Have a Heavy Heart? Sometimes Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine
For almost two years, we've had our fill of quarantines, social distancing, and having to hide our smiles. Even in the early days of the pandemic, it was clear that Americans were experiencing higher levels of emotional distress. Now, after what feels like an eternity of hardship, it's more than time to search for a little levity to help crack a smile.
Stress is a well-known risk factor for heart disease. But the opposite of stress — laughter and lightheartedness — may actually help protect your heart.
"Laughter may have a beneficial effect that promotes healthy blood vessels," says Brett Carroll, MD, Director of Vascular Medicine in the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, part of Beth Israel Lahey Health.
Research suggests that brain chemicals called endorphins, released during laughter, stimulate the inner lining of blood vessels, known as endothelium. This, in turn, releases nitric oxide, a molecule known to relax arteries.
At the same time, laughter can help reduce the production of stress hormones, including cortisol and epinephrine, which are known to cause blood vessels to constrict, increasing the risks of high blood pressure as well as stroke and heart attack.
A good belly laugh may also have other benefits:
- By increasing the number of antibody-producing cells, laughter may help to boost the body's immune system.
- Laughter may help keep weight in check by reducing cortisol, a stress hormone known to lead to weight gain.
"We don't have a specific 'laughter' prescription, but we know that diet, exercise and healthy lifestyle habits, along with stress reduction and positive emotional health are beneficial for your cardiovascular system," says Carroll.
As we begin to envision life in a post-pandemic world, finding ways to reduce our stress is more important than ever. As social distancing continues to play a role in reducing the risk of spreading COVID-19, it can be challenging to maintain relationships when we're physically apart. Sharing a joke or funny memory with friends and family over a phone or video call can be a good antidote to stress.
"Physical isolation can lead to loneliness," says Elizabeth LaSalvia, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist at BIDMC. "But keep in mind that there is a difference between being physically distant and emotionally distant." She recommends that people be proactive and reach out to family and friends, or call someone you've meant to catch up with for a while.
Other ways to encourage laughter: watch a sitcom, read a funny book or tune in to a stand-up comedian. While it remains to be seen whether laughter is the best medicine, when it comes to your cardiac health, it can play a role in keeping your heart in shape. No joke.