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We've all heard the phrase, "Laughter is the Best Medicine," but does laughter really help in relieving not only stress, but also disease?

One of the foremost pioneers in humor therapy was Norman Cousins. In his book entitled Anatomy of an Illness (as Perceived by the Patient), he recounts his battle with a connective tissue disease, ankylosing spondylitis. While all the specialists' prognoses were poor, Mr. Cousins believed that he could, in fact, "cure himself". He used humor as both a painkiller and a substitute for chemical therapy. He found that watching old Marx Brothers movies evoked genuine belly laughter, which led to at least two hours of pain-free sleep and a significant drop in his sedimentary level. With daily doses of laughter, combined with active participation in his medical treatment, Mr. Cousins made a full recovery. Almost 20 years later, he suffered a massive heart attack. Using the same philosophy of laughter and "partnership" with his physicians, he again made a full recovery. Mr. Cousins, who was the editor of Saturday Review, became a member of the faculty of UCLA's School of Medicine in 1978, specializing in the field of biochemistry of emotions.

Even before Norman Cousins went public with his humor theories, Annette Goodheart, Ph.D. had been using laughter therapy in peer counseling since 1970. Dr. Goodheart took Mr. Cousins' theory one step further. While Mr. Cousins knew laughter had extreme healing power, he didn't know why. Since Dr. Goodheart had studied this for years, the humor theory could be better explained and established.

While at first the medical community discounted this premise, research has since conclusively shown that laughter is very powerful medicine. Doctors at Loma Linda University in California conducted a test to study the changes in epinephrine, the natural killer cell activity (NKA), and cortisol levels in response to laughter. In that test, an experimental group viewed a 60-minute humorous video while the control group did not. Blood samples from both groups were taken before, during and after viewing. Both epinephrine levels and cortisol levels decreased in the experimental group and NKA increased in the experimental group. Since increases in both epinephrine and cortisol are immunosuppressive and are linked to stress-related diseases such as ulcers, high blood pressure and coronary heart disease, it only makes sense that a big dose of laughter to lower these levels can make a person feel better both emotionally and physically.

Other physiological responses to laughter include increased respiration, circulation, hormonal and digestive enzyme secretion, as well as a leveling of the blood pressure. Laughter also promotes the release of endorphins from the brain. Endorphins are nature's own "drug", giving a sense of euphoria.

More recently, or perhaps better known to the general public, the effect of humor on the chronically ill was depicted in the hit movie, "Patch Adams". The movie was based on the true story of Dr. Hunter Adams, portrayed by Robin Williams, who believed that humor could act as the best medicine. His use of humor is used extensively with cancer patients. He is the founder of the "The Gezundheit Institute" which is located in Washington, DC.

Many hospitals are now implementing humor centers and humor intervention in treating patients. In 1987, Duke University developed the "Duke Humor Project" which offers bedside humor therapy to cancer patients. Patients receive humorous interactions through the use of books, audio, video and clown props. Patient assessments have shown that humor works in a variety of ways to help patients, namely, as a distraction to their pain, and as a positive effect on their recovery. Not only is humor used as therapy for sick people, many corporations and institutions are conducting humor workshops for their employees – a happy employee is a more productive employee.

There are countless websites dedicated to humor as therapy. There is also a scientific "name" for the study of humor as treatment – psychoneuroimmunology -- as well as a "title" for the practice of humor therapy – "Mirthologist".

There are many reasons to laugh -- to cope with a stressful situation, to break the ice at a tense moment, or to make someone feel more comfortable. In sum, we know how important it is to eat healthy, exercise our bodies and our minds and reduce the stressors in our lives, but let's not forget how important it is to laugh. Laughter is the grease that turns the health and wellness wheel!