"The art of medicine consists of keeping the patient amused while nature heals the disease." Voltaire
There are few sources of stress in life greater than the words, "You have cancer." And we have known for decades that any kind of stress - especially chronic stress that's there day after day - has a suppressive effect on the immune system. You are more vulnerable to becoming ill when constantly stressed precisely because your immune system is not operating as well is it normally would - if you were under less stress or were coping with it more effectively.
Your sense of humour provides a powerful antidote to immunosuppressive effects of stress in two ways: through 1) direct effects of humour and laughter upon the immune system, and 2) indirect effects resulting from humour's ability to help you cope on the tough days. In this column, we'll focus only on the direct immunoenhancement effects of humour.
Research has looked at both humoural (immunoglobulins) and cellular immunity. In the case of the former, most of the studies have focused on immunoglobulin A (IgA). IgA resides in the mucosal areas and helps protect you against upper respiratory infections. Seven studies have shown significant increases in concentrations of IgA in response to programmes designed to produce a lot of laughter.
While many different investigators have completed the IgA research, Lee Berk and his associates at the School of Medicine at Loma Linda University has obtained similar findings for many additional components of the immune system. The rest of this article is based on findings from his research.
Mirthful laughter also increases levels of IgM and IgG. IgM antibodies are the first to arrive at a location within the body as a part of the humoural immune response. After IgM does its initial work, IgG takes over. It is IgG antibodies that are produced in the greatest amount in the body, and that are responsible for long-term immunity. When you are immunized, for example, it is the IgG antibodies that are tested to see if the procedure was successful.
Laughter also increases levels of Complement 3, a part of your immune system that helps antibodies pierce through defective or infected cells in order to destroy them.
With respect to cellular immunity, watching a one-hour comedy video has been found to produce 1) increased number of B cells, 2) increased number of, and activation of, T cells, 3) increased number of Helper T cells (the cells attacked by the AIDS virus), 4) increased ratio of Helper/Suppressor T cells, 5) increased number of, and activity of, Natural Killer (NK) cells, and 6) increased levels of Gamma Interferon.
The increased number of B cells is not surprising, given the increased levels of IgA, IgG, and IgM, since B cells are responsible for making all the immunoglobulins.
The findings for NK cells and Gamma Interferon are especially important for cancer patients. NK cells are designed to seek out and destroy tumour (cancer) cells (they also destroy virally infected cells, even with no prior exposure). Gamma Interferon plays an important role in the activation of NK cells. It also contributes to the growth of cytotoxic T cells and the maturation of B cells. It is best thought of as a kind of orchestra leader that regulates the level of cooperation between cells in the immune system, and tells different components of the immune system when to turn on and off.
There is something about humour and laughter, then, that causes the immune system to "turn on" metabolically and do more effectively what it is designed to do. This is one reason there is so much interest in the therapeutic benefits of humour in oncology centres across the world. It's also responsible for the increased interest in having speakers on the health and coping benefits of humour for National Cancer Survivors Day Celebrations for those who are living with cancer.
While these data are exciting, they do not mean that laughter will cure you from cancer, or any other disease. Humour and laughter are not a replacement for the treatment you or your loved one are undergoing. But there's now every reason to believe that the patient makes an important contribution to his/her own treatment by managing their frame of mind or emotional state. Building more laughter into your life helps assure that you'll have all your body's own natural healing resources fully available to you.
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