This week our contributing writer Doctor Gifford-Jones talks about the healing power of laughter.
“Why do people instantly dislike to me when they find out I’m a lawyer?” a man asked. His friend replied, “It just saves time.”
Another story tells of the client who, on asking his lawyer what contingency fees meant, was told. “If I lose your law suit I don’t get anything. If I win you don’t get anything.”
Then there was the drunk in a cemetery who found himself in front of an impressive tomb. The inscription read, “here lies a lawyer and an honest man.” My God” the drunk stammered. “Can you believe it? Now they’re putting two men in the same grave”.
By this time you’ve probably decided I should stick to writing a medical column. Or you might have laughed a little, and by so doing, you will live longer.
A study by cardiologists at the University of Maryland suggests that a good giggle helps to protect the heart. It’s research involved 300 people, half with heart disease and half without any cardiac problem. They were all given questionnaires and asked how much they would laugh at certain situations. The people with existing heart disease were 40 percent less likely to chuckle than the others.
Another study showed that heart attack patients who laughed at comedy for 30 minutes a day were less likely to have another heart attack over the course of a year.
The role of laughter in treating disease was demonstrated many years ago by Norman Cousins, a former editor of Saturday Review Magazine. He developed a crippling joint disease after a stressful trip to Europe and was advised by doctors that he faced a grim future.
Cousins cured himself by watching old Laurel and Hardy movies day after day. He discovered that after a mere 10 minutes of laughter he could sleep without pain for two hours. A combination of laughter and nutritious diet restored his health.
Others have stressed the virtues of laughter. Sir Thomas Syndenham, once remarked that “The arrival of a good clown exercises more beneficial effect upon the health of a town than 20 asses laden with pills.” Or as Victor Borge concluded, if it were not for laughs we would be sicker than we are”
But how does a belly-laugh help the heart? Dr. Michael Miller, Director of the Center For Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland participated in the study. He reports that laughter may be a powerful antidote for stress. Several prior studies have also shown that chronic stress is a bad prescription for the heart.
People in tense situations release a hormone called cortisol. Dr. Miller suggests this injures the inner endothelial lining of blood vessels and possibly leads to coronary attack.
Laughter, on the other hand, releases chemicals like nitric oxide which relaxes blood vessels. Nitric oxide is related to nitrous oxide better known as laughing gas.
Norman Cousins provided one of the best reasons why laughter aids the heart. He referred to laughter as “internal jogging”. It provides a vigorous workout for abdominal and chest muscles. But when laughter subsides, the pulse rate drops and muscles relax. This calming effect can last up to 45 minutes.
Laughter contains several other bonuses. Researchers have shown that laughter is also a good antidote for pain. For instance, patients suffering from arthritis often tell me that their “whole life hurts”. I’ve often prescribed funny movies which distract their attention and ease some of the pain. In this case it’s believed that laughter stimulates the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain-killer.
Today we have become addicted to “pillitis”. This comes with a cost. You rarely get anything for nothing. And painkillers over a period of time can cause chronic injury to kidneys and liver.
But laughter’s best benefit is that it has no side-effects. As Sir Max Beecham, the English writer said, “Strange when you come to think of it, that of all the countless folk who have lived before our time on the planet, not one is known in history or in legend as having died of laughter.”