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Jan 15, 2014

Vascular Function Improves with Laughter

“Laughter is the best medicine.”  

Many people have heard the quote, “Laughter is the best medicine.”  There may be some truth to this, according to research done at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.  Dr. Michael Miller, Professor of Medicine and lead investigator into the study, expressed how “The idea to study positive emotions, such as laughter came about after studies had shown that mental stress caused blood vessels to constrict.”     

Researchers at the University of Maryland found that vascular function was positively impacted when individuals experienced laughter by watching funny movies or shows.  In an initial study that took place over 10 years ago, 300 men and women with or without heart disease were given questionnaires used to determine an individual’s ability to respond to situations with humor.  Interestingly, participants who had heart disease were 40% less likely to find humor in particular situations.  The results from this study led to a number of other studies looking at more direct effects of laughter on blood vessel health.  

In some cases, study participants watched alternating portions of funny movies like “There’s Something About Mary” and stressful movies like “Saving Private Ryan.”  After viewing stressful movie segments, the blood vessel linings of participants were found to vasoconstrict, resulting in reduced circulation or blood flow.  This served to confirm conclusions made in other studies, supporting the idea that blood vessel narrowing can be linked with mental stress.  Along the same line, funny movies were found to correlate with expansion or dilation of blood vessels in study participants.  

The measured differences in blood vessel diameter when experiencing laughter versus some form of mental stress was astonishing.  "The magnitude of change we saw in the endothelium after laughing was consistent and similar to the benefit we might see with aerobic exercise or statin use" says Dr. Miller.  Over 300 measurements revealed a 30-50% difference in blood vessel diameter, depending on whether the phase experienced was laughter or mental stress.           

Knowing some of the important roles that the endothelium (the cells lining the walls of our blood vessels) plays, including regulation of blood vessel tone, blood flow, coagulation, and injury repair, it is easy to acknowledge how endothelial health can influence the development of cardiovascular disease.  Dr. Miller stated, "The endothelium is the first line in the development of atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, so it is very possible that laughing on a regular basis may be useful to incorporate as part of an overall healthy lifestyle to prevent heart disease.”  His advice is to “eat your veggies, exercise and get a good belly laugh every day."

More studies are clearly needed to develop a more complete understanding about the connection between laughter, mental stress, and cardiovascular disease.  But then again, can any of us seeking optimal health and enjoyment of life really go wrong by creating more laughter-rich environments?  Probably not!

This research was shared in Paris at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in August of 2011.

Dr. Shana McQueen