Written by Dr. Alan Christianson NMD

Recently I saw a patient that had a long piece of asparagus stuck in his nose. I couldn't believe it! After further examination I also found a green bean in his right ear and a carrot in his left! I told him, "Obviously, you're not eating properly". (Cue rim shot)

Whether you find my joke funny or not is debatable, but if you did happen to laugh you might have noticed a slight improvement in the way you feel. Why is that? Is laughing good for you? How is it that some people will find my above "joke" funny while others (possibly most) will not?

During your visits to Integrative Health you've probably heard plenty of laughter throughout the halls and in the exam rooms. We love to laugh, as do many of our patients, and although it's all in good fun, we recognize laughter has plenty of health benefits too. And with all the stressors of life today, it is vitally important to keep your sense of humor.

The Study of Humor

There are numerous well-designed studies suggesting that not only can humor improve your mood, but it can potentially prevent illness. From Sigmund Freud's 1905 book, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, to the currently three bimonthly medical journals dedicated to "health and humor", the science of humor is no laughing matter. In fact, just try and sit down to read a few of these articles or Freud's book, not only will you not be laughing, but you'll more than likely be bored to tears.

I am amazed by how many people have been looking at the science behind humor and how serious they take the endeavor. From all their hard work and theorizing on why we laugh and for what purpose, there are now some generally well-accepted answers. The Pattern Recognition Theory explains that humor occurs when the brain recognizes a pattern that surprises it, and that this recognition is rewarded with the experience of laughter. A perfect example is playing the game of peek-a-boo with a baby. They love peek-a-boo and the act of surprising her always gets her cracking up laughing, which in turn makes me smile and laugh... and if I don't have you grinning yet, just imagine the sight and sounds of a laughing baby and I'll bet you at least start to smile a little.

As your language skills develop you begin to get a handle on linguistic humor, which obviously becomes more sophisticated than peek-a-boo. This is when our differences in finding what is humorous changes. Because we all develop in very different settings, the context in which you are surrounded causes you to recognize different patterns and therefore find different stories, events, and actions funny or not. More simply put, your age, along with where and how you grew up, are the major factors for determining what is humorous to you individually.

Another theory, The Superiority Theory, says we laugh at someone else's mistakes that gives us a sense of superiority and creates some separation from the situation so we can laugh at it. A master of this type of humor is Jim Carey from the famed movies such as "Dumb and Dumber" and "Ace Ventura." These movies are perfect examples of how outlandish buffoonery can make us laugh because most of us do not live such unpredictable lifestyles.

Take Two Jokes and Call Me in the Morning

I am sure you have heard the old adage, "laughter is the best medicine", and within my practice, I have found that to be quite true. Physiologically when you laugh your blood pressure drops, there is greater blood flow throughout your bodies, stress hormones drop and the biological fight-or-flight response is inhibited. This allows you to relax and we can more easily solve problems, relate to one another or socially connect. Studies have also showed that you are 30 times more likely to laugh within a group than when alone, that on average most people laugh 18 times a day, and laughing contracts 15 different facial muscles.

And, if you're looking to keep in good shape this holiday season, you'll be pleased to know that laughing actually burns calories! In fact, if you're able to laugh 100 times a day you will burn the same amount of calories as riding a bicycle for 15 minutes! In addition to the facial muscle contractions, during a bout of strong belly laughing, you know, the kind that really gets you rolling, you move your abdominal, respiratory, leg and back muscles-a total body workout!

The most impressive effect laughter can have on the body is an improved immune system. Laughing can dramatic improve the effectiveness of our natural killer cells, which specifically target cancer cells and viruses. Laughter also appears to regulate the number of T- and B-cells, which are disease-fighting antibodies.

Also, there are two scientists at Barrow Neurological Institute right here in Phoenix looking at the medical rehabilitative effect laughter can have on helping patients with ADHD, Alzheimer's disease and brain trauma.

In a recent study of 100 centenarians it comes as no surprise that daily laughter was found to be "very important" for healthy aging. So my advice, make it a point to laugh out loud each and every day! If you do, you'll be well on your way to being the happiest and healthiest you can possibly be.

-Dr. Christianson

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