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June 2011

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Laughter lecture kicks off Health and Fitness Week

By Matt Goad
June 2011

Henry Lesesne, M.D.

Lesesne discussed the benefits of laughter on human health and the ways humor can ease patients' anxiety in the clinical setting. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Betty Lewis

Betty Lewis, NIEHS on-site coordinator for Kelly Government Solutions, reacts with a smile to Lesesne's comedic efforts. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Xiaohong Gu, Ph.D.

And NTP contractor Xiaohong Gu, Ph.D., right, could barely contain herself as the jokes kept coming. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Henry Lesesne, M.D., kicked off Health and Fitness Week at NIEHS with a lecture on the power of laughter as medicine May 9 in Rodbell Auditorium, followed by a round of "laughter yoga."

Lesesne, a gastroenterologist with UNC Health Care, set as the topic for his talk "Was Patch Adams Right?" referring to the hit movie - filmed partly Chapel Hill - about a medical student who espouses techniques of treatment that emphasize personal connection with a patient, instead of treating the patient like an object. The film was based on the true-life story of Hunter "Patch" Adams, M.D.

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Lesesne showed about ten minutes of the film, including a portion in which Adams, then a first-year medical student impatient to begin healing, sneaks into the hospital to make rounds with more advanced medical students. As the students gather around a diabetic patient and discuss her condition and treatment, including the possibility of amputation, Adams asks what her name is, a question that raises the eyebrows of the other students. As the group walks on, he gives her hand a little touch.

Health benefits of laughter

The point, Lesesne argued, is that doctors don't have to be comedians, but that showing a personal, humane touch can make treatment more effective. And there are proven health benefits to outright laughter, he said.

For example, the arteries, Lesesne pointed out, dilate during laughter. He advised that anyone having a heart attack take two chewable aspirin, call 911, cough, and then try to laugh while waiting for help to arrive.

Also, Lesesne discussed a study in which participants first were shown horror movies for a week, then checked for the antibody Immunoglobulin A (IgA). Then, they watched comedies for a week and were checked again. Their IgA levels plummeted after the first week, and skyrocketed after the second, suggesting positive effects on immune system balance.

And, ten minutes of laughing, Lesesne said, burns 45 calories, what he calls "internal jogging."

Laughter yoga

To continue the laughter as healing theme, after the lecture, the group participated in laughter yoga, led by certified laughter yoga instructor Kyle Turner.

The body doesn't even need to know why it is laughing to reap the benefits, Turner instructed the group, so the key is to not wait for a funny joke but to just start laughing. Also important is eye contact.

So he had the members of the group perform exercises such as "the lion," where they roamed around the room and roared at each other and lifted their arms up and "the milkshake," where they acted like they were pouring a milkshake from one cup to another.

One move anyone can use when they need a break at the office, Turner explained, is "the cell phone," which simply involves holding up a cell phone to the ear and laughing, as if there was a hilarious conversation going on.

(Matt Goad is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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