Humor and Laughter Strengthen Your Immune System – The Latest Research
Your immune system is crucial to sustaining good health. We are all constantly bombarded by viruses, bacteria and other antigens that could seriously harm or even kill us. This threat is present every day of our lives, so anything we do to bolster the effectiveness of this system is clearly important. But can your sense of humor really make your immune system stronger?
It has long been recognized that chronic stress weakens the immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to illness-although short-term, acute stress may boost the immune system. If you find yourself constantly stressed out by your job, a financial crisis, deteriorating health, an unsatisfactory marriage or any other persisting personal problem, your odds of coming down with some kind of health problem increase.
One of the first hints of a solution to the puzzle of how one’s mental or emotional state might influence health came from studies of animals showing that the immune system could actually be conditioned to respond to something that would normally have no impact at all on its functioning. In a now classic study, rats were given a drug known to suppress the functioning of the immune system. The (at the time) commonly used sweetener saccharine was put in the animals’ drinking water and presented simultaneously with the drug, leading to the expected suppression of the immune system.
After a period of time following the cessation of drug-plus-saccharine, the animals’ immune systems fully recovered. At that point, the saccharine alone was presented. Amazingly, the immune system was again suppressed, just as it had been by the drug. A clear conditioning effect had occurred. After simply being paired with the drug in the animals’ experience, the saccharine acquired the ability to suppress the immune system-an effect that never occurs in the absence of such prior pairing. This and other similar findings clearly established that the functioning of a basic health-sustaining mechanism like the immune system can be influenced by our experience and expectations-including, perhaps, our emotions.
By the early 1980s, researchers began to study the impact of humor and laughter on the immune system. The best evidence that humor boosts the immune system comes from studies where immune system measures are taken before and after a particular humorous event-usually a comedy video. Taken as a whole, this research points to a broadly-based immunoenhancement effect. As of 2010, over 40 studies have demonstrated this immune-bolstering effect. The research has shown that numerous different components of the immune system are bolstered by humor and laughter, including Natural Killer (NK) cells, immunoglobulin A (IgA), IgG and IgM, T-cells and B cells. Most studies, however, have focused on NK cells and IgA.
IgA helps protect you against upper respiratory problems, like colds and flu. NK cells seek out tumor cells and destroy them by releasing a toxic substance. They also battle the latest cold- and flu-generating viruses and other foreign organisms. They are another part of the body’s first line of defense and can attack foreign organisms even if they’ve never seen them before. Several studies have shown that watching a humorous video increases both the activity and number of natural killer cells.,b>This is an extraordinary finding. The simple act of watching your favorite comedy show is enough to get increased numbers of these protective NK cells circulating in your body.
The level of free radicals in the body has received a great deal of attention in recent years, since they have been implicated in faster aging, inflammation, cancer and other pathological conditions. Antioxidant vitamins have become very popular because of their presumed ability to reduce the level of free radicals in the body. It is generally believed that anything which helps reduce free radicals in the body is important when it comes to sustaining health in the long run. Amazingly, Japanese researchers have recently shown that watching a comedy video even increases the free radical scavenging capacity in human saliva.
While researchers continue to refine their understanding of the specific aspects of your immune system that are strengthened by humor and laughter, we can now feel confident in treating this benefit to health as being well established. The pain reduction effect of humor and laughter is also now well established.
As is the case with pain, researchers still do not know whether this boosting of the immune system occurs because of the physical act of laughter or the mental/emotional experience of humor itself. This is a very difficult thing to sort out in doing the research. So while you may find some “experts” on humor and health attributing the immunoenhancement effect to humor, and others attributing it to laughter, you can rest assured that they are guessing. The research simply does not tell us one way or the other. From your point of view, of course, this probably doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you know that if you seek out humor on a daily basis, or actively use your sense of humor in everyday life, you will be supporting your own health and wellness.
Finally, it should be noted that there is considerable evidence that your immune system is very responsive to your daily mood. IgA levels and NK cell activity, for example, are elevated on days when you’re in a good mood and lowered on your “down” days. In future articles, we’ll see that this mood-enhancing effect is one key mechanism behind humor’s power to support health and wellness. Humor raises our spirits, generates a momentary experience of joy and happiness and-in the process-leaves us in an upbeat, more positive mood. An elevated immune system just comes along for the ride.
Humor and Laughter Strengthen Your Immune System – The Latest Research
References documenting the research findings discussed here may be found in Dr. McGhee’s latest book, Humor: The Lighter Path to Resilience and Health (2010), available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com. For additional articles on humor and health, humor in the workplace and children’s humor, or information about his keynotes, see his website at http://LaughterRemedy.com/. Paul is a psychologist and is a pioneer in the field of humor research, having begun to conduct research on the topic in the early 1970s-before it became popular. He is internationally known for his own humor research, and has published 13 books on humor. In addition to frequent television and radio interviews in the USA, he has also appeared on Dutch, German, Swedish, and Swiss television discussing his work, along with numerous European radio stations. His work has been discussed in many international publications, including the New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek (Japanese), Geo (German and French), Schweizer Familie (Swiss), Psychologie Heute (German), L’Impatient (French), VG (Norwegian), OGGI (Italian), Der Spiegel (German), Die Welt (German), Die Zeit (German), Intra (German), among others. He now works full time as a professional speaker.