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Laughter Medicine for Diabetes Management

Can Laughter Help Your Heart?

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Updated February 25, 2013

Laughter has always thought to be good medicine, but is there any truth to it? I remember the film, Patch Adams, where an older man goes to medical school and tries to put a sense of humor and some laughter in physician training. Before that, in the 1970s, Norman Cousins, a physician with an autoimmune disease decided that if stress made his illness worse, maybe laughter would make it better. He watched hours of comedy TV, got better and wrote about the experience in the New England Journal of Medical and, later, in a book called Anatomy of an Illness: A Patient's Perspective.

Health Effects of Laughter

So what happens in your body when you laugh? Does anything change? Do those changes have the potential to interact with your short and long-term health? Some research in the 80s by Dr. Lee Berk showed a few concrete things that happen when you laugh (or anticipate laughing) The last three on the list are measures of stress in your body. When these decrease, the negative effects of stress on your health should decrease too. This alone could make laughter a major factor in long-term health, modifying the known, negative impact of chronic stress. Beta-endorphins are chemicals that “make you feel good” and human growth hormone improves your immune response and (some think) even helps with anti-aging.

Laughter Medicine and Diabetes

It’s one thing to measure immediate changes in the body caused by laughter, but it is another thing to make a statement that these changes matter, really matter, in long-term health. Take diabetes, for example. Could laughter really make a difference in a person’s diabetes risk?

Diabetes and Cardiac Risk

One of the biggest problems in diabetes is an increase in heart problems. This is because inflammation is increased in diabetes and that inflammation gives the heart a real work out (think trying to force water through a narrowing hose - it takes more effort to get the same amount of water through). When your blood vessels are inflamed, your heart has to work harder. Doctors can measure the amount of inflammation by looking at HDL cholesterol and other markers (inflammatory cytokines) and c-reactive protein.

Laughter, Inflammation and Diabetes

I admit, that last section wasn’t very funny. But the point is that inflammation is important. Dr. Berk got 20 high-risk diabetic patients together and gave half of the them a “mirthful laughter” intervention of watching funny TV shows that they chose. The results?

As expected, the epinephrine levels (stress hormone) dropped in the laughter group after a month or two. What also dropped was the measures of inflammation, including c-reactive protein and there was also an increase in HDL (the good) cholesterol. Overall, these changes should decrease the diabetic patients’ risk of heart problems caused by inflammation.

Source: Mirthful Laughter, As Adjunct Therapy in Diabetic Care, Increases HDL Cholesterol and Attenuates Inflammatory Cytokines and hs-CRP and Possible CVD Risk. 122nd Annual Meeting of the American Physiological Society via Newswise

Berk LS, Felten DL, Tan SA, Bittman BB, Westengard J. Modulation of neuroimmune parameters during the eustress of humor-associated mirthful laughter. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, March 2001.

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