“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” – Irish proverb
It’s no secret that getting a good night’s sleep leaves you feeling good and rested the next day, or that belly laughing at a friend’s joke or while watching a comedy lifts your spirits. But what are the physiological processes taking place in the body that produce these positive changes in response to sleep and laughter?
Researchers in Switzerland took on the task of understanding the effects of humor on our bodies, specifically in those who experience chronic pain. Their findings, presented at The European Pain Federation Congress in Florence, Italy, revealed that watching a funny movie and laughing has the ability to distract people from feeling pain. This heightened tolerance to pain lingered for 20 minutes following laughter, as well (Mason, 2013).
Of course, the laughter must be hearty and true, according to one of the researchers. Professor Willibald Ruch of Zurich University stressed that it must “come from the heart” to produce pain-relieving effects in the body.
“Real delight,” he said, coupled with a genuine smile that engages the mouth and the muscles around the eyes, is what has the potential to activate the release of endorphins, relieve muscular tension, and ultimately, provide respite from pain (Mason, 2013).
The best way to follow a pain-relieving laugh, according to another set of studies published in the journal Science, is with some restorative sleep. This is especially true if you’re feeling overwhelmed and bogged down by mental clutter. Researchers have discovered that not only does sleep allow the body to rest and prepare for the day to come, but it also plays a critical role in removing “potentially neurotoxic waste products” that build up in the brain while awake (Xie et al., 2013).
To shed light on the activities of the brain’s fluid-filled interstitial space, which accounts for 20% of the brain’s total volume, the researchers “injected small fluorescent tracers into the cerebrospinal fluid of anesthetized mice” (Konnikova, 2014). In doing so, they observed that during sleep, this area of the brain busies itself with removing the day’s cell waste “via specific, predictable routes” (Konnikova, 2014).
These waste products are often linked to the scattered thoughts, interactions, and anxieties of the day, and the gist is that if we don’t allow ourselves adequate sleep, they will simply remain in there, accumulating and interfering with our ability to think and act clearly during waking hours. In fact, the buildup of certain metabolites in the brain is already linked to age-related cognitive decline, such as what occurs in people with Alzheimer’s.
So the “metabolite clearance” that occurs during sleep is absolutely essential to maintaining good health and mental functioning (Xie et al., 2013). And yet, studies have shown that close to 80% of adults experience some level of sleep deprivation, and between 50 and 70 million people in the United States deal with chronic sleep issues (Konnikova, 2014).
Considering that our levels of stress and tension play a significant role in being able to achieve restful sleep at night, perhaps “a good laugh and a long sleep” are the perfect medicinal combination for whatever ails you.
- Konnikova, M. (2014, January 11). Goodnight. Sleep clean. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/12/opinion/sunday/goodnight-sleep-clean.html?_r=1
- Mason, I. (2013, October 15). Laughing away pain. Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/267434.php
- Xie, L., Kang, H., Xu, Q., Chen, M. J., Liao, Y., Thiyagarajan, M., . . . Nedergaard, M. (2013, October 18). Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain. Science, Vol. 342, no. 6156, 373-377. doi: 10.1126/science.1241224. Retrieved from http://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/373
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