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Laughing all the way to health

Did you know laughter improves your appetite? A researcher at Loma Linda University found that "mirthful laughter" made people in his study hungry.

Laugh long and hard — and you feel like snacking. For the record, I sometimes feel like snacking even when I've not had a good chuckle — but that's probably not relevant to this research design.

This I know: something happens when we giggle, chuckle or guffaw. We relax, we breathe better and we become more self-connected. It's a good thing.

Did you know laughter optimizes immunity? Ever since Norman Cousins wrote about the benefits of laughter in dealing with his debilitating and painful auto-immune disease (New England Journal of Medicine, 1979), we've taken laughter more seriously.

We enjoy surprising benefits when we loosen up and laugh. The same researchers (Dr. Lee Berk et al) looked at a group of individuals with diabetes and assessed the effects of laughter on their diabetic situations. It was a small study and needs to be replicated, but it found that the experimental group (the folks who got to do the laughing) demonstrated reduced stress, an improved inflammatory response and an increase in HDL (good cholesterol) levels. Even if the results don't stand up to re-examination, I hope diabetic folks in this study, and their families, keep the funny stories coming. I wonder if they heard the one about injecting insulin into an orange and eating the orange — thinking that was a diabetes management plan. True story by the way.

This research makes me want to consider taking all my friends with chronic conditions to a comedy club. Do we even have a comedy club in the Valley? It might be a good business to start "… and it should definitely serve snacks. The menu could be a low-carbohydrate affair with lots of local vegetables and hummus. The could serve big bowls of crunchy, colorful peppers and call them "pepper uppers." And just think of all the jokes possible about bean dip.

Laughing is exactly what it's cracked up to be — and more. Other researchers have noted that if you laugh steadily for one hour, you can burn 500 calories. A really good joke coupled with the right menu might be a new weight-maintenance plan. Now we are talking about a comedy and health club combined. Maybe there could be stationery bikes in front of the chairs and people could pedal, laugh and munch their way through a mirth-filled evening.

This is an attempt at comedic whimsy, but for some people my suggestions could be called "whole-person care" or "lifestyle" medicine. As Dr. Berk (who describes himself as a "hardcore medical clinician and scientist") says, it's about "intrinsic physiological intervention brought about by positive emotion." He had me at "mirthful laughter."

I just started reading a book recommended by a happy friend that's titled "The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters." So far it's not a very laughter-inducing book, but it's reminding me to look at each day, each moment, in fact, with more delight and enjoyment. Funny how deciding to do that makes me feel happier.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.