LLU researcher finds that anticipating happy times may have health benefits
At a scientific conference in San Diego earlier this month, a Loma Linda University professor presented research further demonstrating that looking forward to happy experiences may have health benefits.
Lee Berk, DrPH, offered these findings during the 121st Annual Meeting of the American Physiological Society, which was part of the Experimental Biology 2008 conference. This annual conference, which is a multi-society, interdisciplinary scientific meeting, met April 4–9. Dr. Berk is an associate professor in the School of Public Health, and an associate research professor in the School of Medicine.
Specifically, Dr. Berk reported that the anticipation of a happy laughter experience lowers three stress hormones: cortisol (a steroid hormone), epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), and dopac (a major catabolite of dopamine).
This knowledge is significant because chronically high stress hormone levels can be detrimental to a person’s health, particularly the immune system.
Dr. Berk was the lead researcher on a team that discovered these findings. The other researchers were Stanley A. Tan, MD, PhD, of Oakcrest Health Research Institute, and Dottie Berk, RN, patient care coordinator of pain management, Loma Linda University Health Care.
“Our findings lead us to believe that by seeking out positive lifestyle experiences that make us laugh, we can do a lot with our psychophysiology to help us stay well,” says Dr. Berk.
In an earlier study, Dr. Berk, Dr. Tan, and James Westengard, MT(ASCP), found that the anticipation of mirthful laughter had surprising and significant effects. Two hormones—beta-endorphins (the family of chemicals that helps elevate positive mood states) and human growth hormone (HGH, which helps with immunity)—increased by 27 and 87 percent respectively when volunteers anticipated watching a humorous video. There was no such increase among the control group, who did not anticipate watching the humorous film.
Having found that the anticipation of a happy laughter event increased certain beneficial chemicals/hormones, they proposed that the anticipation of a laughter event might reduce stress hormones. To test their hypothesis, they studied 16 healthy fasting male volunteers for cortisol and catecholamine level changes. The participants were randomly assigned to either the control group or the experimental group (those anticipating a humorous event).
Using a similar protocol as in the earlier study, the current research found that the same anticipation of laughter reduced cortisol by 39 percent, epinephrine by 70 percent, and dopac by 38 percent.
Blood was drawn from both groups prior to the event (anticipation), four times during the event, and three times after the event (residual effect). Analysis showed that the blood levels in the anticipatory phase decreased for the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine, and dopac in the experimental group. Trend analysis showed a progressive pattern of the decrease for the three hormones through the event and afterwards.
As a result, the researchers suggest that anticipating positive events can decrease stress hormones that can be detrimental when chronically released. These findings have implications for understanding the modalities that can benefit stress reduction, not only in health and wellness programs, but also in everyday life. After all, Dr. Berk points out, Proverbs 17:22 states that “A merry heart does good like a medicine….”
The research is titled “Cortisol and Catecholamine Stress Hormone Decrease Is Associated With The Behavior Of Perceptual Anticipation Of Mirthful Laughter.”