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.