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Laughter Yoga to Improve Health? It's No Joke

"Your body can't tell the difference between simulated and spontaneous laughter"

When she was first introduced to laughter yoga at her New York City senior center, Millie Mund thought it was “weird.” And who wouldn’t? Stretching her hands skyward, taking deep breaths, clapping her hands and chanting “ho ho, ha ha ha” while staring directly at other group members until everyone is laughing uncontrollably, took getting used to.

See also: Marlo Thomas talks about laughter, family and friends.

“At the beginning, I felt silly, but then I forgot about my pain,” says Mund, 85, who has osteoporosis, arthritis, high blood pressure and circulatory problems. “You look around and see everybody laughing and smiling. It’s a lot of fun.”

Developed in 1995 by Madan Kataria, M.D., a family practitioner from India, laughter yoga “is based on the scientific concept that your body can’t tell the difference between simulated and spontaneous laughter,” Kataria says. “You get the same health benefits. The yoga breathing, in combination with laughter exercises, brings more oxygen to the body and makes you feel energetic and stay healthy.”

Laughter yoga is only one tool in the growing field of laughter therapy. Today, humor is used to treat chronic pain associated with cancer, arthritis or other illnesses, as well as depression, anxiety and stress disorders. Psychiatrists, family therapists, social workers and an increasing number of “certified laughter therapists” or “laughter leaders” prescribe jokes, reading funny books, watching comic movies—or anything that evokes gut-splitting squeals for the purpose of feeling better. Clips from classic TV sitcoms like I Love Lucy, The Carol Burnett Show, Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, All in the Family or The Bob Newhart Show work well. Standup comedy shticks from Lily Tomlin, CDs such as “The 2000 Year Old Man” with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, or movies like Blazing Saddles or There’s Something About Mary can be just the right medicine.

Many laughter therapists teach workshops at government offices, corporations, nursing homes and police departments. Even some Roman Catholic nuns find laughter therapy useful in ministering to others. Sister Angelica Menta, a Houston nun and a licensed family therapist, has traveled throughout Texas for 20 years conducting laughter workshops for cancer patients and at senior centers and workplaces. Known as “the Stand-Up Nun,” Sister Menta wears silly hats, tells jokes and encourages her people to find laughter in everyday life, using humor as a path to spirituality.

The medical community has recognized the healing power of humor since the 14th century, when the French surgeon Henri de Mondeville suggested that doctors should look after each patient’s joy and happiness “by having someone tell him jokes.” But the modern father of laughter therapy is thought to be Norman Cousins, for 30 years the editor of the Saturday Review. Cousins recounted his own self-treatment with humor in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1976, after he’d been diagnosed with a very painful, life-threatening form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis. Doctors gave him little chance of recovery.

When traditional medicine failed to relieve his pain, Cousins left the hospital, checked into a hotel, took megadoses of vitamin C and watched Marx Brothers films and TV sitcoms, finding that 10 minutes of “belly laughter” allowed him two hours of pain-free sleep. He eventually recovered and wrote a series of best-selling books on humor and healing. Before he died in 1990 at age 75 from heart failure, Cousins was made an adjunct professor of medical humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, medical school.

What Cousins discovered on his own, researchers have recently been trying to prove through scientific study: that laughter can relieve pain, reduce depression, promote relaxation, boost the immune system, improve blood flow and breathing, lower blood pressure and glucose levels, and even slow the growth of cancer cells. “Studies indicate that participating in laughter therapy is beneficial in terms of disease control,” says William Fry, M.D., professor emeritus at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Just how powerful a medicine laughter may be was demonstrated by Michael Miller, M.D., director of preventive cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center. In 2006, in the journal Heart, Miller reported on a group of 20 healthy volunteers, none suffering from heart disease or high blood pressure, randomly assigned to watch a 15- to 30-minute segment of either a comedy film, to induce laughter, or an action-packed drama, to cause mental stress.

Miller measured the flow of blood in his subjects’ brachial arteries in the upper arm before and after the movies. Nineteen of the 20 people who watched the comedy experienced increased blood flow by a mean of 15 percent, suggesting that laughter relaxes the arteries and may ease strain on the heart. On the other hand, 14 of the 20 volunteers who watched the drama found that blood flow in their arteries was reduced by a mean of 47 percent, an amount Miller compares to a fit of anger, which may raise blood pressure, constrict arteries and stress the heart.

“We think this is the real deal,” says Miller. “There’s no question in my mind that there is some physiological benefit from laughter. Now, we need to translate what those changes in our blood vessels mean clinically.”

California researcher Lee Berk, an associate professor at Loma Linda University School of Public Health, is documenting laughter’s ability to boost immune cell activity and improve mood. “Just the anticipation of laughter can change your biology, lower stress hormones and increase endorphins that affect mood states and vigor,” says Berk.

In a 2006 study, Berk and his colleagues found that body chemicals called beta-endorphins, nature’s pain relievers and antidepressants, increased by 27 percent when volunteers simply anticipated watching a humorous video. Human growth hormone, which boost immunity to disease, also rose in the volunteers—by 87 percent. No increase in these hormones occurred in the control group, which wasn’t told they would see the video.

This year, the same researchers looked at the impact of anticipating laughter on three major stress hormones. High levels of stress hormones can have a detrimental impact on the immune and cardiovascular systems. All three stress hormones were reduced when subjects anticipated seeing the funny video—and one, epinephrine, dropped by 70 percent.

Although there’s no scientific explanation, it’s widely known that one of laughter’s most therapeutic characteristics is that it is extremely contagious. Recently, Millie Mund decided to spread a little cheer by introducing laughter yoga to her son, daughter-in-law and adult grandchildren. “They thought I was crazy,” she says, “but before I knew it, they were all doing ‘ho ho, ha ha ha’ and laughing!”

Sally Abrahms of Brookline, Mass., writes about health, workplace and aging issues.