Can laughter cure illness?

By: Victoria Vogt  | 
Is it possible for you to laugh your way back to health?
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Everyone has heard the phrase "laughter is the best medicine", but have you ever wondered if it's true? Can enough laughter, say, cure an illness? That question may have once elicited a chuckle from your doctor, but these days, physicians encourage patients to up their daily dose of laughter to reap certain health benefits. Psychologists studying the science of happiness believe that practicing certain positive behaviors like laughter can bring pleasure, engagement, and meaning [source: Jameson].

How does a hearty laugh improve one's health? Laughter sets off a chain reaction throughout the body that can both prevent illness and help you get well. Spontaneous laughter lowers your body's stress hormones and cortisol levels. (Cortisol is a stress-induced chemical that can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure and excess belly fat.) Laughter also strengthens your immune system because it increases the production of antibodies in your saliva and in your blood vessels, thereby staving off bacteria, viruses, and parasites.


Additional Laughter Benefits

Laughter also helps with skin conditions. People suffering from eczema noted improvement in their complexions after consistently watching funny movies. When allergy patients laugh regularly, it reportedly shrinks their welts [source: Kimata].

When you laugh, it affects your body the same way that a brisk walk would -- by working various muscles throughout your body. Laughter strengthens your aerobic (heart and lung) capacity by expanding your oxygen consumption. This, in turn, increases blood flow and your heart rate. Virtually, your entire immune system can benefit from a few jokes!


After you're done hooting and howling, you get an added bonus -- relaxation. These positive emotions can offer increased pain tolerance and a reduction in negative thoughts. So, it should come as no surprise that mirthful laughter can combat depression as well as anxiety [source: Oz]. In the next section, we'll learn how people use laughter therapy to help control their health and manage illness.

Laughter and Cancer Treatments

Participants hamming it up at the First International Laughter Yoga Conference in 2005.
Amy Vitale/Getty Images

Some people in the medical community have been skeptical of the healing power of laughter, but that's changing. In fact, doctors have begun to espouse laughter therapy to complement traditional treatments for injuries and diseases like cancer. Nearly every hospital in the United States injects a blend of clown therapy, pet therapy, and pastoral care -- visits by a hospital chaplain or community faith leader -- into each patient's treatment plan [source: Nilsen].

How can laughter help with cancer? The science of happiness may provide an explanation. Some cancer treatment centers incorporate therapeutic humor sessions into a patient's treatment plan to increase the positive feelings that support the healing process [source: CTCA]. It's alright if patients can't find anything to genuinely laugh about, because laughter therapy uses forced or simulated laughter -- and it works.


Instructors lead laughter therapy classes that are akin to exercises classes. During these group sessions, patients and their families play a game like "Simon Says" and make laughing sounds that the instructor calls out. As the participant does the laughter exercises, the brain releases endorphins. Endorphins serve a few purposes, acting as:

  • the body's natural energy booster
  • a natural painkiller
  • a natural mood enhancer


Applied and Therapeutic Humor Sessions

More than 100 hospitals in the U.S. have comedy carts or humor rooms [source: Nilsen]. Comedy carts are brightly decorated rolling carts that are filled with toys and games. Staff and volunteers travel the hospital floors, bringing cheer and a good laugh to patients. What could one expect to find in a humor room? Don't be surprised to find upbeat and comforting decorations, furniture, flooring, and lighting that create a fun space for therapeutic humor. These rooms typically house all sorts of games, toys, books, CDs, comedy movies -- and possibly a player piano, too.

Doctors encourage family and friends to show plenty of support to their sick loved one. Both laughter therapy and humor therapy involve social interaction -- after all, laughter is contagious. Some people believe that the camaraderie fostered by social laughter and humor therapy banishes fear and promotes relaxation to help the healing process. In the next section, we'll learn how laughter helps with pain tolerance.


Laughter and Pain Treatment

In the book "Anatomy of an Illness," journalist and author Norman Cousins chronicled how 10-minute intervals of intense laughter helped him get two hours of undisturbed sleep -- despite a painful spinal condition that had previously kept him from dozing off. Even so, laughter as an alternative pain treatment isn't a new idea.

In fact, people in Asia and South America have extolled its benefits for centuries. As early as the 13th century, doctors used laughter as a distraction to relieve pain during surgery. The Biblical book of Proverbs, which dates back more than 2,000 years, mentions the therapeutic power of laughter several times.


Pediatric hospitals also use therapeutic forms of entertainment like clown therapy to help children tolerate the pain, nausea and anxiety associated with chemotherapy and radiation treatment [source: RXLaughter]. The 1998 movie "Patch Adams" was based on the real-life story of a doctor who used humor to treat patients while he was still in medical school.

Patch Adams and his colleagues at the Gesundheit Institute in Virginia use a combination of clowning, singing and dancing to treat patients through entertainment in conjunction with traditional medicine [source: Gesundheit Institute]. A similar group based in Australia uses clown therapy to incite laughter in patients dealing with injuries, diseases, and terminal illnesses [source: Humour Foundation].


More Positive Benefits to Mental Health

Laughter yoga is a relatively new, yet effective, healing tool. In March 1995, Dr. Batan Kataria led five students through the first laughter yoga class in Mumbai, India. Today, people in more than 50 countries practice laughter yoga to temporarily relieve pain from chronic pain conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia. Laughter yoga incorporates the meditation, stretching and relaxation techniques found in yoga and combines them with breathing exercises and playful laughter [source: Rajewski].

More people are turning to laughter to ease their mental health as well as their bodies. Some serving in the military are being trained to use genuine and forced laughter as stress relievers. Research indicates that laughter appears to help prevent and treat conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can result from harrowing experiences like combat duty [sources: Burbank, Clark].


Overall, a laughter prescription can make a big difference in all of our lives. Although there's no concrete evidence that laughter alone can cure an illness, it does promote physical and mental health. Learn more about how laughter's therapeutic properties with the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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