Laughter is the "Best Medicine" for Your Heart
By Michelle Weinstein
University of Maryland Medical System Web Site Writer
Can a laugh every day keep the heart attack away? Maybe so.
Laughter, along with an active sense of humor, may help protect you against a heart attack, according to a recent study by cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. The study, which is the first to indicate that laughter may help prevent heart disease, found that people with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh in a variety of situations compared to people of the same age without heart disease.
"The old saying that 'laughter is the best medicine,' definitely appears to be true when it comes to protecting your heart," says Michael Miller, M.D., director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center and associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "We don't know yet why laughing protects the heart, but we know that mental stress is associated with impairment of the endothelium, the protective barrier lining our blood vessels. This can cause a series of inflammatory reactions that lead to fat and cholesterol build-up in the coronary arteries and ultimately to a heart attack."
In the study, researchers compared the humor responses of 300 people. Half of the participants had either suffered a heart attack or undergone coronary artery bypass surgery. The other 150 did not have heart disease. One questionnaire had a series of multiple-choice answers to find out how much or how little people laughed in certain situations, and the second one used true or false answers to measure anger and hostility.
Miller said that the most significant study finding was that "people with heart disease responded less humorously to everyday life situations." They generally laughed less, even in positive situations, and they displayed more anger and hostility.
"The ability to laugh -- either naturally or as learned behavior -- may have important implications in societies such as the U.S. where heart disease remains the number one killer," says Miller. "We know that exercising, not smoking and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease. Perhaps regular, hearty laughter should be added to the list."
Miller says it may be possible to incorporate laughter into our daily activities, just as we do with other heart-healthy activities, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator. "We could perhaps read something humorous or watch a funny video and try to find ways to take ourselves less seriously," Miller says. "The recommendation for a healthy heart may one day be exercise, eat right and laugh a few times a day."
In addition to helping your heart, laughter offers other important health benefits. "People become healthier from laughter," observes Judy Goldblum-Carlton, a humor therapist at the University of Maryland Hospital for Children's Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology. "It improves circulation. When you laugh heartily, every organ is being massaged including your heart, lungs and digestive system. Headaches can just go away. When you laugh the endorphins released make you feel this elation. It makes those big decisions seem so much less important."
So how can you make yourself laugh, even when you're angry or tense? And how can you find ways to improve your sense of humor and add more laughter into your life? Goldblum-Carlton offers the following creative ways to incorporate humor into your everyday routine:
- Figure out what tickles your funny bone. "You have to figure out what makes you laugh," says Goldblum-Carlton. Some people like slapstick while others prefer a more intellectual type of humor. "Once you isolate what makes you laugh and what turns your knobs, then you can go out and look for these things."
- Rent a funny movie. Goldblum-Carlton suggests videos, like "America's Funniest Home Videos" and others that appeal to a mass audience -- Bill Cosby, Jeff Foxworthy, etc. "Watch videos that have something for everyone."
- Add comedy to your commute. Listen to a funny audiotape when driving to relieve road stress and if possible, turn the cell phone off when you're in the car. "The car is a great place to listen to funny stuff because that's where a lot of your tension is," says Goldblum-Carlton.
- Start a humor library. Clip funny cartoons, collect calendars, mugs, pictures, funny greeting cards, books, or anything else that makes you laugh. Collect some humorous audio and videotapes. Post those cartoons and calendars on your wall, so you can look at them often for a good laugh.
- Laugh with others. People laugh much more often when in groups, says Goldblum-Carlton. So watch a funny movie with some friends and share the laughter. "People laugh more with other people. It gives you permission to laugh."
- Find humor in seemingly ordinary, everyday things. Anything from funny road signs to a walking crow to a feeding squirrel can inspire a laugh. "Watching a crow walk is hysterical, and squirrels are natural comedians," observes Goldblum-Carlton. "There is so much funny stuff around you really just have to open your eyes."
- Learn the basics of humor. Improve your sense of humor by taking a class. Often, community colleges and elder hostels offer classes on how to tell jokes and improve your sense of humor.
- Remember a funny moment. "Start thinking about something funny that happened when you're feeling tense," suggests Goldblum-Carlton. This will ease the tension and help you forget your troubles, at least temporarily.
- Laugh at yourself. Tell a funny or embarrassing story about yourself. After all, as Goldblum-Carlton says, "even the most embarrassing situation years from now will be a funny story."
- Make fun of your fears. "When you make fun of what frightens you, you get a mastery over it and gain control," notes Goldblum-Carlton.
- Act silly. "Let yourself act silly and share it. Get a pair of silly head glasses and put them on," suggests Goldblum-Carlton. "Laughter is contagious. When you're happy and you're laughing it rubs off on people. Everyone can have a sense of humor."
- Learn to play. Play with your kids or your pets. Teach Fido or Fluffy some stupid pet tricks. Games are also funny -- Scattegories, Charades, Password -- all of which can bring a laugh.
- Visit the zoo and watch the animals, especially the monkeys. "The number one thing that makes people laugh are monkeys. Monkeys are a riot, [and] zoos are great," Goldblum-Carlton says.
- Lighten up! You take your life's work seriously, but take yourself a little more lightly. As Goldblum-Carlton puts it: "When you throw your head back and laugh, you're not thinking of anything else. Laughter is the best thing you can do for your health."
Finally, just appreciate the importance of laughter. "The most powerful thing we're given is our ability to laugh," Goldblum-Carlton says. "It's our greatest gift, especially if we can laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves so seriously."
(A team of University of Maryland School of Medicine researchers, led by Dr. Michael Miller, has recently shown for the first time that laughter is linked to healthy function of blood vessels. Click here to read their news release.)