Senior Couple Laughing

What a Good Laugh Can Do for Your Heart

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Senior Couple LaughingAs a child of the 80s, I am a huge fan of John Hughes movies. I could watch “Sixteen Candles” with the volume off and recite every line. It cracks me up every time.

My father was more of a “Caddyshack” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” fan. We would watch “Christmas Vacation” every year around the holidays, and my dad never ceased to laugh hysterically at Uncle Eddie.

Of course, my husband is an “Animal House” guy. The golf shot to the horse’s behind and the food fight scenes put him on the floor every time.

While personal favorites and even senses of humor may vary from person to person, one thing remains constant: Laughing makes you feel good. And now, a recent study finds that laughter is good for your body, as well as your soul.[1]

Laughter is Good for Your Heart

Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States.[2] And while we know how negative emotions such as anger and anxiety can affect heart health, less is known about the effects of positive emotions. So Japanese researchers set out to see what effect laughter would have on vascular function (i.e., arteries, blood vessels, etc.).

As part of a crossover study, 17 participants watched both a comedy and a documentary of their choosing. All participants were healthy, non-smokers who were not on medication, not overweight, and had normal blood pressure and heart health.

They were asked to fast and abstain from caffeine for more than four hours before watching program. They also had to avoid strenuous exercise and alcohol for 24 hours before the testing. All testing was done at the same time of the day for each participant throughout the study period.

After 15 minutes of rest, each participant was tested for the following baseline measurements:

  • Heart rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Vascular function

For the testing, participants watched 30 minutes of a comedy of their choosing. Options included stand-up comedy programs featuring Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen Degeneres, Bill Cosby, etc. If they didn’t like these, they could bring a comedy of their own. For the documentary session, they again watched 30 minutes and could choose from programs on the economy, history, natural science, etc.

During each viewing session, participants were measured during the first five minutes, again after 30 minutes, and then again after 24 hours.

A Laugh a Day …

Researchers found that when watching the documentary, neither heart rate nor systolic blood pressure (the top number) changed significantly, but the diastolic (or bottom number) increased slightly for the last 20 minutes.

On the comedy front, heart rate increased slightly in the first 20 minutes, and both systolic and diastolic blood pressure increased and stayed increased throughout the session. Both returned to normal after the program ended.

When it came to vascular function, researchers found that flow-mediated dilation (FMD) of the brachial artery (the major artery in the upper arm) increased significantly within five minutes of watching the comedy and remained increased for 24 hours. With the documentary, FMD decreased gradually throughout the viewing session, reaching statistical significance within 30 minutes, and didn’t return to normal until 24 hours later.

In other words, the comedy improved arterial blood flow for up to 24 hours, while the documentary decreased flow for up to 24 hours. But, after 24 hours, regardless of which show was seen, arterial blood flow returned to normal.

But, they did find that stiffness in the carotid artery (the one in your neck, just below your jaw, which feeds blood to the brain) was significantly improved after watching the comedy. There was no change when watching the documentary.

Given this, researchers concluded that “30 minutes of mirthful laughter positively affected endothelium-dependent flow-mediated vasodilation and arterial stiffness.” Or, in plain English, laughing improves vascular function.

However, they did note that these beneficial effects only lasted for 24 hours. While this seems problematic on the surface, researchers referenced a study that found similar results with exercise.[3]

In that case, a single bout of exercise can lower many risk factors for heart disease, but those benefits quickly faded before the next exercise session. But, by doing consistent exercise, the benefits accumulated to produce a beneficial long-term effect on the heart. The researchers hypothesized that the same may be true with laughing.

Giggle Daily

Given these promising effects of laughter, it seems giggling daily may be just what the doctor ordered. And, best of all, it’s free!

And there are so many ways to fill this particular prescription. You can watch your favorite sitcom or funny movie, call that hysterical relative or friend, or head out to a comedy club.

Most importantly, don’t keep it to yourself. Share the laughter. What’s your favorite comedy, comedian or joke? By paying the laughter forward, we all benefit — body and soul.

[1] Sugawara, J et al. Effect of mirthful laughter on vascular function. Am J Cardiol. 2010 Sep 15;106(6):856-9.

[2] National Vital Statistics Report. 2002 Sep 16;50(15). Compiled by the World Health Organization.

[3] Thompson, PD et al. The acute versus the chronic response to exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001;33(suppl):S438-S445.

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