Laughter is the Best Medicine, Really

Hunter Doherty Adams, better known as Patch Adams, is both a physician and a clown who incorporates humor and joy as a form of alternative medicine for patients. While at face value these methods may seem to work simply as a means of distracting patients from their disease condition, is there also a molecular basis to this method of “treatment”?

Data indicate that there is significant biophysical and biochemical truth supporting this method, so much so that scientists continue to examine the relevant biochemical pathways active during laughter in an attempt to identify drug targets and develop novel drugs. When we laugh multiple areas of our brain including the frontal and occipital lobes become activated. On a biophysical level our blood pressure is lowered and our abdominal, diaphragm, respiratory, facial, leg, and back muscles are all actively engaged. Buchowski and colleagues at Vanderbilt University have determined that 10-15 minutes of laughter burns approximately 50 calories. This physical activity also results in an increase in movement of lymphatic fluids which facilitates the immune system in more effectively clearing cellular waste. Furthermore, it results in an increase in blood oxygen content and circulation which may help to inhibit the growth of parasites, bacteria, and cancer cells.

At the biochemical level, research has focused on examining the changes in hormone levels in response to laughter. Berk and colleagues at Loma Linda University School of Medicine report a reversal in serum levels of various hormones that play key roles in the stress hormone response cascade including cortisol, dopac, epinephrine, and growth hormone. Additional data from Stanford University indicate that humor activates the mesolimbic reward pathway in the brain, the same area of the brain that is implicated by cocaine and other addicting substances or rewarding activities.

While the data are broad and in some cases descriptive, the message is clear. The multifaceted and seemingly endless positive health effects of laughter make it, truly, the best medicine.  With that being said, I encourage everyone to redirect their attention to one of my favorite free medications:


Buchowski MS, Majchrzak KM, Blomquist K, Chen KY, Byrne DW, & Bachorowski JA (2007). Energy expenditure of genuine laughter. International journal of obesity (2005), 31 (1), 131-7 PMID: 16652129

Berk LS, Tan SA, Fry WF, Napier BJ, Lee JW, Hubbard RW, Lewis JE, & Eby WC (1989). Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter. The American journal of the medical sciences, 298 (6), 390-6 PMID: 2556917

Mobbs D, Greicius MD, Abdel-Azim E, Menon V, & Reiss AL (2003). Humor modulates the mesolimbic reward centers. Neuron, 40 (5), 1041-8 PMID: 14659102

Image via Diego Cervo / Shutterstock.

Norell Hadzimichalis, PhD

Norell Hadzimichalis, PhD, is a trained molecular biologist with postdoctoral research experience in a prominent neuroscience laboratory. She holds a PhD in Molecular Biology from The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. She has authored and co-authored multiple peer reviewed research and review articles in journals including Schizophrenia Research, Brain Research, and the Journal of Neuroscience. Her current interests are in commercializing basic scientific findings and exploring methods of moving research from the benchside to the bedside.
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