The Health Implications of Laughter: From Ab Workouts to Stress Reduction

The physiology of laughter: What happens in our bodies when we laugh?
Laughter's Magic: The neurochemistry of a good chuckle
Giggles and gains: Physical health benefits from abdominal workouts to immune boosting
Laughter in Therapy: Techniques, applications, and transformative tales
Conclusion
Further reading and references


A ubiquitous characteristic found in all humans is the ability to laugh, no matter what culture or race, this seems to be a common denominator that connects everyone. While laughing is an attribute of happiness and joy, it also has significant health implications that benefits the individual, from reducing stress levels to boosting the immune system as well as aiding with physical health. This article will delve into the various health advantages of engaging in laughter.

Image Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock.comImage Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock.com

The physiology of laughter: What happens in our bodies when we laugh?

Laughter has been found to start from infancy between the second and sixth month of newborn life and is one of the first social vocalizations in humans, with spontaneous laughter even being seen in children born as deaf or blind disabilities.  

Interestingly, this instinctive behavior that we’re genetically programmed to display, has also been found in non-human primates.

The mechanism of laughter is produced through the cooperation of various systems that work to create an expressive pattern through respiratory, facial, bodily, acoustic and cognitive alterations.

There are two different types of laughter found in humans, including involuntary emotionally-driven laughter, which is reliant on a positive emotional state, and voluntary laughter that represents the intentional reproduction of emotional laughter. 

The natural maneuver caused by laughter is stimulated by emotion, and during laughter, stress is applied to the chest wall, which causes fast and significant motion. This can lead to sudden and substantial reduction in lung volume in all respiratory compartments as well as compression of the airways.

Laughter can also impact the brain in various ways. The activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis and the subsequent increase in glucocorticoids is a significant physiological response to either physical or psychological stress signals. There are previous findings within adults that have suggested spontaneous laughter can affect the HPA axis through the reduction of cortisol levels, which can decrease stress.

Laughter's Magic: The neurochemistry of a good chuckle

The two types of laughter cause variation in facial expressions as well as stimulating different neural pathways that control them.

Duchenne laughter, known as involuntary laughter, begins in the brain stem and limbic system, which is responsible for emotions. However, non-Duchenne laughter can be controlled by voluntary premotor regions, which is thought to contribute to planning movements, found in the frontal cortex.

A study from The Journal of Neuroscience has found social laughter to increase pleasurable sensations as well as triggering endogenous opioid release in the brain. Participants have also been found to have increased pain thresholds after watching comedy in order to induce laughter.

The increase of the brain’s production of endorphins, known as feel-good chemicals, caused by laughter, have the ability to relieve pain and decrease stress levels.

The benefits of laughing | News2Me

Giggles and gains: Physical health benefits from abdominal workouts to immune boosting

As well as reducing stress levels, laughter can also impact heart rate and blood pressure, which can help with relaxation.

Psychologist, Susan Albers, explained how humor can impact immunity in positive ways, stating, “Laughter helps to boost the immune system, which makes you more resistant to disease. Also, it decreases stress hormones, which are taxing to your immune system. On the other hand, laughter increases the antibody-producing cells and T cells in our bodies. These cells are like a defense army against illness.”

She continues with providing one of the best reasons for laughter, which is to prevent emotional eating, “when we laugh, it triggers the release of feel-good neurotransmitters. Even a subtle smile can trick your brain into thinking you are happy – thus reducing the need to munch to soothe your nerves or anxiety.” With depression becoming an epidemic in modern society, laughter can aid in improving low moods and reducing stress, even if its artificially induced.

The physical benefit of laughter is also extensive, with this joyous experience also providing a workout for bodily systems, including the cardiovascular, pulmonary and respiratory systems. Laughter causes the diaphragm, chest and abdominal muscles to tighten, driving the lungs to work harder through forcing the remaining air out and permitting fresh air deeper into the lungs, which can enable more effective exhalations, due to assisting the expansion of the alveoli.

Additionally, laughter shares common advantages that are associated with exercise, with a recent literature review confirming the physiological benefits of laughter, such as through exercising and relaxing muscles as well as improving respiration and stimulating circulation.

Simulated laughter may be ideal for the older population with functional or cognitive impairments that can access benefits of laughter more easily, with sedentary individuals being able to use laughter as part of a cardiovascular exercise program.

Interestingly, the physical act of laughter can be compared to mild cardiovascular exercise, and intense laughter through laughter exercises can be equivalent to short aerobic bursts in interval training, a type of exercise with varied intensity popular in abdominal workouts.

Image Credit: Motortion Films/Shutterstock.comImage Credit: Motortion Films/Shutterstock.com

Laughter in Therapy: Techniques, applications, and transformative tales

The phrase, ‘laughter is medicine’, has often been propagated through communities due to its ability to engage both the mental and physical body effectively. Laughter therapy is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that aims to drive healthy relationships relating to physical, psychological and social wellbeing, and ultimately improves quality of life of individuals.

Laughter serves a social function and can act as a signal for a connection with another person. Research has found we are 30 times more likely to laugh within a group, or even with one other person, aiding in friendship, feelings of happiness as well as decreasing stress due to the rush of endorphins.

Conclusion

Laughter has been reinforced by recent research linking various positive benefits, from physical advantages to increased pain tolerance, immune boosting impact, as well as aiding with diverse medical ailments, such as in oncology, psychiatry and rehabilitation.

With a more holistic view of medicine, functional medicine has increased in popularity, and laughter may be a natural medicinal supplement to improve the overall health of populations.

Further reading and references

Last Updated: Dec 11, 2023

Marzia Khan

Written by

Marzia Khan

Marzia Khan is a lover of scientific research and innovation. She immerses herself in literature and novel therapeutics which she does through her position on the Royal Free Ethical Review Board. Marzia has a MSc in Nanotechnology and Regenerative Medicine as well as a BSc in Biomedical Sciences. She is currently working in the NHS and is engaging in a scientific innovation program.

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