Laughter as Medicine

Laughter as Medicine
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What effects do laughing, crying, kissing, cuddling, and sex have on immune function and allergic responses?

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The study I explored about how listening to Mozart can reduce allergic reactions reminded me of a similar study on humor. Took a bunch of people with dust mite allergies; half watched Charlie Chaplin; half watched the weather channel. Then, they injected them with dust mite poop, and the allergic response was significantly reduced after viewing the humorous video for a matter of hours, suggesting that the induction of laughter may play some role in alleviating allergic diseases. But, might it suppress our immune system too much?

No. Say we have people watch a comedian for an hour, and their natural killer cell activity goes up, compared to watching nothing. And, their white blood count goes up, the number of immune cells in their bloodstream, the level of immune-boosting interferon goes up and stays up the next day, and the same with antibody production; pumping out more antibodies because yesterday you saw some video. So, humor seems to offer the best of both worlds at preventing the over reactive allergic response while boosting immune protection.

But, you actually have to laugh. The more you laugh, the better your natural killer cell activity gets, but exposure to a humorous video alone did not significantly affect immune function. Those that didn’t laugh—maybe because it was a Bill Cosby video, did not benefit, reinforcing that it is not the funny video that improved immune function, but our laughter in response. Because of the role natural killer cells play in viral illness and various types of cancer, the ability to significantly increase their activity in a brief period of time using a noninvasive method could be clinically important the next time you have a cold or cancer.

Laughter, like music or healthy food, offers potential benefits without any risk, or almost any risk. You’ve heard of side-splitting laughter? 67-year old woman attending laughter therapy sessions and evidently, rapture led to rupture. Thankfully, you can’t actually laugh your head off, but you can laugh until you wet yourself, called “giggle incontinence” in the medical literature—it’s actually quite common in women, and no laughing matter.

So, the next time you’re in the theater, should you choose the comedy over the tear-jerker? Not necessarily. If you take people with latex allergy and have them watch a weather video versus a heart-warming drama, viewing the weather information video did not cause emotion with tears, and it failed to modulate allergic responses. The tear-jerker, however, successfully reduced the allergic response, but only in those whose tears were actually jerked.

So, to improve allergies laughing works, crying works. I laughed, I cried; it was better than Cats— especially if you have a cat allergy. Anything else you can do? Kissing! There’s actually a whole science of kissing, which sounds a pleasant enough college major, until you realize it’s about all the diseases you can get. But, if you take people with seasonal pollen allergies, or dust mite allergies, and have them kiss someone in a room for 30 minutes, they have a significant reduction in their allergic reactions, for both the pollen and the dust mites, whereas, if you just have them hug for a half-hour instead – no benefit. Bottomline, kissing significantly reduced allergic responses in patients with both allergic rhinitis (runny nose, itchy eyes) or allergic dermatitis. Collectively, these findings indicate that the direct action of love may be beneficial, though evidently cuddling wasn’t quite direct enough.

With all the side-effects of antihistamine drugs, you’d think it would be easy to get people to sign up for the study, but this was done in Japan where, evidently, they do not kiss habitually. The follow-up study, which found similar benefit for an action of love that was even more direct, was also performed by researchers for whom English may not be their primary language, as evidenced by their speculation about females having more, “organisms.”

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

The study I explored about how listening to Mozart can reduce allergic reactions reminded me of a similar study on humor. Took a bunch of people with dust mite allergies; half watched Charlie Chaplin; half watched the weather channel. Then, they injected them with dust mite poop, and the allergic response was significantly reduced after viewing the humorous video for a matter of hours, suggesting that the induction of laughter may play some role in alleviating allergic diseases. But, might it suppress our immune system too much?

No. Say we have people watch a comedian for an hour, and their natural killer cell activity goes up, compared to watching nothing. And, their white blood count goes up, the number of immune cells in their bloodstream, the level of immune-boosting interferon goes up and stays up the next day, and the same with antibody production; pumping out more antibodies because yesterday you saw some video. So, humor seems to offer the best of both worlds at preventing the over reactive allergic response while boosting immune protection.

