Heart Health is a Laughing Matter
It turns out, whoever said "laughter is the best medicine" wasn't too far off the mark - at least where the heart is concerned. A recent study revealed that laughing has surprisingly beneficial effects on your heart.
Researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore studied 20 healthy, young adults who watched 15 to 30 minute segments of either funny or sad movies. After watching humorous clips, the researchers observed increased blood flow in 19 of the participants that was comparable to performing aerobic exercise or beginning a cholesterol-lowering statin treatment. The researchers also found that watching a good tearjerker had the opposite effect, actually lowering 14 of the participants' brachial blood flow an amount equivalent to remembering periods of anger or doing mental arithmetic.
Before the study commenced, the participants were tested and were all found to have normal blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels. They were also asked to fast overnight and refrain from aerobic exercise or consuming alcohol, vitamins or herbs the evening before the viewings, since these can all affect blood flow.
Prior to seeing a movie, the volunteers were tested for their blood vessel reactivity in order to measure what is known as flow-mediated vasodilation. During the test, blood flow in the brachial artery in the arm was restricted by a blood pressure cuff and then suddenly released. An ultrasound device was then used to measure how well the blood vessel responded to the abrupt increase in flow. The brachial artery runs from the shoulder to the elbow and is a good indicator of blood flow throughout the body. Researchers collected a total of 160 measurements of brachial artery flow from the participants a minute before and after phases of laughter or sadness.
Volunteers watched each segment of the movies while lying down in a temperature-controlled room, after which the brachial artery was tested for blood vessel reactivity. Each volunteer was shown part of two movies at the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum, randomized to first watch either a movie that would cause mental stress, such as the opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan," or a segment of a movie that would cause laughter, such as "King Pin." At least 48 hours later, they were shown a movie intended to produce the opposite emotional extreme. Overall, average blood flow increased 22 percent during laughter, and decreased 35 percent during mental stress.
"I think it would be reasonable for everybody to loosen up, and spend about 15 to 20 minutes a day laughing," said lead researcher Dr. Michael Miller, director of preventive cardiology at the University of Maryland. "The magnitude of change we saw in the endothelium is similar to the benefit we might see with aerobic activity, but without the aches, pains and muscle tension associated with exercise," says Dr. Miller. "We don't recommend that you laugh and not exercise, but we do recommend that you try to laugh on a regular basis."
It's not clear why laughter has this healthy effect, but Miller has some hypotheses. "The endothelium has endorphin receptors so what may be happening after a good laugh is these endorphins are released and activate the receptors, causing an interaction or perhaps just an independent dilation of the endothelium," he said. The endothelium is a layer of thin flat cells that lines the interior surface of blood vessels throughout the circulatory system, and endorphins are "feel good" chemicals with morphine-like properties. This is the reason laughing creates an overall sense of well-being and warmth, especially in the heart area.
So your heart can indeed be a laughing matter and the benefits of a good chuckle are exponential: the more you laugh, the better you feel; the better you feel, the more you laugh, and so on. So the next time you're flipping through channels on TV or choosing a movie, pick something funny to watch, for your heart's sake.