Facts of lifeSmile, an ever-lasting smile! [Archives:2005/873/Health]

September 1 2005

The medical profession is currently quite tickled by the concept of Laughter medicine. Fascinating new research seems to be endorsing the ancient wisdom that laughter, happiness and a joyful heart are jolly good medicines! . It is of common knowledge that happiness leads to good health. The close link between psychological and physical health is clearly manifested in the impact of mood on health. Many researches and health studies proved that laughter has a healing effect on patients. People are advised to smile rather than frown and that “laughter is the best medicine”.

While much research has focused on the impacts of negative psychological states, such as stress, on physical health, relatively little research has examined the effects of positive psychological states. Imagine the following scene: you are down to your last nerve, your muscles are cooked, your hair is clenched, you have lock-jaw, you can breathe in but you don't feel much like breathing in, your heart beats only when it can find the time, and your head is auditioning for a part in High Anxiety! That you feel the Universe quite simply doesn't want to involve you in Its plans. Your doctor reaches for the pill pad, writes something, rips the sheet from the pad, and hands you a prescription … for laughter!

Internal Aerobics

There is an old saying, “Your day goes the way the corners of your mouth turn”! Medical research has measured extensively the movements we make whenever we smile and laugh, not just on our face but through our entire body. The research concludes that it is possible for all 400 muscles of the body to move during laughter – thus laughter has been playfully labelled by some as a form of 'internal aerobics'. A joyful belly-laugh can exercise thoroughly the muscles, nerves and organs of the main torso. If you were able to sustain a belly-laugh for one full hour, you could laugh off as many as 500 calories! Why not try it one full hour of transcendental chuckling to improve your fitness levels! Medical research also shows that whenever we laugh we release a wave of chemicals through the body including the endorphin hormone, which is also released during healthy exercise. Endorphins ('of morphine') are the body's natural pain-relaxant – they stimulate feelings of well-being, joy and 'high'. Enough laughter will produce enough endorphins to guarantee a 'high-impact' internal aerobic work-out!

More muscles to smile?

It takes one more muscle to smile than to frown, according to plastic surgeon David H. Song, MD, FACS, assistant professor at the University of Chicago Hospitals. Newspapers around the globe assure us, “Frowning takes more muscles than smiling,” 13 to smile, 33 to frown – The Washington Post. 10 to smile, 100 to frown – The New York Times, 4 to smile, 64 to frown – The Hindu. An urban myth?

Only Cecil's “The Straight Dope” got an expert (Dr. Song) to go through the motions. A genuine smile takes two muscles to crinkle the eyes, two to pull up the lip corners and nose, two to elevate the mouth angle, and two to pull the mouth corners sideways. Total smile: 12.

On the other hand, a frown needs two muscles to pull down the lips and wrinkles in the lower face, three to furrow the brow, one to purse the lips, one to depress the lower lip, and two to pull the mouth corners down. Total frown: 11.

A fake smile, however, only takes two muscles. We detect the fake because “the eyes aren't smiling.”

Happy Cells

Perhaps the most exciting medical research on laughter is in the field of 'psycho-neuroimmunology' which looks at the effect of the mind on the brain and on the immune system. This research shows that whereas suppressed anger or feelings of intense hatred or frustration, for instance, disturbs the natural, healthy functioning of the immune system, laughter, joy and happiness have been found to help boost the immune system.

The repeated research experiments of Dr Lee Berk at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, CA, shows that laughter, happiness and joy “inspire” the immune system to create white “T” cells, commonly called “happy cells”, which help to prevent infection. The philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche hit upon the idea of joyful immunity when he wrote, “Contentment preserves one even from catching cold. Has a woman who knew that she was well dressed ever caught a cold? – No, not even when she had scarcely a rag to her back!”

Laughter 'boosts blood vessels'

Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore compared the effects of watching funny and stressful films. Stress caused blood flow to slow by around 35%, but laughter increased it by around 22%, they told the American College of Cardiology. UK heart experts said there was increasing interest in the idea that positive emotions benefited health. The US team studied 20 healthy, non-smoking volunteers, with an average age of 33.

They watched either a segment of a film which would cause mental stress, such as the opening part of Saving Private Ryan, or a segment of a film which would make them laugh, such as King Pin. At least 48 hours later, they were shown a film which would cause the opposite effect to the first. Before watching each film, the volunteers fasted overnight and were tested to see how well blood vessels in the brachial artery in the arm responded to a sudden increase in blood flow, in a test called a flow-mediated vasodilation. Volunteers watched a 15-minute segment of the film while lying down in a temperature-controlled room. After the film was shown, their blood vessels were tested again.

'Laughing cuts heart risk'

No difference was seen in blood vessel dilation between the two groups before they watched the films. But brachial artery flow was reduced in 14 of the 20 volunteers following the film clips that caused mental stress. In contrast, beneficial blood vessel relaxation, or vasodilation, was increased in 19 of the 20 volunteers after they watched the film segments that generated laughter.

The researchers suggested laughter caused the tissue that forms the inner lining of blood vessels, the endothelium, to expand in order to increase blood flow.

The endothelium is known to have a powerful effect on blood vessel tone and regulates blood flow, adjusts coagulation and blood thickening, and secretes chemicals and other substances in response to wounds, infections or irritation.

It also plays an important role in the development of cardiovascular disease.

Impairment of the function of the lining of blood vessels is an early sign of cardiovascular problems.