Laughter expert Lee Berk

Lee Berk

We all know the saying “laughter is the best medicine,” but have you ever wondered how many body systems it really benefits? Laughter has a huge impact on both mental and physical health, and is possibly the cheapest medicine available, aside from fresh air, sunshine or exercise.

Lee S. Berk, DrPH, associate dean of research affairs for Loma Linda University School of Allied Health Professions, is serious about laughter. Berk has been studying the effect laughter has on the body since 1988, appearing in media outlets from TIME and USA Today to Forbes and NBC. He encourages people to laugh every day. Laughter can make you feel good in the present, build up good health in the future, and work to combat negative health from the past.

Berk sits in an office cluttered with a collection of signs and gimmicks, including RX prescription bottles for laughter, corked jars of laughter, and joke books from the past several decades. Berk sat down to start off National Humor Month by answering some of the most common questions he gets about his laughter research. Here are some edited excerpts from an interview:

What made you decide to research laughter?

Lee Berk: When I started my career in healthcare, I used to emphasize the importance of the physical factors of health. As my career and knowledge matured, I spent more time learning how factors like lifestyle, diet, gratitude spirituality, attitude, and forgiveness could also play roles in health and disease outcomes. My idea to study laughter was also inspired by the Bible. In Proverbs 17:22, the author writes, “A merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.” This refers to the integrative medical science of psycho-neuro-immunology being stated in biblical terms. This was the starting point and is the core if whole person care of mind, body and spirit. Just like people with depression have a greater propensity to have a compromised immune system, my research came to show that people who experience joyful laughter have biological translations and can impact positive responses of the immune system.

Who was the first researcher to look at laughter as a medicine?

The subject was first introduced when a man named Norman Cousins was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in the 1960s. He was the editor of The Saturday Review and he had a life of massive stress and distress, so he hypothesized that he would need to produce good stress — eustress — to see if he could reverse this prognosis.

I first met him in 1989 when he came here to ask me if there were any known physiological and benefits from laughter. At that time, we were still just fooling around with the research. We discovered that when people laughed, the hormone system would benefit because laughter prompts good stress (eustress) and decreases bad stress (distress). The reality of wholeness is that each body process has a biological consequence — whether for better or worse. Just like stress can suppress your immune system and lead to sickness, laughter can have the opposite effect by improving and optimizing immune system components and blood flow so you are more “sickness” resistant.

While we may not have started the conversation on health and laughter, our researchers are the leading authority on mirthful laughter and humor, and the psycho-neuro-immunological effects and health benefits they produce.

What are some ways that laughter can affect your physical health?

Laughter causes the release of endorphins, our body’s natural painkiller; serotonin, our natural anti-depressant; and good neuropeptides, chemical communicators. It also decreases cortisol, which then reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, increases oxygen intake, enhances the immune system and reduces the risk of having heart disease or a stroke. In healthcare, we often compartmentalize different specialty. We have physiology, biochemistry, endocrinology, and neurology all taught separately, but when we start to look at the whole person, we can see how interconnected the human body really is.

How might laughter affect your mental health?

Laughter triggers the production of key neurochemicals like dopamine, which produce calming, anti-anxiety benefits as well as providing us pleasure and reward. It also increases EEG gamma wave frequency in the brain, which synchronizes brain neurons to help improve your memory and cognitive processing. Laughter has similar benefits as moderate exercise. It also increases the brain’s gamma wave frequency.

Gamma frequency is the highest frequency and is responsible for addressing information processing, improved memory and recall, stress reduction. We now know in neuroscience that gamma frequency enhances the brain’s cognitive levels.

In addition to serving as a sort of antidepressants in the brain, laughing can cause a rush of hormones that can make you feel similar positive effects of a narcotic, but unlike opioid drugs, laughter’s endorphins are not addictive or damaging to your health.

How long/often should someone laugh to see benefits?

The duration of the laugh is not as important as the reason behind it. Mirthful laughter, as opposed to nervous or embarrassed laughter, promotes the good high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and has a cascade of beneficial physiological changes conducive for happiness — happiness being dopamine, serotonin, endorphins. Happiness is the optimal immune system responsivity. Laugh as often and as much as you need until you feel good!

I have such a passion for this work, and as society continues to gain interest about the influence of lifestyle on health, I’m eager to see how we will continue to uncover the science behind laughter.

Norman Cousins once wrote, “Of all the gifts bestowed by nature on human beings, hearty laughter must be close to the top.” This gift, of both joy and healing, is something that can bring us together and allow us to experience the happiness God longs for us to feel.