Humour and the Immune System
Psychoneuroimmunology is about how psychological factors, the brain and the immune system interact to influence health. This long word first came to my attention in the 1980s when hard scientific evidence appeared showing that laughter increased the activity of the body’s natural killer cells while uncontrolled stress decreased that activity. The natural killer cells attack virally infected cells and certain types of cancer cells. However, the realisation of these effects of happiness and stress had been around for a lot longer.
Voltaire in the 18th century stated that "the art of medicine consists in keeping the patient amused while nature heals the disease". In the 1940s the research of Hans Sele showed that stress decreased the functioning of virtually all parts of the immune system and numerous studies since have shown how people are more susceptible to illness when stressed by bereavement, divorce, losing a job, moving house, etc..
Then in the 1960s Norman Cousins showed that patients suffering from a very painful disease could have pain free sleep following 15 minutes of laughter and he further demonstrated a reduction in inflammation in the same patients.
Since then laughter has been shown to have a wide range of effects on the immune system including increased activity of T cells, antibody production, gamma interferon production as well as the increased activity of natural killer cells.
What these studies are showing is that the brain and body act as an integrated whole with, for instance, the brain having direct connections (nerve fibres) and indirect connections (sending chemical messages) with the cells of the immune system. Furthermore the immune system has been shown to send feedback messages to the brain.
Essentially what is being said is that being happy is a wonderful medicine. It is an important tool in the fight against disease and furthermore it is free.
Colin Sutherland (with thanks to the many researchers on happiness)