Review Feature

The medicinal value of laughter

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Medical science has yet to prove whether it's actually true that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But they do know beyond any doubt that frequent doses of laughter have a direct correlation to our health and well-being.

And since April 2001 just so happens to be the 25th anniversary of National Humor Month, there's no better time than the present to accept that fact with a hearty belly laugh.

National Humor Month was founded in 1976 by comedy writer Larry Wilde, who designed the celebratory period specifically to heighten public awareness on how the joy and therapeutic value of laughter can improve health, boost morale, increase communication skills and enrich the quality of one's life.

There's hardly a medical professional or health scientist in the country who disagrees with him. In fact, research indicates that the curative power of laughter and its ability to relieve debilitating stress and burnout may indeed be one of the great medical discoveries of our times.

Those are certainly the beliefs held by the executive director of the 20-year-old, Valley-headquartered American Association for Therapeutic Laughter whose name just so happens to be (get ready for this incredible National Humor Month coincidence) April Becerra.

"Laughing is like internal jogging," Becerra said. "It cleanses the respiratory system, stimulates the digestive tract, increases heart rate and blood circulation, lowers blood pressure, reduces muscle tension and increases the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers.

"Humor is more than just laughing at a joke. It can become a way of life if you open yourself up to a new attitude," she says. "The greatest thing about all components of humor is that you not only help yourself, you help others."

"Not all prescriptions involve drugs. The healing power of laughter, play and humor is tremendous ... and you can never overdose on it."

Laughter: the international language

Becerra's observations have already been validated not just in the halls of the American Association for Therapeutic Laughter, but all over the world.

In a study conducted last year by Japanese medicos, doctors treated two different sets of patients with allergy-caused skin welts to two decidedly different treatments. One group watched a video on weather, and the other watched Charlie Chaplin's classic silent film, "Modern Times."

The study found that the skin welt shrank in the patients who watched the Chaplin flick, but were unchanged in those who watched the weather tape.

"These results suggest that the induction of laughter may play some role in alleviating allergic diseases," said Dr. Hajime Kimata of Unitika Central Hospital in Kyoto Prefecture in the highly esteemed Journal of the American Medical Association.

Kimata was influenced by the author Norman Cousins' 30-year-old research compiled in the famous book "Anatomy of an Illness suggesting that laughter and a positive attitude can help reduce pain. Cousins suffered from a life-threatening joint disease and reported that 10 minutes of laughter helped reduce his pain.

Kimata said exactly how humor might have reduced the welts is not known. But Dr. Margaret Stuber, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, said his premise "makes a lot of sense from a scientific standpoint."

She pointed to a growing body of research suggesting that stress undermines the disease-fighting immune system. Easing stress, which laughter can do, might then have a positive effect.

That is certainly the conclusion reached by researchers at the University of Maryland, who last year found that people who have heart disease are less likely to laugh compared to those who do not have heart disease leading them to conclude that chronic distressing emotions such as anger, anxiety and depression increase the risk of heart disease.

Of course, such information doesn't mean a thing unless it's put to use and according to another study conducted by the New York consulting firm William M. Mercer Inc., American employers are not exactly finding the concept of humor in the workplace to be a laughing matter.

In the survey of 275 employers, 8 percent said they discourage humor in the workplace, and 63 percent were neutral about humor.

On the plus side, 8 percent said they include fun as part of their values or mission statements, and 4 percent had even hired a humor consultant.

Since both of those last survey figures octupled since 1990, it's safe to say that what all the humor researchers are saying is true.

Laughter is contagious, indeed. Give us a little time, and humanity will evolve into a species of guffawing idiots who refuse to take themselves seriously.

For more information on the healthful benefits of laughter, contact The American Association for Therapeutic Humor by telephone at (623) 934-6068, or by mail at 4534 W. Butler Dr., Glendale, AZ 85302.

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