The Healing Power of Laughter
Does enjoyment and laughter really help your heart? There’s been much speculation. Researchers now have an answer.
The endothelium, the inner lining of the arteries, plays an important role in the fight against cardiovascular disease. It regulates blood flow by controlling when the blood vessels expand and contract.
In addition, the endothelium also secretes chemicals, such as nitric oxide, that inhibit inflammation (a key step in the formation of dangerous arterial plaque that can trigger heart attacks or sudden death) and blood clotting (a cause of many heart attacks). Mental stress is known to be harmful to the endothelium. Blood vessels tighten in stressful situations, and chemical changes may leave you open to arterial damage.
One study suggested that laughter works like stress in reverse, to promote endothelial health. The study, conducted at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, involved 20 nonsmoking, healthy volunteers who were hooked up to a blood pressure cuff and ultrasound machine to measure blood flow in a major artery. Half the group watched the opening scene of the war movie Saving Private Ryan, a graphic and violent depiction of World War II. The other half saw a segment of the comedy Kingpin, starring Woody Harrelson and Bill Murray, which was described by critic Roger Ebert as “a very funny movie, and sometimes even funnier than that.” Two days later, the groups were switched and the films were rerun. The difference was striking. Minutes after watching Saving Private Ryan, arterial blood flow was constricted in 14 of the 20 volunteers. But blood vessels opened up in 19 of the 20 participants after they had laughed their way through the Kingpin segment.
The relaxation of the arteries suggested that the endothelium was working in a health way, secreting chemicals, such as nitric oxide, to protect against clot formation and the formation of fatty deposits. Laughter’s exact physiological mechanism is unclear, but researchers speculate that the release of endorphins – “feel good” brain chemicals – triggers positive endothelial changes. Watching the funny movie had as much positive effect on arteries as 20 to 30 minutes of jogging.
How To Make Your Health A Laughing Matter Although it may be difficult to change your whole outlook to see more humor in the events of daily life, you can give yourself more occasions of laugh.
Set aside at least 15 minutes each day to watch a funny film or video, read an amusing book or listen to a CD of a favorite comedian.
For some funny movie choices, check out the American Film Institute’s “100 Funniest American Movies of All Time” at www.afi.com/100Years/laughs.aspx.