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Laughter is “a fantastic stress-buster because it decreases the levels of cortisol,” said Estelle Brodeur, a Laughter Yoga teacher.

Dr. Anna Vedina of James River Internists in Chesterfield County doesn't usually have patients come to her office to laugh and tell jokes, but if they did, they might be healthier.

"Laughter is a strong medicine," Vedina said. "It relaxes the whole body and leaves your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes after you laugh."

Vedina will often tell patients a joke. The benefit is immediate.

"I see a difference in their blood pressure when I recheck it," she said, noting that the patient's blood pressure goes down after laughing.

Researchers have found that laughter can benefit your physical and mental health. A hearty belly laugh can increase blood flow and release

endorphins in your body.

Endorphins "are natural feel-good chemicals," Vedina said. "People that laugh more suffer less depression."

A good belly laugh also can boost your immune system.

"It increases the killer cells that fight infection," said Sherri Strickler, a

registered nurse and manager of the Cardiac Wellness Center at Bon Secours Heart Institute.

Strickler turned to laughter when her mother was suffering from Alzheimer's.

"I felt stressed," she said. "I decided to find something funny, and I laughed with Mom. We laughed so hard. Mom loved it. It helped me cope, and I wasn't as tense."

She thinks laughter can help a person stop dwelling on negative thoughts and move toward a more optimistic outlook.

"If we each spent 30 minutes with a funny video or told jokes, we would have a lot of happy people around," she said. "Finding humor and using it every day to cope has been beneficial. When we begin to see the humor in what we are stressing over and find the funny in situations, it can help us cope."

Children, it seems, have the right attitude. They laugh easily and often. According to researchers, children laugh a few hundred times a day, but adults laugh only four to 15 times a day.

Dr. Michael Miller, professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, would like to see more adults laughing.

As part of his research in 2000, Miller conducted a study that included people with heart disease and people of the same age without heart disease. He found that the people with heart disease were 40 percent less likely than people without heart disease to laugh in a variety of situations.

"The ability to laugh either naturally or as a learned behavior may have important implications in societies such as the U.S. where heart disease remains the No. 1 killer," he said. "We know that exercising, not smoking and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease. Perhaps regular, hearty laughter should be added to the list."

In a 2005 study, Miller used ultrasound to look at how blood vessels respond to laughter and stress. One group of volunteers watched a dramatic movie while another group watched a comedy. The study showed that blood flow increased after people laughed, similar to the benefits of aerobic activity.

"Thirty minutes of exercise three times a week and 15 minutes of laughter on a daily basis is probably good for the vascular system," he said.

Last year, Miller saw the same outcome with one of his patients with heart disease. He showed the patient a stressful movie and then a movie that made him laugh.

"Before our eyes you could see his blood vessels dilate," Miller said, noting it had the same effect as prescribed medications, such as statins, which are used to lower cholesterol, and ACE inhibitors, used to control high blood pressure. "If you feel stressed and do something like laughing to oppose the stress, you can see changes. The old saying that laughter is the best medicine definitely appears to be true when it comes to protecting your heart. The best laughter is the laughter that brings tears to your eyes."

Renee Cobb, founder and president of Speakers and Training Services in Henrico County, touts the benefits of laughter in her presentation "A Belly Laugh a Day Keeps the Psychiatrist Away."

"The brain can't do two things at once," she said. "It can't be sad and laugh at the same time. We use the same muscles to belly laugh that we use to cry. A belly laugh brings more oxygen to the blood, and it can reduce anxiety."

Laughter helps people deal with grief and to adjust in difficult times. Cobb often shares a story about her 3-year-old granddaughter who was in the basement with her family during a tornado warning. "Why are we sitting down here hiding from a tomato?" she asked innocently. Her mother's laugh lessened the tension.

"Laughter helps us to step back and see things more objectively," Cobb said. "Laughter frees you up to hear the real message."

Because it also increases creativity, laughter can be used as a tool in company brainstorming sessions.

"It can increase morale, and it makes you more objective," Cobb said. "Socially, people love to be around people that make them laugh. It bonds people together."

Goochland County residents Shauna Sprouse and Val Pace turn to humor and laughter when they are under stress. The two women began attending free Laughter Yoga Richmond classes, which are held at Riverside PACE MacTavish in Richmond, a community-based program for the elderly that is part of Newport-News based Riverside Health System.

Dr. Madan Kataria, a physician from Mumbai, India, came up with the concept for Laughter Yoga by combining laughter with yoga's deep breathing. Each class starts with the exercise of laughing in a childlike, playful way.

"It's a unique concept, and often it's hard to do at first because it feels like you force it," said certified Laughter Yoga teacher Estelle Brodeur, who teaches Laughter Yoga Richmond classes and is founder of MindBody Health of Richmond. "Even if it feels awkward at first, chances are it will become spontaneous and feel more comfortable. Anyone can laugh for no reason without jokes, humor or comedy."

Any type of laughing activates the calming portion of the nervous system.

"It's a fantastic stress-buster because it decreases the levels of cortisol," Brodeur said. "It can quickly shift your mood."

Sprouse acknowledges that the first time she walked into a Laughter Yoga class she felt anxious.

"I was reticent, but I slept so well that night," she said. "That continues to be one of the best benefits for me. Also, I feel lighter in my personality. I don't worry about things as much as I used to."

Pace has experienced the same benefits.

"It's almost like a high," she said.

Sarah Broughton, social work manager for Riverside PACE MacTavish, decided to use laughter with her clients after attending a Laughter Yoga class. She and her clients now practice laughing on a regular basis.

"It's a benefit," she said. "It helps me to be more present and not worry about things I don't have control over. I'm more relaxed and playful."

Chuck Hansen and Hamilton Holloway, founders of Constant Crisis News & Opinion Podcast (constantcrisisnews.com), use humor to address issues in the news.

In their podcast, Hansen and Holloway poke fun at a world gone mad.

"We help listeners keep balance and perspective through humor," Hansen said. "Humor is a way to break down listening barriers and to share lessons and learnings."

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