Laugh Your Way to A Longer, Healthier Life

by Dr. Stephen Sinatra
Filed Under: Heart Health, Heart Health Principles
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

There’s a famous quote by Mary Pettibone Poole that says, “He who laughs, lasts!” That couldn’t be truer, laughter is extremely powerful medicine. Like crying, laughter softens the chest and is good for your respiratory system.  Plus, if you’ve ever laughed so hard you cried, that’s good for your heart as well.

But perhaps the biggest champion of the healing power of laughter was Norm Cousins, an accomplished author, Nobel Prize winner, and an Adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities at the University of California Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of meeting him in person, yet through his books and his teachings he greatly influenced my holistic approach to cardiology and medicine in general.

Cousins championed “holistic medicine” before most of us knew what that term meant. He was convinced our emotions played a critical role in combating physical disease in the body, and he explored the mind-body approach in his own research. Plus, what made his teachings so credible was the fact that he successfully employed this approach in overcoming his own heart disease and what could have become disabling arthritis.

Since the 1970s, Cousins’ work has influenced my own. He advised that watching humorous movies—for him the famous Marx brothers—could have a positive impact on health. He reported that just 10 minutes of belly laughter afforded him 2 hours or more of pain relief. If his pain returned, he just turned on his projector, and watched some more. He also took high doses of vitamin C long before the role of vitamin supplements played in healing was well-known.

His efforts paid off, and despite his doctors’ ominous predictions, Cousins survived 10 years after his first heart attack, 26 years with his arthritic/collagen disorder, and 36 years after he was first diagnosed with coronary artery disease! Cousins truly walked his talk. He admitted that he was unsure if laughter affected endorphins, as some claimed back then, but it was clear to him that it was an antidote to apprehension and panic.

Since Cousins’ passing in 1990, we now have research to endorse his theory.  Professor Lee Berk, who’s studied laughter and medicine for over 18 years, reports that laughter increases the activity of Natural Killer Cells (NK) cells that destroy viruses and tumors, as well as t-cells which enhance the body’s own immune system. Plus, laughter exercises the lungs and circulatory system and raises oxygen levels in the blood.

So what makes you laugh? For me, it’s watching the movies Planes, Trains and Automobiles, or Good Morning, Vietnam, reminiscing about humorous times in high school with old classmates, or enjoying being a child again and laughing with my grandchildren.

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