Is laughter really the best medicine?

This week, Sally takes a look at the latest research on the potential health benefits that a good dose of laughter could have.

I prescribe a range of medicines in my clinic, for various different conditions, but there are many health problems for which a lifestyle change may be far more effective than a tablet! Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, famously said “Let food be thy medicine” and there are plenty of studies to show that our food choices can have a big impact on our health. I would certainly echo that recommendation. Well, now it seems another adage may be worth taking more seriously… “Laughter is the best medicine”!

According to a recent study, laughter could actually be beneficial to our health in more ways than by just elevating our mood! The study from the University of California, found that humour could possibly help to reduce the adverse brain effects of the stress hormone cortisol – in turn, improving our memory!

The researchers looked at the effects of laughter and humour in older people, analysing their cortisol levels before and after watching a humorous 20-minute video, and discovered that those who watched the video had a significant reduction in cortisol levels afterwards, compared to those who did not watch the video. They also showed an increase in memory recall, learning ability and sight recognition compared to those who didn’t watch the video – showing just how much of an effect laughter could have on our mental health.

However, this was a very small study over a short time period… and the results can not therefore be taken as gospel. Trawling through the research to find out more, I can find no definitive confirmation that laughter is the best medicine, sadly. Some studies have shown that laughter can improve your immune system by raising antibody levels in the blood, others that it can reduce feelings of pain, and yet more have shown it can improve blood flow, sleep and reduce blood sugar levels. But, again, these studies were not of the highest quality.

I don’t think there is enough evidence yet to have me reaching for my prescription pad…but it can’t do any harm at all to give a good dose of laughter a try.

Bains GS, Berk LS, Daher N, Lohman E, Schwab E, Petrofsky J, Deshpande P. The effect of humor on short-term memory in older adults: a new component for whole-person wellness. Adv Mind body Med. 2014