But, you actually have to laugh. The more you laugh, the better your natural killer cell activity gets, but exposure to a humorous video alone did not significantly affect immune function. Those that didn’t laugh—maybe because it was a Bill Cosby video, did not benefit, reinforcing that it is not the funny video that improved immune function, but our laughter in response. Because of the role natural killer cells play in viral illness and various types of cancer, the ability to significantly increase their activity in a brief period of time using a noninvasive method could be clinically important the next time you have a cold or cancer.

Laughter, like music or healthy food, offers potential benefits without any risk, or almost any risk. You’ve heard of side-splitting laughter? 67-year old woman attending laughter therapy sessions and evidently, rapture led to rupture. Thankfully, you can’t actually laugh your head off, but you can laugh until you wet yourself, called “giggle incontinence” in the medical literature—it’s actually quite common in women, and no laughing matter.

So, the next time you’re in the theater, should you choose the comedy over the tear-jerker? Not necessarily. If you take people with latex allergy and have them watch a weather video versus a heart-warming drama, viewing the weather information video did not cause emotion with tears, and it failed to modulate allergic responses. The tear-jerker, however, successfully reduced the allergic response, but only in those whose tears were actually jerked.

So, to improve allergies laughing works, crying works. I laughed, I cried; it was better than Cats— especially if you have a cat allergy. Anything else you can do? Kissing! There’s actually a whole science of kissing, which sounds a pleasant enough college major, until you realize it’s about all the diseases you can get. But, if you take people with seasonal pollen allergies, or dust mite allergies, and have them kiss someone in a room for 30 minutes, they have a significant reduction in their allergic reactions, for both the pollen and the dust mites, whereas, if you just have them hug for a half-hour instead – no benefit. Bottomline, kissing significantly reduced allergic responses in patients with both allergic rhinitis (runny nose, itchy eyes) or allergic dermatitis. Collectively, these findings indicate that the direct action of love may be beneficial, though evidently cuddling wasn’t quite direct enough.

With all the side-effects of antihistamine drugs, you’d think it would be easy to get people to sign up for the study, but this was done in Japan where, evidently, they do not kiss habitually. The follow-up study, which found similar benefit for an action of love that was even more direct, was also performed by researchers for whom English may not be their primary language, as evidenced by their speculation about females having more, “organisms.”

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Gesundheit! Institute.

Doctor's Note

Did I say “Mozart study”? I had fun with that in my videos Music as Medicine and Music for Anxiety: Mozart vs. Metal. I don’t go seeking out these peripheral topics; I just stumble upon them in the journals. There’s so much wonderful, juicy medical science out there. I wish there were dozens of different NutritionFacts.org-type resources where one could find evidence-based reviews of the latest in the science of wellness. There could be another ten or so papers just on nutrition alone! If anyone out there is interested, I’d be more than happy to share all my know-how to facilitate its creation. I recently helped the Lifestyle Medicine Foundation develop LifestyleFacts.org.

For less funny and racy ways to combat allergic diseases, see:

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

37 responses to “Laughter as Medicine

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  1. Wow! I never expected to hear the following phrase from Dr. Greger, “injected with dust mite poop.”
    I certainly would not want to take part in that study.

  2. I need to know was the kissing just on the lips or did it require a session of tonsil hockey?
    Thanks for the organasmic info! :)

  3. One substitute teacher (native English speaker) once greatly helped the immune systems of my high school biology class by telling us that there were many interesting orgasms in the Pre-Cambrian explosion. I don’t think anyone had a cold for weeks after that.

    1. You just gave me an immune system boost! Too funny. Was the teacher aware of his/her blooper or oblivious to it and wondering why the students were contorted with suppressed giggles?

      1. The poor man was aware of the slip as soon as it happened. He stumbled through the rest of the lesson with a very red face. I’m guessing that mortification isn’t so good as an immune system builder.

