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Laughter is good medicine

| December 16, 2010 8:00 PM

Wednesday's columnist Bill Rutherford explained the psychological benefits of laughter. Can't argue its value as mood medicine, as anyone who's laughed at a joke on a bad day knows. What's more remarkable is laughter's effect on the body.

Years ago another Bill was diagnosed with late stage terminal cancer at the age of 30. Hospital doctors told him to call loved ones near because it was just a matter of days. They didn't know Bill. He shouted, "(Expletive) no!" and contacted everyone he knew, demanding a daily joke.

Yes, Bill was also treated aggressively for his cancer. Yes, he laughed for months. That was summer of 1994 and yes, Bill's still raising his ruckus.

Can laughter cure cancer? Hardly. Yet it can make health efforts more effective for two reasons: Laughing reduces disease-aggravating stress, and it releases endorphins. Both affect body chemistry.

Anatomically a laugh occurs when the epiglottis (a cartilage flap at the tongue's base) constricts the larynx (voice box). Part of the brain's prefrontal cortex is stimulated; this triggers the endorphin (feel-good chemicals) release into the bloodstream. Endorphins are neurotransmitters which also reduce pain.

Several areas in the brain are electrically stimulated by a laugh. That produces multiple effects such as expanded breathing and blood vessel dilation (probably why laughter feels so relaxing). When we breathe better, blood flows better. When blood flows better, toxins are eliminated more efficiently and beneficial chemicals and medicines reach their destinations faster and more completely. Put more simply, laughter boosts the immune system.

Laughter is also good for your heart. A 2005 University of Maryland study illustrated laughter's effect on heart function and circulation. Subjects were measured before and after watching a comedy then, 48 hours later, before and after watching "Saving Private Ryan." On average, blood flow increased 22 percent after the comedy, but decreased 35 percent after the war movie. The effects are even greater in cases of serious illness, when patients tend to feel depressed.

Jokes may not have saved my friend Bill, but we have little doubt anymore that stress can kill. Why hang on to it? Get started by entering "daily jokes" in any search engine and sign up for a daily giggle.

"The early bird might get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese."

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network whose sense of humor fell into the gutter after marrying Mike. E-mail sholehjo@hotmail.com

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