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Lost Your Appetite? Laughter May Help


A heartfelt belly laugh may be just what the doctor ordered for people who have lost their appetite. The old adage about laughter being good medicine could be true for patients who have physical or mental conditions that have affected their appetite.

Little or no interest in eating can result in people who suffer with depression or those who have a condition such as chronic pain, cancer, infection (e.g., HIV/AIDS, pneumonia, influenza), dementia, or congestive heart failure, or who use medications such as chemotherapy or antibiotics. Among the elderly or some people who have certain disorders, loss of the sense of taste and/or smell can cause them to lose their appetite.

While short-term or temporary loss of appetite is not a problem for most people, prolonged cases can lead to malnutrition, cognitive or memory problems, weakness (and the possibility of falls and fractures, especially in the elderly), or wasting diseases. A possible way to help encourage healthy eating could be laughter, according to researchers at Loma Linda University in California. The scientists presented the results of their study at the Experimental Biology conference in Anaheim, California, on April 26, according to the Guardian.

The investigators enrolled 14 individuals who were randomly assigned to watch either a humorous or stressful 20-minute video. Participants were able to choose from among various comedy movies and stand-up acts, while the stress video segment was from “Saving Private Ryan.” One week after they watched the first video segment, the volunteers were shown the opposite genre video so researchers could compare their reactions.

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After each video viewing session, the scientists collected blood samples and measured levels of leptin and ghrelin, hormones that are associated with appetite. Watching the stressful movie segment did not have a clear impact on the hormone levels, but the comedic videos caused leptin levels to decline and concentrations of ghrelin to rise. This response is similar to that seen after exercise, which is believed to stimulate appetite.

Laughter and Appetite

Lee Berk, a preventive care specialist who headed the research team, pointed out that while their results do not prove that laughter boosts appetite or fitness, they may indicate “further potential options for patients who cannot use physical activity to normalize or enhance their appetite.”

Use of humor and laughter is not new to medicine. The Humour Foundation, a national charity established in Australia to promote the health benefits of humor, shares its message through programs such as clown doctors, who inject humor into the lives of ailing children and even the elderly in hospitals, clinics, and other medical settings around the world. The Humour Foundation notes that research supports the use of laughter as good medicine, as it can boost the immune system, slow heart rate, help people cope with chronic pain and cancer, and reduce stress, among other benefits.

The authors of this latest study from Loma Linda note that their work with laughter could improve treatments for individuals who suffer with chronic pain and elderly people who have lost their appetite and who are at increased risk of wasting diseases and other complications. A dose of laughter before eating may boost the appetite and provide a healing touch.

Guardian, April 27, 2010
The Humour Foundation