To protect your blood vessels, try having a few good laughs, researchers say.
Watching a funny movie or television show aids vascular function, while a stressful or scary movie narrows blood vessels, according to research presented today at the European Society of Cardiology’s conference in Paris.
The findings confirm previous studies that suggested a link between mental stress and the narrowing of blood vessels, said the lead researcher, Michael Miller of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. A separate study today showed that survivors of heart attacks are more likely to experience a new cardiovascular event if they are angry or stressed out compared with those who aren’t.
“The take-home message here is laughing is great for your heart,” Miller said in an interview in Paris.
When volunteers watched parts of a stressful movie, the opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan,” their inner blood vessel lining, known as endothelium, developed a potentially unhealthy response called vasoconstriction, reducing blood flow, according to the study. After watching some of a funny movie such as “There’s Something About Mary,” their blood vessel lining expanded.
“Everybody we tested to date, with the exception of one person, had dilation of their blood vessel” after watching bits of a funny movie, Miller said. The study was conducted on 30 healthy people aged from their 20s to their 50s.
More than 300 measurements were conducted on the arms of the volunteers, showing a 30 percent to 50 percent difference in blood vessel diameter between the expansion due to laughter and the constriction caused by stress, according to the researchers.
The experiment has since been conducted also on a person suffering from heart disease, with striking results, he said.
“It suggests that if you are having a really bad day, and you are having a lot of stress, you can reverse that in a matter of minutes,” he said. “It’s not only reversing your mood, it’s reversing your vascular function. That’s great news for the heart.”
The change in the endothelium caused by laughter appears to be consistent and similar to the benefits from aerobic exercise or the use of cholesterol-lowering drugs such as statins, Miller said. The difference is that laughter has an almost immediate effect, he said.
Researchers are increasingly focusing on the link between emotions and cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death worldwide. In a third study presented at the conference session titled “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!,” job strain and long working hours were associated with higher heart disease and mortality.
Positive feelings, such as the ones induced by laughter and listening to relaxing music, are believed to release endorphins that are recognized by the endothelium, leading to the release of nitric oxide, according to researchers. Nitric oxide is a chemical that protects the heart by leading to vessel expansion, better blood flow, inflammation reduction and the prevention of cholesterol plaque formation. On the other hand, negative emotions such as hostility, anger, depression, anxiety and social isolation have shown to be toxic for the heart.
More research is needed to assess whether laughing on a regular basis may reduce the risk of heart attacks, Miller said.
Meanwhile, it may help to incorporate laughing on a regular basis as part of an overall healthy lifestyle, he said.
“Prescription for health should include laughter ” Miller said. “In other words, eat your veggies, exercise, don’t do unhealthy things like smoking, and get a good belly laugh every day.”