Humor Yourself to Better Pulmonary Health: Introduction

[This article was adapted from McGhee, P.  Humor: The  Lighter Path to Resilience and Health.  Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.  References to the research discussed below are presented in this book.]

Researchers have recently begun to study the pulmonary benefits of humor and laughter.  If you are already in good health, their contribution to pulmonary health is probably negligible.  For individuals with a respiratory illness (or who are confined to a bed), however, the picture may be quite different.  Such individuals are more likely to have a shallow breathing pattern, which leaves a larger (than desired) volume of “residual air” (the air remaining in the lungs when your outward breath is replaced by the next inhalation) in the lungs.  More active individuals breathe out more of the residual air and replace it on a regular basis with new oxygen-enriched air. 

The risk associated with excess residual air in the lungs on an ongoing basis lies in the fact that there is a progressive buildup in this air of both water vapor and carbon dioxide.  This leaves shallow breathers and chronically inactive people at greater risk of pulmonary infection.  As this residual air stays in the lungs for longer periods of time, its oxygen content drops, and the levels of water vapor and carbon dioxide increase.  Again, the health risk here arises for individuals already prone to respiratory difficulties, since the increased water vapor creates a more favorable environment for bacterial growth and pulmonary infection.

You know from your own experience, however, that there is a dramatic change in your breathing pattern when you have a good belly laugh.  When you laugh, you repeatedly push air out of your lungs (with each “ha”) until you can’t push out any more.  Then you take a deep breath and start the same process all over again.  This is repeated over and over until the exhilarating feeling of amusement has passed.  Each time you laugh, you get rid of the excess carbon dioxide and water vapor that’s built up and replace it with oxygen-rich air.  So frequent belly laughter reduces the risk of pulmonary infection by emptying your lungs of more of the air that’s taken in. 

Hospitalized patients with respiratory problems are often encouraged to breathe deeply and exhale fully, but nurses generally have difficulty getting them to do so.  Most patients enjoy a good laugh, though, so many nurses have learned to tell them a joke from time to time or give them a comedy tape to view.  This automatically achieves the respiratory goals the nurse has for the patient.  This is also one reason why many nursing homes now provide comedy programs to their residents on a regular basis (especially humor from their early adult years that still makes seniors laugh).

A 90-year-old woman went to see a new doctor.  He asked her how she was doing, so she gave him the full list of complaints—this hurts, that’s stiff, I’m tired and slower, etc.

He responded with, “Mrs. Weiss, you have to expect things to start deteriorating at this point in life.  After all, who wants to live to 100?”

She looked him in the eye and said, “Anyone who’s 99.”

If you’ve ever had a good belly laugh in the midst of a cold, you’re sure to have noticed that the laughing quickly turns into coughing.  The laughing and coughing reflexes are very similar, so the laughter is quickly overtaken by persistent coughing.  This laughing-coughing link is normally just an annoyance, since coughing is not nearly as enjoyable as laughing (as we shall see in a later article, humor and laughter activate known pleasure or reward centers in the brain; while no one has yet studied the impact of coughing on these reward centers, I would bet my retirement fund that they are not activated by a hacking cough).

There are some conditions, however, in which the laugh-cough connection is a good thing.  For example, nurses and respiratory therapists often encourage certain patients to cough to help discharge mucous plugs accumulating in the respiratory tract.  The problem is that even well-motivated patients have a difficult time following through on the advice to cough periodically.  But if you can get patients laughing from time to time, this problem takes care of itself.  The laughter triggers coughing and automatically achieves the goal of clearing mucous from the respiratory system—and the patients have a good time in the process.

A pulmonary researcher has emphasized to me, however, that there are good coughs and bad coughs when it comes to many pulmonary conditions.  A good cough is one that clears out mucous plugs; a bad one is irritating and actually causes more inflammation.  In cases where the lungs are already inflamed, repetitive coughing (which is likely to be triggered by laughter) just worsens the irritation and inflammation.

In the next two or three articles, we will look at the (surprising) benefits mild levels of humor/laughter have been found to offer to patients with asthma and COPD.

This article may not be copied or reproduced without the permission of Paul McGhee.