FRIDAY, April 17, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Setting aside time each day for some good, hearty laughter could help diabetics improve their cholesterol levels and possibly lower their risk of heart attack, researchers report.
"Laughter may indeed be a good medicine," said study author Lee Berk, a preventive care specialist and psychoneuroimmunologist at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, Calif. "Laughter may be as valuable as the diabetes medicines you are taking."
Berk is slated to present his findings at the American Physiological Society annual meeting in New Orleans.
Berk and his colleague, Dr. Stanley Tan, an endocrinologist and diabetes specialist at Oak Crest Health Research Institute in Loma Linda, assigned 20 adults with type 2 diabetes, average age 50, to a control group or the laughter group.
All had high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Both groups were taking standard diabetes medications, high blood pressure medicines and cholesterol-lowering drugs.
The laughter group was instructed to view "self-selected" humor for at least 30 minutes every day. Self-selected humor, Berk said, was "that which they found humorous or funny for themselves." That usually meant watching sitcoms or funny movies.
The laughter group members got into it, he said, and were faithful to the minimum exposure to humor time of 30 minutes daily. "Once they got into it, they really liked it," he said.
After 12 months, the researchers evaluated both groups by such tests as measuring cholesterol levels and levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation thought to be associated with heart disease.
The laughter group had an increase in "good" HDL cholesterol of 26 percent, compared to just a 3 percent increase in the good cholesterol of the control group, Berk said. Harmful C-reactive proteins declined by 66 percent in the laughter group but just 26 percent for the control group. Both differences were statistically significant, Berk noted.
What's the secret? Put very simply, Berk said, "you are decreasing the bad chemicals in the body with laughter and increasing the good chemicals, which help you stay well, may prevent disease and may well have [additional] value relative to the therapies you are taking."
The findings came as no surprise to Theresa Garnero, a nurse and diabetes educator at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, who has long employed humor in helping her patients deal with diabetes. She also has woven information about the use of humor into the books she has written on the topic.
A growing body of evidence finds value in humor when dealing with diabetes, Garnero said. She cites another study in which laughter helped to lower the increase in blood glucose that occurs after meals. Laughter, she said, "can help put things in perspective, light the fire of self-care management -- this is a self-care disease -- and help people maintain their stride."
"There is so much minutia involved in this disease," Garnero said, referring to the detailed instructions those with diabetes get from their doctor and diabetes educator to maintain a healthy diet, watch their blood sugar, and be on the alert for any symptoms of complications of the disease. "By adding a little humor, they can maintain perspective over the long haul," she said.
Sue McLaughlin, president of health care and education for the American Diabetes Association, said, "It is encouraging to know that something like laughter, which is cost-free and can be shared and promoted by many, has beneficial effects on the well-being of a chronic disease that affects 24 million Americans."
Reduction in heart disease risk is especially valuable, she said. "People with diabetes are at a two- to fourfold increased risk for cardiovascular disease, compared to their non-diabetic counterparts."
To learn about more humor books, visit the International Society for Humor Studies.