Humor and Laughter Strengthen Your Immune System
Paul McGhee, PhD
"The art of medicine consists
of keeping the patient amused
while nature heals the disease."
The largest single focus of the recent interest in the benefits of humor in Switzerland, Germany and Austria has been on the use of humor as a tool in therapy, including how humor helps people cope with the stress in their lives. But there is also growing interest in the ways in which humor and laughter contribute to your physical health and wellness. We'll kick off the new millennium in this column by discussing what the research has shown about humor's contribution to physical health and wellness. For the next three months, we'll look at how humor boosts the immune system.
It has long been recognized that stress weakens the immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to illness.1 Only in the mid-1980s, however, did researchers begin 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. But research showing that individuals with a better sense of humor have stronger immune systems is also important, since it shows the importance (for your health) of making the effort to improve your sense of humor.
The greatest amount of research to date has focused on immunoglobulin A, a part of your immune system which serves to protect you against upper respiratory problems, like colds and the flu. Our saliva contains IgA, and this is often referred to as the body's first line of defense against upper respiratory viral and bacterial infections.
The studies show that watching as little as 30 or 60 minutes of a comedy video is enough to increase both salivary IgA and blood levels of IgA.2, 3 This has been shown for both adults and children.4
Immunoglobulins M and G have also been shown to be enhanced as a result of humor - laughter.5 IgM is the antibody that arrives first as part of the humoral immune response. IgG antibodies are present in the greatest amount in the body, and are responsible for producing long-term immunity. When you are immunized for a particular illness, it is the IgG antibodies that are tested to see if the procedure has worked.
This same study showed that watching a comedy video produced increased levels of a substance called Complement 3, which helps antibodies pierce through defective or infected cells in order to destroy them.
Several different aspects of the cellular immune system have also been shown to be enhanced by watching a comedy video. B cells are produced in the bone marrow, and are responsible for making the immunoglobulins. If you count the number of these cells in the blood before and after a comedy video, you can demonstrate a significant increase in the number of B cells circulating throughout the body following humor.6 This is not surprising, of course, since the increased levels of immunoglobulins following humor is now well documented.
Natural Killer Cells
Watching a one-hour humorous video also increases the activity -- and number -- of natural killer cells, although there is some evidence that this may be true only for individuals whose NK cell activity is lower than average.7,8 Natural killer cells have the role of seeking out and destroying tumor cells in the body, as well as battling the latest cold- and flu-generating viruses and other foreign organisms. These cells destroy tumor cells and viruses by releasing a toxic substance. They are part of the body's first line of defense, and can attack foreign organisms even if they've never seen them before.
Among cancer patients, reduced natural killer cell activity is associated with an increased rate of spread of tumors.9 So the significance of laughter's ability to increase the activity of these cells is clear. The previously-mentioned finding that humor's ability to boost NK cell activity is greatest among those with lower levels of NK cell activity is especially important for cancer patients. This is one reason oncology units of hospitals have become so interested in humor as a form of therapy.10 We will discuss the growing interest in the therapeutic benefits of humor in hospitals around the world in future articles of The Laughter Remedy.
These exciting data are part of the broad new area of medical research called psychoneuroimmunology. It is now clear that your daily attitude and emotional state have an important impact on your body's basic health and healing mechanisms. We have known for years that stress and chronic negative emotion have a suppressive effect on your immune system. This new research on humor shows that building more humor and laughter into your life has the power to boost your immune system, enabling it to do more effective what it is designed to do -- protect you against infection and illness.
[Exerpt is from Dr. McGhee's book, Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training. Published by Kendall/Hunt, 1999. To order a copy by e-mail, see www.kendallhunt.com. Click on orders. ISBN number is 7872-5797-4.]
[I am assuming that the native language of most of the readers of this column is not English. Since playing with language is one of the most difficult things to do in a second language, I will give you the opportunity to test your English skills each month by providing several examples of puns or others types of word-play. My own experience from living in Paris for three years in the 1980s was that simple forms of word play are much funnier in a second language. This is probably because you have to work harder intellectually to understand them. If you fail to understand any of the humor in Pun Fun in the months ahead, ask one of your native English-speaking friends for an explanation. The reason will almost always be a lack of awareness of one of the multiple meanings of a key word in the PUNchline.]
Signs in English Found in Different Countries
In a Paris hotel elevator: "Please leave your values at the front desk." (Should be "valuables.")
In a Bucharest hotel lobby: "The lift is being fixed for the day. During that time, we regret that you will be unbearable."
In a Moscow hotel lobby: "You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists, and writers are buried daily."
In a Bangkok cleaners: "Drop your pants here for best results."
In a Paris dress shop: "Dresses for street walking."
- Vollhardt, L.T. Psychoneuroimmunology: A literature review. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 1991, 61, 35-47.
- Dillon, K.M., et al. Positive emotional states and enhancement of the immune system. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 1985, 5, 13-18.
Lefcourt, H., et al. Humor and immune system functioning. International Journal of Humor Research, 1990, 3, 305-321.
McClelland, D. & Cheriff, A.D. The immunoenhancing effects of humor on secretory IgA and resistance to respiratory infections. Psychology and Health, 1997, 12, 329-344.
- Berk, L.S., et al. Immune system changes during humor associated with laughter. Clinical Research, 1991, 39, 124A.
- 4. Lambert, R.B. & Lambert, N.K. The effects of humor on secretory immunoglobulin A levels in school-aged children. Pediatric Nursing, 1995, 21, 16-19.
- Berk, L.S., et al. Eustress of humor associated with laughter modulates specific immune system components. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 1993, 15 (supplement), p. S111.
- Berk, et al., 1993.
- Berk, L.S., et al. Eustress of mirthful laughter modifies natural killer cell activity. Clinical Research, 1989, 37 (No. 1), p. 115A. Berk, et al., 1993.
- Itami, J., et al. Laughter and immunity. Japanese Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, 1994, 34, 565-571.
Kamei, T., et al. Changes of immunoregulatory cells associated with psychological stress and humor. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1997, 84, 1296-1298.
- Levy, S.M., et al. Prognostic risk assessments in primary breast cancer by behavior and immunological parameters. Health Psychology, 1985, 4, 99-113.
- Bellert, J.L. Humor: A therapeutic approach in oncology nursing. Cancer Nursing, 1989, 12, 65-70.