        1. Oh, poor fellow. But I’m guessing he had a good laugh about it when he went home that night and shared the story with his significant other. Here’s hoping anyway!

  4. so after lough for an hour NK go up almost double? it is amazing! and not to mention how interesting are all the benefits of kissing and have many organisms :)

    1. It’s probably healthier to have a full range of spontaneous emotions and not be repressed. Or to say it another way, repressing emotions and expression repress the immune system? Empathy can make you sad because you feel others’ suffering. I cry at movies, and sometimes commercials. Of my six siblings, I was the biggest cryer, oh the injustice of it all. I was an emotion generator. Now I’m probably the happiest (though not the richest). Also, because empathy encouraged me to adopt a vegetarian diet at 22, I have gotten healthier while they have gotten fatter and less healthy. So I think that the ability to feel sorrow keenly is something of a guidance system to eventual happiness.

    1. It might! I mean from the video it “wasn’t the funny video that improved immune function, but our laughter in response.” So perhaps any way we can laugh more is going to help.

        1. Love it! When I looked into some research in the past I found these studies.

          Validation of laughter for diagnosis and evaluation of depression

          The effects of laughter therapy on general health of elderly people referring to jahandidegan community center in shiraz, iran, 2014: a randomized controlled trial

          Modulation of neuroimmune parameters during the eustress of humor-associated mirthful laughter

          I encourage everyone to smile and laugh more! It’s a free way to boost our mood and help our friends when feeling down. This may be my favorite video!

          1. Most welcome, Joseph! And thanks for all of the great links. I am a psychotherapist and regularly find ways to get my clients and myself laughing. And of course they use plenty of “tissues for their issues,” too, which the research says is helpful.

    2. Janet: Interesting question. I remember mention of some research done several years ago that talked about how frequent, big smiling could improve someone’s depression. And that it didn’t have to be spontaneous, “Oh I’m happy” smiling. I think the study participants put a pencil in their mouths (bit the pencils like a horse bites a bit?) to force their cheeks out and up. And the study participants still had a decrease in their depression (or whatever was being measured).

      I don’t that such “fake” stimulus would work as well in regards to the topic of this video, but based on Joseph’s reply and the above study with the pencil, I tend to agree with Joseph that laughing due to almost any reason (except maybe a brain injury or mental illness) would produce the same results.

      Even though I just said that, I had this thought/question: What if the laughter is mean spirited and at the expense of someone else? Does the person doing the “negative laughter” still benefit? I won’t speculate on the answer. I’ll just say that I hope they don’t study this question.

  5. Bill Cosby was never even CLOSE to funny. Maybe it is just my generation who found him incredibly uninteresting (I’m 26). If anything he was depressingly dull, and evidently more feared than humorous.

  6. Dr. Greger, you are amazing! I can’t begin to tell you how much you have enriched our lives. You might like knowing that Nutritionfacts.org is the basis of a six-part free nutrition course to the teachers in North Hampton School, NH. I helped inspire a program in which we built a greenhouse and outside garden in which every student (425) from preschool to 8th grade has their own 1 square foot garden in the greenhouse (grades pre-k to 3) and then their own 4 square foot garden outdoors (grades 4-8) to grow veggies EVERY year. We have completed our first year. What teachers know & internalize they will benefit themselves and communicate to their children as they see fit. My wife & I will be attending (again) your standing (and floor-siting) room only talk at The 2015 Boston Food Festival on Saturday, October 24th a 3:15 PM.

    1. There is a lady named Antonia Demas, PhD, who has created a curriculum for primary school called “Food is Elementary.” This is based around gardening and showing kids where food comes from. It is strongly supported by T. Colin Campbell, PhD, who was her thesis advisor, I believe. I strongly recommend this material for primary classroom and kid gardening support. Best wishes.

    2. Amazing! You’re doing such great work with the garden. I totally agree it creates the right education being outdoors, digging in the dirt, and being connected to your food! Thanks for the nice words I know Dr. G appreciates everyone who comes to his talks.

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