documenting the effects of laughter on physical health.

It doesn’t take a peer-reviewed journal to conclude that laughing feels good – but pinpointing just what laughter does for the body has helped find a place for humor in health routines and therapy. Here are four ways laughter does a body good:

1. Increases blood flow

According to a University of Maryland study, laughter expands endothelium (the lining of the blood vessels that regulates blood flow) adjusts coagulation, and produces chemicals in response to inflammation. Study participants watched parts of the movies Saving Private Ryan and There’s Something About Mary. After the comedy, endothelium expanded by as much as 30-50%, suggesting that regular laughter could defend against hardening arteries.

2. Activates endorphins

The physical process of laughter triggers the release of endorphins, a rush of brain chemicals that give us a sense of well-being. This is perhaps because laughter exercises the whole body, prompting the brain to release endorphins just like it would for other kinds of physical exertion including running, having sex, and even eating spicy food.

An Oxford study tested the relationship of laughter to pain resistance and found that social laughter correlates to a higher pain threshold. The study affirmed that laughter causes the endorphin release, and that the resulting pain tolerance is due to laughter itself, not just the simple good feeling of being in a social group.

3. Helps Lower Blood Sugar

Documenting the effect of laughter on blood sugar is barely underway, but a Japanese study has laid some groundwork for future evaluations. The two-day experiment had a group of 19 diabetics eat the same meal and attend a lecture on one day and a comedy show the next. Blood glucose was higher after the lecture than the comedy show, suggesting that laughter suppresses the spike in blood glucose after eating.

4. Increases Immune Function

Laughter has been shown to increase the activity of Natural Killer cells, our best allies against tumors and viruses. An assessment of the activity of NK cells before and after watching funny videos points to higher NK cell activity after a bout of laughter.

You don’t have to know much about physiology to understand that laughter – and the social relationships that foster it – is good for you. Despite all the above studies, researchers have a long way to go in understanding the immediate and cumulative effects of laughter on the body. Researchers emphasize the importance of the social significance of laughter, our most honest signal, as one of the best guards against disease.

So while these findings are a helpful reminder to let that belly laugh roll, don’t skip your exercise walk in favor of a comedy show. A better prescription is to seek out people who speak the other universal language: hehehe hahaha!

Keep in touch with Erin on Twitter: @ErinPie

image: Ernst Moeksis