Humor and Health
"The art of medicine consists of keeping the patient amused while nature heals the disease." Voltaire
Laughter can heal you. It's true. Meaning that, depending on the illness or disease, you have the power at your own fingertips to make yourself well. This also means, of course, that if this were common knowledge (and you skeptics out there believed it ), this country's huge pharmaceutical corporations would lose billions in profit. (So keep it under your hat, eh?)
You've already noticed, of course, how much better you feel after a good belly laugh. The problem, obviously, is that your sense of humor usually abandons you just when you need it most - when you're stressed. On the tough days. When you're working under a deadline or frustrated or in a hurry, or when you're sitting and sitting and sitting in heavy traffic.
However, if you can teach yourself to bring humor and optimism into your daily life, especially during crisis or conflict, you can actually enhance your physical and mental health, and generally improve your overall quality of life.
"The simple truth is that happy people generally donít get sick." - Bernie Siegel, M.D.
Psychoneuroimmunology and Humor
Every year, there is more evidence that your thoughts, moods, and emotions have a fundamental impact on your bodyís health and healing mechanisms.
Whether or not you get sick depends on your bodyís ability to fight off infection and disease. In 1980, Dr. Franz Ingelfinger, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, estimated that 85% of all illnesses are curable by the bodyís own healing system. Over twenty years of research have begun to factualize this estimate.
The Fight or Flight Response
Imagine you are a caveman/woman out innocently picking berries on a warm afternoon when suddenly you come nose to nose with a saber-tooth tiger. While you were simply gathering, the tiger was actually hunting, and the sight of you makes his mouth water.
Luckily millions of years of evolution have endowed you with a set of automatic 'physical weapons' that take over in the event of an emergency. At the sight of the tiger, your hypothalamus sends a message to your adrenal glands and within seconds, you can run faster, hit harder, see better, hear more acutely, and think faster than you could only seconds earlier.
Your heart is pumping at two to three times its normal speed, sending nutrient-rich blood to the major muscles in your arms and legs. The tiny blood vessels under the surface of your skin close down (which consequently sends your blood pressure soaring), so that you can sustain a surface wound and not bleed to death. Even your pain perception diminishes.
All functions of your body not needed for the impending struggle are shut down. Digestion stops, sexual function stops, even your immune system is temporarily turned off. Your suddenly supercharged body is designed to help level the odds between you and your attacker. Consequently, you escape death by leaping higher and running faster than you ever could before. With the danger now over, you find a safe place to lie down and rest your exhausted body.
Now, fast forward to Today. Your boss comes by your office, a serious look on his face, and says he needs to talk with you, "now, please." Again, the Fight or Flight response kicks in. Your adrenaline begins to flow. Your blood pressure, heart rate and pulse begin to climb. Your reflexes heighten, your muscles harden - your body and mind become prepared to face and deal with "danger".
Even when there is no real physical threat to you, your DNA can still cause your body to react basically as it did thousands of years ago. But since there is no real outlet or release for your feelings, over time they will endanger both your mind and body. If you continue to live under major stress and react to it with an intense physical response, your health could be seriously jeopardized.
Research has shown that laughter reduces this health risk by decreasing the production of several hormones produced by the fight or flight response, namely epinephrine, cortisol, dopac, and even growth hormone. Interestingly, relaxation techniques such as meditation, biofeedback or yoga also reduce this hormone burst. Unfortunately, most physicians still find it easier to reach for a prescription pad than to take the time to discuss changes in a patient's response to life's stresses.
"Laugh loud - as though your life depends on it ... because it may"
The greatest amount of research to date has focused on immunoglobulin A (or IgA), a part of your immune system which protects against upper respiratory illness, such as cold and flu. IgA is often referred to as the bodyís first line of defense against viral and bacterial infections. Several studies have shown that watching as little as 30 minutes of a comedy video will increase both salivary and blood levels of IgA. Laughter also increases the number and level of activation of helper T-cells, and the ratio of helper to suppresser T-cells.
Clearly, your sense of humor can cause the immune system to "turn on" metabolically and do more effectively what it was designed to do - promote health and wellness in the face of internal or external threats.
Norman Cousins, when he fell seriously ill, did something which his doctors did not think was funny: he checked out of the hospital and into a hotel.
Immediately, he experienced the benefits. Room rates were cheaper, the food was delicious, service was first-class and he was not constantly interrupted in his rest - either by doctors, nurses or fellow patients. He felt better right away.
Best of all, he could spend most of the time watching funny movies. Cousins rented dozens of classic films - Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, Albert & Costello, Charlie Chaplin and more. This was in the mid 1960s, before the days of video, so he had to rent a movie projector along with the actual films.
It was well worth the hassle. Cousins laughed so much that he eventually recovered from Ankylosing Spondylitis - an "incurable" degenerative disease that causes the breakdown of collagen, the fibrous tissue that binds together the body's cells.
At the time, Cousins was almost completely paralyzed and his doctors had given him no more than six months to live. Yet he went on to live another 20-plus years, until 1990. During that period, he even survived a massive heart attack and, again, recovered through his own, unorthodox ways.
Norman Cousins goes down in history as the man who laughed his way to health. He tells the story of his amazing recovery in "Anatomy of an Illness". The book has become famous enough for other authors to pen similar titles such as, Anatomy of the Spirit, Anatomy of Miracles, and so on.
Unfortunately, it is not quite famous enough to still remain in print today, more than 20 years after its first publication in 1978. If you can find a copy, read it. You'll enjoy it. And you will gain much useful insight into the value of laughter and other positive emotions. You will also learn much about the strength and power of the human spirit.
Cousins was a journalist, not a medicine man. Yet his book, which started off as an article in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, has played a major role in encouraging the scientific study of the relationship between laughter and healing.
"There are forces in the human mind that are no less powerful than a physician's prescription pad. "
Neil F. Neimark, M.D.
Many pain centers around the country now use relaxation techniques in addition to pain medications for suffering patients. With much more research into these safe and natural remedies, perhaps our great-great-grandchildren will be able to utilize humor as a primary tool for healing, rather than an 'alternative' method when the gambit of pain pills has been exhausted.
"A merry heart does good like a medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones. "
Proverbs 17:22, the Bible - KjV
"Laugh Hard, Heal More," 2001, Richard Seah
'Love, Medicine and Miracles', 1996, by Bernie Seigel
"Anatomy of an Illness," 1997, Norman Cousins
Updated January 2002.