Humoring Your Health

By Marnie Burkman, MD

Maybe that cookie would be helped by humor! The word “humor” originated as a term to describe various aspects of health that together affect one’s whole state of mind. It comes from the Latin word for “body fluid” and in medieval physiology referred to any of four fundamental body fluids -- blood, phlegm, choler/yellow bile and melancholy/black bile -- whose proportions determined one’s physical and mental qualities. Eventually the word came to refer to mental whims, amusement, and comedy. Even though our understanding of the body has much evolved since the era of medieval medicine, having a good balance of humor provides a wonderful foundation that can tip the systems of the body toward greater wellness.

Here are some of the ways that humor affects health:

  • Stimulates immunity. People who tend to have a good sense of humor and use humor to cope with stress are less vulnerable to illness through increased production of immune factors such as immunoglobulins and anti-tumor natural killer cells. In contrast, people with a poor sense of humor may have more immune system suppression. The immune-protective benefits of humor can be catalyzed -- studies have found that watching 30 to 60 minutes of a comedy video significantly increases immune factors. (1, 2)
  • Improves vascular function. After watching a stressful movie, a person’s blood vessel linings constrict, reducing blood flow. However, after watching a funny movie the opposite occurs -- the blood vessel linings expand to improve blood flow. The amount of expansion is similar to the benefit seen from aerobic exercise or statin medication! (3)
  • Relieves pain. Norman Cousins famously documented the pain-relieving effects of humor in his books including Anatomy of An Illness and Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit. He suffered from an autoimmune disease that left him in chronic intense pain. He noted that 10 minutes of deep belly laughter had an anesthetic effect that would create two hours of pain-free sleep.
  • Lowers stress while improving memory. Researchers at Loma Linda University showed groups of elder volunteers (a healthy group and a group whose members had diabetes) a 20-minute laugh-inducing video. Cortisol (the so-called “stress hormone”) was measured before and after, and the groups completed memory assessments. The laughter-video groups were compared to control groups of elders who did not watch the video. There was a significant decrease in cortisol and better memory scores in all of the laughter groups. Study co-author Dr. Lee Berk states, “It's simple, the less stress you have, the better your memory. Humor reduces detrimental stress hormones, like cortisol, that decrease memory hippocampal neurons; lowers your blood pressure; and increases blood flow and your mood state.” (4)
  • Enhances fertility. The effect of humor has been assessed in would-be mothers undergoing in-vitro fertilization and embryo transfer. Women who were entertained by a clown for 15 minutes after their embryo transfer procedure were compared to women who were not entertained -- 36 percent of those in the laughter group became pregnant compared with 20 percent in the control group. (5)

Q: What do you call cheese that’s not yours?

A: Nacho cheese!

Luckily, unlike nacho cheese, humor can be for everyone!  Cultivate laugh-inducing triggers that make you -- and others -- feel warm, open, and alive. Here are suggestions for bringing more humor into your everyday:

Write down a list of moments that made you smile this week. The simple act of journaling positive experiences trains your brain to be more aware of the positive in everyday life.

Develop a repertoire of videos/movies that help you laugh, that you can refer to when you’re having a tough day. Watching even 10 minutes from one of your videos can help shift your mood and physiology in countless ways. Need movie ideas? Here’s one list of over 100 of the best comedy movies: Need video ideas? YouTube is full of funny videos; try searching for “funny cat videos” for a start!

  • Listen to comedy radio while you’re driving instead of a stressful newscast.
  • Take a laughter yoga class. Check out for ideas and resources.
  • Try the smartphone app “PsychMeUp!”. It’s a simple game where you choose smiling faces among frowning faces. It’s a great stress reliever and boosts social confidence.
  • Pretend you just heard a hilarious joke and laugh for two minutes. Even if you’re initially “faking it,” as your muscles smile and laugh, your body as a whole will start to shift, endorphins will release, and you will likely feel better! 


A neutron walks into a bar, sits down and asks for a drink. Finishing, the neutron asks, "How much?"

The bartender says, "For you, no charge."

Like this neutron’s drink, humor is also freely available and can flow through you like the body fluid to which it first referred, igniting greater health. May you be inspired to laugh every day, in some big or small way.


1. Dillon KM, Minchoff B, Baker KH. Int J Psychiat Med 1985-86; 15(1): 13-18.

2. Bennett MP & Lengacher C. Evid-Based Compl Alt 2009; 6(2): 159-164.

3. <>.

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5. Friedler S, Glasser S, Azani L et al. Fertil Steril 2011; 95(6): 2127-2130.

Marnie Burkman, M.D., is an integrative psychiatrist who offers a blend of conventional, complementary, and alternative mental health care that honors, nurtures, and compassionately guides the healing of one’s body, mind, and spirit. She received her medical degree from Tufts University School of Medicine and is board-certified in psychiatry and holistic medicine. Visit

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Posted on February 17, 2015 .