Humor, music and spirituality may offer physical benefits

Monday, February 14, 2011; 8:17 PM

Humor, music and spirituality can boost your mood, but growing evidence suggests that they also offer physical benefits.

Humor for your health

Laughter appears to have such physiological effects as:

l Increased blood flow. Watching 30 minutes of a comedy film ("There's Something About Mary") caused the arteries of volunteers to expand, according to a 2006 study from the University of Maryland Medical Center, while scenes from a stressful film ("Saving Private Ryan") caused them to constrict.

l Strengthened immunity. Laughter might stimulate production of disease-fighting T cells and natural killer cells and might reduce levels of inflammation-triggering cytokines in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Watching funny movies might also help ease allergy symptoms and help people with asthma resist flare-ups.

l Reduced muscle pain. Laughter causes muscles in the abdomen, face and shoulders to relax, which might ease muscle tension.

l Lower blood sugar. People with Type 2 diabetes had smaller increases in blood glucose when they watched a comedy show after a meal than when they sat through a boring lecture.

l Lost calories. Laughing boosted people's energy expenditure by 10 to 20 percent in a 2007 study.

What to do: If funny movies aren't your thing, or if life of late hasn't given you much to laugh about, consider "laughter yoga," a variation designed to induce joyful, prolonged laughter.

Music for your brain

Reading music and singing might boost your brain's auditory and language-processing functions, while playing an instrument strengthens reaction speed and manual dexterity. Other research has linked choral singing with physical and emotional health. Music might also improve symptoms of several health problems:

l Alzheimer's disease. In people with this condition, music might curb aggression, irritability, restlessness and wandering.

l Insomnia. Listening to 45 minutes of soft music before bed improved self-reported sleep time and daytime drowsiness in a study of 30 older adults.

l Pain. People recovering from hernia or varicose-vein surgery who listened to music reported less pain than a control group did in a trial of 182 patients. Music might also ease the pain and distress of arthritis, childbirth, colonoscopy, fibromyalgia and herniated disks.

l Parkinson's disease. Listening to rhythmic music can help patients move more easily.

l Stress. Listening to music can reduce stress, blood pressure and heart rate during and after eye surgery. And people who had music therapy after knee-replacement surgery had less depression.

l Stroke. Singing might help patients regain the ability to speak more clearly after a stroke.

What to do: Choose relaxing music. If someone you care about is in a health-care facility, consider asking about music therapy.

A spiritual life

Regularly attending religious services or practicing meditation appears to offer health benefits.

l Traditional religion. Regularly attending church was linked to a lower incidence of death from cardiovascular disease in a review of 69 studies. And a 2009 study found that men who attended church in their 40s had better physical health at 70 than men who hadn't attended church, possibly because they tended to drink and smoke less.

l Meditation. The evidence is especially strong for an easy-to-learn form of meditation called mindfulness, in which people focus on the present while practicing measured breathing. Meditation induces rapid physiological changes, including reduced blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension. It might also reduce cardiovascular risk, ease depression and help people with chronic pain, fibromyalgia, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis and Type 1 diabetes.

What to do: If you already participate in an organized religion, these findings provide more reason to continue. To try meditating, look for a class or teach yourself with the help of a book or recorded program. Try for at least 10 to 15 minutes a day, the minimum amount linked with the benefits above.

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