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Scope Series 4 RTÉ Two, Thursday, 7.00pm

Laughter is the best medicine

Professor Luke O'NeilThe age-old adage says laughter is the best medicine, but is there any scientific evidence that humour helps your humours?

In this episode Scope joins Trinity Immunology Professor Luke O’Neill and professional arts performers The Clown Doctors, who believe jokes are better than jabs, to explore the immunological benefits of laughing to see if sidesplitting giggles heal your split sides.

Numerous studies have been done into the health effects of laughter and they all seem to prove that people who laugh regularly have stronger immune systems and heal better, but exactly how this happens remains unclear.

Like the chicken and the egg, scientists don’t know if people with naturally strong immune systems are simply more positive and up beat or if being naturally good natured and happy makes you less likely to get sick.

However, it has been proven that laughing releases endorphins, opiate-like chemicals that are the body’s natural painkillers and produce feelings of well being. These endorphins also boost white blood cells that help the body combat infection.

The idea that laughter and humour are beneficial for health is currently quite popular in medical circles and hospitals are putting this theory into practice. The Clown Doctors are entertainers selected not just for their hilarious antics, but also their sensitivity and compassion.

Clown DoctorsThese very special performers work with children, helping them be more at ease in hospital and distracting them during painful or frightening procedures – no mean feat given that around 250,000 children are treated in Irish hospitals each year and about 100,000 have to stay overnight.

A recent study found that laughter actually raised people’s pain thresholds and others have shown patients exposed to humour heal faster, perhaps because laughter reduces stress and stress can increase the time it takes the body to heal.

Much of the serious research into humour and healing began with Norman Cussins, who published his story 'Anatomy of an Illness' in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1976 and later in a best selling book in 1979.

Cussins was afflicted with a disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis, a progressive disease inflaming the joints of the spine. He recovered remarkably from this disease after self-treatment with Vitamin C, to combat inflammation, and laughter, to produce positive emotions.

While his case excited a lot of interest it is not clear that Cussins actually cured himself since cases of spontaneous remission – where the disease just disappears on its own – have been known to happen with his condition.

Still, everyone wants to know, is it possible to literally laugh your way back to health? Medical researchers are doing their best to find out, and that’s no joke.

 

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