Have you ever heard the saying, “Laughter is the best medicine?” Surely whoever spoke these words was referring to the cathartic effect we feel when we have a good guffaw, because only until recently have researchers put this age old adage to the test. What they found was that laughter actually is good medicine for a number of ailments including stress and pain, and can help improve the immune system, among other things. It turns out that this wise soul who spoke those words was on to something.
Is laughter really medicine?
While we all know from instinct and personal experience that laughter generally makes us feel good, there are a number of scientifically-proven benefits that come with a good chuckle.
Dr. Gulthan Sethi, head of cardio-thoracic surgery at the Tucson Medical Center and faculty at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, does laughter yoga to relieve stress and improve heart health. Through his own research, Sethi has discovered that laughter increases heart rate variability – a phenomenon related to good health. Sethi is also a firm believer that stress is either the primary or aggravating cause of most diseases. We can take this claim and extrapolate; because laughter helps to relieve stress, by extension, it may also help prevent disease.
Dr. Sethi is not alone in his claims. The Mayo Clinic makes a few claims of their own, including the idea that laughter helps to relieve stress and tension. In their own words, “A rollicking laugh fires up and then cools down your stress response, and it can increase your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling.” They also state that laughter can stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which can lend a hand in relieving the physical symptoms of stress.
The Mayo Clinic ticks off a few other benefits that come with a good chuckle, such as stimulating organs and improving the immune system. Because a good, belly-aching laugh often comes hand in hand with inhalation, your heart, lungs, and muscles all receive an extra dose of oxygen-rich air, resulting in organ stimulation. Furthermore, if you’ve ever scoffed at the idea that negative and positive thoughts have an impact on your health, you might want to turn that scoff into some healing laughter.
The Mayo Clinic states, “Negative thoughts manifest into chemical reactions that can affect your body by bringing more stress into your system and decreasing your immunity. In contrast, positive thoughts can actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses.”
A study at the Indiana State University School of Nursing also found that mirthful laughter may increase natural killer cell levels, a type of white blood cell that attacks cancer cells. Could it be that laughter helps fight cancer? The research seems to suggest so.
Finally, there have been recent studies on the effect that laughter has on pain. Researchers found that after subjects were introduced to stimuli that caused laughter for about 15 minutes, their pain threshold increased by up to 10 percent. Researchers attribute this increase in pain threshold to endorphins released by the body when laughter is elicited. Like physical exercise, true laughter causes physical exhaustion of abdominal muscles and long exhalations. Thus, the body releases endorphins to accompany this “exercise.”
Why does cannabis make us laugh?
While laughter may indeed be medicine, it doesn’t hurt to take some medicine to induce the healing properties of laughter. Yes, I’m talking about cannabis. But why exactly does cannabis make the world seem so funny?
This is a difficult question to answer, as researchers aren’t certain why we laugh at all. However, MRI scans have shown laughter to be associated with the frontal and temporal lobes of the cerebral cortex. Interestingly enough, it has also been proven that the THC found in cannabis is responsible for increasing blood flow to the regions associated with laughter. A link between this over activity, resulting from cannabis use, and laughter hasn’t been proven, but it’s certainly given scientists something to ponder over.
However, there may be a more plausible answer. But before we explore this, we must first consider the anatomy of the human brain. The human brain, as well as other areas in the human body, has an endocannabinoid system with receptors that bind to cannabinoids. A compound called Anandamide, which occurs naturally in the human body, binds to CB1 and CB2 receptors in the endocannabinoid system. Anandamide has been called the bliss molecule, as it lends a hand in increasing neurogenesis (the formation of new nerve cells) which results in a decrease in anxiety and depression.
Interestingly, cannabis contains a molecule that is a near mirror image, an endogenous analogue, of Anandamide and binds to the same endocannabinoid receptors: THC. It’s not too much of a leap, then, to say that compounds within cannabis, such as THC, can help with this decrease in anxiety and depression. More broadly, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation found that cannabinoids promote embryonic and adult hippocampal neurogenesis and produce anxiolytic – an antidepressant-like effects. It could be said, then, that the relaxation of anxiety and depression help us find more humor in our surroundings. Or perhaps it is a combination of increased blood flow to the frontal and temporal lobes and neurogenesis that produce a comical combination in our brains. But probably the most accurate answer is that we don’t yet have all the answers. We have limited knowledge on how cannabis interacts with our systems, and very little knowledge on what makes us laugh. To relate one to the other is to play a guessing game.
We may not know the why, but we do know the what; namely, that cannabis gives us the giggles. We’ve also begun to uncover empirical proof that laughter has curative properties. What’s more incredible, however, is that cannabis has a whole host of curative properties besides inducing laughter that researchers are still discovering. We can then conclude that while laughter may indeed be the best medicine, cannabis is the best medicine to induce this humorous remedy.