Benefits of Laughter for Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

A Better Mood & Much More

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We've all heard the cliche about laughter being the best medicine. You might be surprised to hear that medical science actually backs that up, and that laughter has been shown to cause multiple physiological changes that may be beneficial to those of us with fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).

Laughter hasn't been studied specifically for these conditions, but researchers are uncovering more about laughter in general and in painful conditions such as cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.

Benefits of Laughter

We know from experience that, emotionally, it feels good to laugh. What scientists have demonstrated is that the benefits are physiological as well.

According to a growing body of evidence, laughter may:

  • Improve mood through the release of endorphins (natural pain killers) in the brain;
  • Lower stress, possibly through neuroendocrine changes in the stress-response system;
  • Change levels of both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines (in rheumatoid arthritis patients);
  • Change levels of growth hormone (in rheumatoid arthritis patients);
  • Improve immunity by increasing activity of natural killer cells, T cells, and other markers of neuroimmune function;
  • Raise the pain threshold (the point at which sensation becomes painful);
  • Lower heart disease risk factors, possibly by altering nitric oxide function;
  • Make positive changes to vascular function (blood flow) for up to 24 hours;
  • Cause chemical changes in the brain and body that are similar to those of exercise.

That's a pretty impressive list for something that's free and readily available without a prescription! Many of the things in that list are either known or believed to be involved, to varying degrees, in many cases of FMS or ME/CFS.

But does laughter come with side effects?

Possible Drawbacks of Laughter

Yes, even something as simple and natural as laughter can cause problems.

Some people with ME/CFS say that laughter can trigger post-exertional malaise -- a hallmark symptom of the illness that causes a marked increase in fatigue and other symptoms after a small amount of exertion.

For those with FMS, a long, hard laugh could lead to increased pain, especially if the muscles involved are deconditioned. However, this tendency may be countered by the endorphin release and other changes that are similar to the effects of exercise.

People with asthma can laugh themselves into an asthma attack, which researchers say is an indicator that the condition is poorly controlled.

A rare side effect of laughter is brief episodes of syncope (fainting), likely due to laughter-induced changes in the autonomic nervous system leading to reduced blood flow to the brain. It's unknown whether the autonomic dysregulation and blood-flow abnormalities of FMS and ME/CFS could increase this risk.

Adding Laughter to Your Life

If laughter appears beneficial to you, you might want to get in the habit of watching a funny television show every day, or finding humorous things online.

Some of us find social interactions to be stressful and taxing. If that's true for you, it may help to keep the tone of conversations light and funny. While it may be hard to find the humor in your situation, it can help to learn to laugh at yourself and your illness.

Easing Tension With Laughter

Our society has difficulty with chronic illness. People can be unsure of how to act around someone who is sick, and sometimes humor can do a lot to ease those uncomfortable situations.

In the months between knowing something was horribly wrong with my health and finally getting an FMS diagnosis, it became more and more clear to my co-workers that something was up. I took a huge amount of sick days. I frequently had to leave work early, and twice I was rushed from there to the emergency room. When I was there, my work suffered.

After having a complete mental shut-down during a meeting, then staggering and nearly falling when I left the room, I felt I needed to let everyone know what was going on. I sent out an email to my entire department letting them know that I was working through a diagnostic process and my doctor suspected some kind of autoimmune disease. (Fibromyalgia is not considered autoimmune, but the symptoms are similar to several conditions that are.)

Things did become uncomfortable after that, no matter how much I tried to "be myself" and put people at ease.

Then I happened upon a Halloween costume consisting of a crown, scepter and beauty-queen-style sash that said, "Miss Diagnosed." On Halloween, I enhanced these items by dressing all in black, darkening the circles under my eyes, and carrying a bouquet of dead flowers.

Everyone laughed. And everyone relaxed. My interactions went back to a much more comfortable place.

So the moral of the story is ... go forth with laughter!

Sources:

Bennett MP, et al. Alternative therapies in health and medicine. 2003 Mar-Apr;9(2):38-45. The effect of mirthful laughter on stress and natural killer cell activity.

Berk LS, et al. Alternative therapies in health and medicine. 2001 Mar;7(2):62-72, 74-6. Modulation of neuroimmune parameters during the eustress of humor-associated mirthful laughter.

Berk LS, et al. The American journal of the medical sciences. 1989 Dec;298(6):390-6. Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter.

Huntley MI. Creative nursing. 2009;15(1):39-42. Take time for laughter.

Ishigami S, et al. Clinical and experimental rheumatology. 2005 Sep-Oct;23(5):651-7. Effects of mirthful laughter on growth hormone, IGF-1 and substance P in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Kim AJ, Frishman WH. Cardiology in review. 2012 Feb 6. Laughter-induced syncope.

Liangas G, Morton JR, Henry RL. Pediatric pulmonology. 2003 Aug;36(2):107-12. Mirth-triggered asthma: is laughter really the best medicine?

Mahony DL, Burroughs WJ, Hieatt AC. The journal of general psychology. 2001 Apr;128(2):217-26. The effects of laughter on discomfort thresholds: does expectation become reality?

Matsuzaki T, et al. Rheumatology (Oxford). 2006 Feb;45(2):182-6. Mirthful laughter differentially affects serum pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokine levels depending on the level of disease activity in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Miller M, Fry WF. Medical hypotheses. 2009 Nov;73(5):636-9. The effect of mirthful laughter on the human cardiovascular system.

Sugawara J, Tarumi T, Tanaka H. The American journal of cardiology. 2010 Sep 15;106(6):856-9. Effect of mirthful laughter on vascular function.

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