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Bill Dana was right: laughter is really, really good for you

Even the anticipation of laughter injects beta-endorphins and human growth hormone (HGH) into the blood. It also cuts the level of stress hormones

Back when I was a kid, in the 1960s, I enjoyed the comedy stylings of Bill Dana. It was like we were relatives, Dana being a rare name where I lived.

Late in his career Mr. Dana turned serious. Alongside Dr. Laurence Peter, author of The Peter Principle, he produced a book called The Laughter Prescription in 1982, about the salutary health effects of laughter. I remember he played a lot of hospitals. (To the right is the cover, from Mr. Dana's Web site.)

Lee Berk of Loma Linda University has since spent much of his career validating Dana's work. It's real science. There's even a professional group built around the work, the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor.

What Dr. Berk has learned is fascinating. Even the anticipation of laughter injects beta-endorphins and human growth hormone (HGH) into the blood. It also cuts the level of stress hormones, including adrenaline. Less stress hormone can translate to more HDL cholesterol, the good kind, he found.

In his latest work, Dr. Berk has now found that laughter is as healthful as exercise. Laughercize may be a valid alternative to a workout for elderly patients who can't exercise, he said this week.

Dr. Berk showed 14 volunteers either the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan or 20 minutes of standup or movie comedy. Since what makes us laugh varies, he let the subjects pick the funny bits. Blood pressure was taken, and blood was drawn.

What he found was that those who watched the war showed no change. Watching a war movie, or a drama, will not hurt you. The comedy, however, resulted in big changes in important hormone levels. The level of leptin, a hormone inhibiting appetite, went down while levels of ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, went up.

For those depressed over losing a spouse or suffering what is known as "wasting disease," a lack of interest in food or life that can prove fatal, the prescription is to entertain them. Get them laughing. Then maybe a nice piece of cake.

Dr. Berk concluded:

"I am more amazed by the interrelatedness of laughter and body responses with the more evidence and knowledge we collect. It's fascinating that positive emotions resulting from behaviors such as music playing or singing, and now mirthful laughter, translate into so many types of [biological] mechanism optimizations. As the old biblical wisdom states, it may indeed be true that laughter is a good medicine."

In other words, Dr. Dana was right. (I got a laugh writing that sentence.)

You can use this research yourself. Go see your mom, or your grandmother. Are they down, are they thin, are they losing interest in living? Tell some jokes, show them some comedy. Get them laughing, it will do you both some good.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com