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TODAY news for Thursday, November 2, 2006

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Loma Linda University professor to appear on CNN special

Lee Berk, DrPH (right), chats with CNN�s Sanjay Gupta, MD, prior to their interview together. It will air November 19 as part of a special called �The Happiness Cure.�
Lee Berk, DrPH (right), chats with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, MD, prior to their interview together. It will air November 19 as part of a special called “The Happiness Cure.”
A Loma Linda University professor and researcher will be featured in a special to air on CNN November 19 at 7 and 10:00 p.m. Pacific time.

The one-hour program, “The Happiness Cure,” will feature Lee S. Berk, DrPH, an expert on the benefits of laughter and an associate professor, health promotion and education, in the School of Public Health and associate research professor, pathology and human anatomy, in the School of Medicine at LLU.

CNN chose Dr. Berk, a preventive care specialist, for the broadcast because he is a leader in his field, according to David Martin, senior producer for CNN’s medical unit.

“We’re trying to find the science behind laughter, and he’s the man to talk to,” says Mr. Martin.

A CNN crew flew to California in early September and interviewed Dr. Berk in the pathology library in the Alumni Hall for Basic Sciences. The crew included Mr. Martin and Sanjay Gupta, MD, senior medical correspondent for the health and medical unit at CNN.

Dr. Gupta interviewed Dr. Berk for about one hour. This will be cut down to several minutes of airtime during the special.

The two men discussed many aspects of laughter research—including how laughing improves health, the mind-body connection, and the nature of happiness.

Dr. Gupta also wanted to know what kind of impact Dr. Berk’s work has had on his own life.

“My whole life changed,” Dr. Berk told Dr. Gupta. “I recognized the inherent physiological value of being happy.”

Dr. Berk says he enjoyed being interviewed by Dr. Gupta and is curious to see which portions of the interview will be aired. However, he has done many interviews since he began researching laughter.

His first television interview was with the CBS program “60 Minutes” in the 1980s. Since then, Dr. Berk has done multiple interviews for television, including the Discovery Channel, the BBC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Korean Broadcasting System, and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

“This interest has nothing to do with me,” Dr. Berk says. “It has to do with the perceptive needs of the public and the media in how to counter the wildness of our society and the stresses that we live under in modern times. Proverbial  biblical wisdom tells us to ‘be of good cheer.’ “We should—with volition, with intent—search out happiness,” he says.

Dr. Berk and colleagues have been conducting studies on humor and laughter since 1985. These colleagues include James Westengard, MT(ASCP), a researcher specialist, department of pathology and human anatomy, LLU School of Medicine, and Stanley A. Tan, MD, PhD, of Oakcrest Health Research Institute.

The body of their work shows that “mirthful” laughter—laughter arising from happiness instead of emotions such as embarrassment and anxiety—optimizes the activities of specific components of the neuroendocrine and immune systems and appears to offset physiological and mood states associated with the symptoms of chronic stress. Chronic stress can suppress immunity, especially antiviral and antitumor mechanisms such as natural killer cell activity.

Specifically, LLU researchers previously have demonstrated that during a humorous laughter event, there is an increase in the secretion of growth hormone and decreased secretion of epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. Cortisol and epinephrine, when secreted chronically due to stress, can be detrimental, while growth hormone appears to optimize specific aspects of immunity.

When Dr. Berk and others first began their work on laughter, the scientific community was unreceptive, he says. “It was really looked upon as being silly and ridiculous,” he remembers.

Today, that has all changed. Many researchers study laughter  and happiness in relation to lifestyle and longevity. Published research studies from other investigators worldwide document the potential for laughter to benefit people with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, allergy, autoimmune disease, negative mood states, and chronic stress. Some  research is being done at the gene expression  level. 

“Laughter is representative of a mindset, and it really goes along with the biblical principle that a merry heart is good medicine,” Dr. Berk says.

By Heather Reifsnyder

TODAY news for Thursday, November 2, 2006