Health & Wellness

Laughing Your Way to Improved Immunity

By Marco Vespignani, N.D.
In 1964, journalist and peace advocate Norman Cousins was diagnosed with a rare form of arthritis called ankloysing spondylitis. This autoimmune arthritis typically leads to the fusion of the spine and is incredibly debilitating and painful. Determined not to let the diagnosis or the pain limit his positivity in life, he began to watch Marx Brothers movies on a reel and projector daily. He found that after 10 minutes of deep belly laughter, he would have two to three hours of pain relief. 
He would watch the movies as often as necessary to achieve good sleep and pain reduction. After many years it was discovered that his arthritis had not progressed. Baffled by the results, his doctors decided that he must have been misdiagnosed and the condition had resolved on its own. Cousins, however, knew there was something else at work.
This is perhaps one of the best-known cases of a field of science now called psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI. PNI is the study of how what we think (psycho) affects the brain (neuro) which leads to changes in our immune system. Cousins’ life and work was so significant that the University of California at Los Angeles(UCLA) now houses the Norman Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology. The further study and understanding of PNI presents unique opportunities for all people, especially those who have been diagnosed with autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis. 
Though we don’t yet know what causes MS, one of the prevailing theories is that MS is an autoimmune mediated disease in which one’s immune system recognizes “self” as “other” and attacks it. Whatever the trigger, we do know that the resulting damage to the central nervous system is what creates the many debilitating symptoms of MS.
Regulating the immune system is the primary mode of action of most of the conventional and many of the complementary and alternative therapies for MS. Let’s take a closer look at how humor might help. 
On a Cellular Level
Candace Pert, Ph.D., a researcher in the field of neurochemistry, is a strong proponent of PNI. In her book Molecules of Emotion, she presents research and rationale for how what we think affects our body on a cellular level. Pert began her research career in the late ’60s and helped to discover the receptors for the brain’s natural pain relief, endorphins. Pert has pioneered some of the work that suggests that people have the ability to control their health through their thoughts and emotions. 
She theorizes that the only reason certain chemicals (like pharmaceutical drugs) work in the body is because we have receptors for those chemicals. Those receptors exist not for the drug or outside chemical to act on, but rather because there is something that we make ourselves that fits there; a true scientific concept of “heal thyself.” It is the chemistry of how we might “think ourselves well.” 
Feel Good Chemicals
Many people now understand that we have chemicals in our brains that affect our thoughts. We often hear about serotonin, dopamine, or adrenaline in articles or even pharmaceutical ads. It is not difficult to imagine how these chemicals are released in the brain and change our mood or thoughts. It is less common to realize that the impact of these thoughts and chemicals are not limited to our brains. Research in PNI has discovered that many different types of cells have receptors for these neurochemicals.
Basically it comes down to this: When you are happy, your whole body is happy, and when you are angry or stressed every cell in your body can be influenced by those “anger” or “stress” chemicals.
What comes of being happy? Happiness itself can be hard to quantify since every person has their own approach to life and happiness; however, laughter is much easier to study. Over the past decade there has been an increase in laughter research. A clear result that has been proven time and again is that laughter improves the activity of immune cells called Natural Killer (NK) cells.
NK Cells to the Rescue
While NK cells may sound very malicious, and one would think you wouldn’t want too much of any cell that is called a “killer,” these cells are an indispensable part of your immune system. I like to explain to my patients that NK cells are like an elite band of Special Forces that circulate in one’s body. Imagine the Green Berets, Navy SEALs and the CIA all in one, mixed with the kindness and understanding of a grandmother.
NK cells are designed to find your cells that are no longer working effectively and “put them to sleep.” This ranges from cells that have been infected with viruses to full-blown cancer. Lots of NK activity is perceived to be a good thing that reduces the chance of acute as well as chronic illness. 
Studies done in Japan, where subjects viewed short comedy segments, showed that it was not necessarily how hard or often a subject laughed that mattered, but more so how much enjoyment they got from the experience. The higher they had rated their enjoyment, the higher their levels of NK activity. 
NK cells and Autoimmunity
So let’s return to the case of Mr. Cousins. How might have laughter led to a remission of an autoimmune mediated arthritis? Well, in mice it has been discovered that when researchers inhibit the production of NK cells, some of those mice develop autoimmune conditions. It is theorized that NK cells influence how all of the immune cells in the human body recognize threats.
Going back to our military example, essentially the absence of the elite team leads to poor recognition by the rank and file. It is thought that the same inhibition of NK cells in humans could also lead to autoimmune disease, as it does in the mice studies. So if less NK activity leads to more autoimmune potential, it stands to reason that increased activity would lead to less autoimmune potential. Therefore, if laughter can increase NK activity and increased NK activity can lead to less autoimmune activity, then perhaps all of those Marx Brothers movies made Mr. Cousins’ immune system more competent and his body was less likely to attack itself. 
Humor Yourself
Laughing may come easily to some people; however, others may need help, especially if faced with a chronic illness. Laughter yoga is becoming a widely known and accepted way to get people together just to laugh.
Also, when considering movies or television shows, you may wish to reduce exposure to violent or dramatic programming and focus on content that you enjoy or makes you happy and stimulates laughter. The same can be said about personal relationships. Reach out to those who continually bring you happiness. Invite them over for games or conversation. Limit your exposure to those who bring violence or drama to your life. Your immune system will thank you for it.
Marco Vespignani, N.D., (“Dr. Marco”) practices naturopathic medicine at Seattle Integrative Medicine in Washington, focusing on research and treatment of neurological conditions. He is well known for his innovative, compassionate, research-based approach to medicine. Dr. Vespignani believes in teaching patients to understand their bodies and the symptoms they are experiencing with a goal of working as a team to resolve the matter at hand.
(Last reviewed 8/2011)