The concept of happiness affecting our health is not a recent revelation. In fact, French enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire was onto this little winner in the early 1700s.

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“The art of medicine consists of keeping the patient amused while nature heals the disease,” Voltaire has been quoted saying. Since then, scientists worldwide have continued to research the link between psychological and physical wellbeing.

Emotions are not just simple ‘feelings’, but in essence chemical messages that create communication between mind and body. In the hustle and bustle of the Western world, this vital connection can easily become impaired, so it’s important we understand how it occurs through multi-tasking molecules called neuropeptides.

These molecules are found throughout the body, allowing cells to communicate body-to-body, brain-to-brain and brain-to-body. The neurochemical changes (chemical processes of the nervous system) spurred by the emotions are why the body reacts favourably to positive emotions and negatively to dark mood fluctuations.

Okay, got that? In the next step, all cells receive messages throughout the body via their individual receptors. The more we exercise our sense of humour, the better these receptors function. Think about your mobile phone: the more bars of reception you have, the easier it is to make a call and convey your message to the person on the other end.

 

Stress less

High stress levels can create clots in the blood, increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke and high blood pressure. Certain hormones can also take a bashing when dark clouds roll in, particularly cortisol.

This ‘fight-or-flight’ hormone is produced by the adrenal cortex (the part of the brain the mediates stress), and typically rises to incredibly high levels then drastically plummets during long periods of stress. When cortisol levels soar above the normal daily average of 20mg, the following may occur:

 

  • Decreased metabolic function
  • Sluggish immune system, increasing the risk of infections and auto-immune diseases
  • Decreased cognitive and emotional controls
  • Malfunctioning reproductive system
  • Headaches
  • Osteoporosis
  • Overeating and weight gain (particularly in the abdominal region)
  • Diminished muscle mass and bone density
  • Fluctuation of blood sugar levels, potentially leading to complications with insulin, diabetes and obesity
  • Drop in DHEA levels (a steroid hormone), impacting sex hormones estrogen, progesterone and testosterone

 

Director of the Australian Institute of Yoga Therapy, Leigh Blashki, conducts in-depth research into the characteristics of cortisol. “There’s a modern epidemic of people being really tired, which can be a real reason for chronic diseases,” he explains.

“When cortisol goes up, the production of thyroid and DHEA levels drops. When adrenal glands become exhausted, cortisol then seriously drops which can lead to extreme weight loss and chronic fatigue syndrome.”

 

Feel good,look good

Endorphins are one of the body’s most valuable feel-good hormones, which the brain releases with the help of a hearty hoot. This surge of endorphins helps activate receptors in the blood vessels that suppress pain and also triggers a rise in T-cell count, which is responsible for killing tumours and viruses in the body.

We’ve all heard the saying ‘a happy Mummy makes happy baby’, and a 2007 study at Osaka’s Moriguchi-Keijinkai Hospital in Japan really put this to the test. After a good laughter session watching Charlie Chaplin, the quality of breastfeeding mothers’ milk was significantly improved with higher levels of melatonin, a hormone associated with relaxation. Along with this, their babies showed greater potential to fight off skin allergies after feeding.

 

The best medicine

We often think laughter is the by-product of happiness, but it could in fact be the other way around. It seems no matter how comfortable our lifestyles become with technological enhancements, our funny bone gets lost somewhere in cyber-space.

If you were told to laugh heartily on a stage in front of thousands of people, would that send you running for the hills? Laughter Works principal Cris Popp proudly did just that at Sydney’s recent Happiness & Its Causes convention.

“People can feel laughter exposes them,” he says. “It seems to be our culture. It’s easier to tease things down than promote things in fear of being criticised. But a life without laughter is a smaller life.”

Here’s a little inspiration to tickle the funny bone. Just 10-15 minutes of laughter a day is enough to enjoy such benefits as:

 

  • Relief from muscular and joint pain
  • Improved functioning of heart and blood vessels
  • Stabilisation of stress hormones and mental health
  • Boosted immune system
  • Relief from headaches
  • Enhanced quality of sleep
“Think of laughter as a muscle,” Popp says. “The more you use it, the better it becomes.”

 

Speaking of muscles, it seems those killer abs you crave may be just a few chuckles away. Researchers at Vanderbilt University in the US recently found that 15 minutes of laughter can potentially burn 50 calories.

 

Miracles of meditation

The experience of bliss through meditation was once perceived as a mysterious practice of Indian yogis and Buddhist Tibetan monks; however, in recent years meditation has been embraced within Western cultures due to its physical and psychological benefits. Not only healthy for the mind, it is also known to enhance blood circulation and lower blood pressure.

A recent study by US-based neuroscientist Dr Sara Lazar indicated that meditation has the power to alter the brain’s structure. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) monitored the outer area of participants’ brains (cortex) during short periods of meditation, revealing brain regions linked with attention and sensory processing were remarkably more developed than their un-meditated counterparts.

Interestingly, one particular region of the cortex that promotes integration of emotional and cognitive processes was stronger in older meditating participants, suggesting the more you meditate the stronger the brain’s structure becomes.

As a regular practitioner of Kripalu yoga and Vipassana meditation techniques, Dr Lazar knows first-hand the benefits of meditation.

“The beauty of Vipassana practice is that it can be done anywhere, any time, for any length of time: stopped at a red light, walking from your car to your house, in the shower, washing dishes, brushing your teeth,” she says.

“Just become aware of what you are focused on, then let that go and focus on the breath. It’s as simple as that.”

 

Breathing awareness

Breathing is a process many of us do naturally with little thought. Creating awareness of the breath may indicate our current emotional and physical state, and provide the key to regulate these back into a state of balanced harmony. Humans tend to over-breathe in stressful situations, which can result in hyperventilation and worsen respiratory conditions such as asthma.

Physiotherapist and director of Sydney’s Yoga Synergy, Simon Borg-Olivier, explains: “If you’re queasy, the more you breathe the queasier you will become. If you have skin sensitivities, the more you breathe the worse it gets. The more you breathe the hungrier you get.” This is why yoga breathing (pranayama) is essentially the art of breathing less.

“Ideally we want to take people away from chest breathing and move into the diaphragm and abdomen,” Borg-Olivier says. “Diaphragmatic breathing is the essence of how we can control our levels of emotional wellbeing – stimulating the ‘relaxation response’ (parasympathetic nervous system) that is associated with emotions such as peace, love and joy, as opposed to the ‘fight-or-flight’ response (sympathetic nervous system) which can generate feelings of fear and anger.”

The parasympathetic nervous system controls our digestive and reproductive systems, so we can see how something as simple as the way we breathe can impact the performance of various bodily functions.

 

Mind over matter

The many benefits of such stimulating practices as meditation and pranayama were recently put under the microscope at India’s Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences.

Studies conducted on 82-year-old yogi Prahlad Jani during 24-hour surveillance over a period of 15 days revealed amazing, medically unprecedented results that proved Jani’s unfathomable ability to function without food or water.

Despite claiming not to have consumed food or water since childhood, examinations proved Jani to be healthier than the average 40-year-old and his brain as young and supple as a 25-year-old. Astonished scientists put this down to a biological transformation induced by meditative yoga practices.

While it’s not advisable for the average Joe to swap a sandwich for ‘samadhi’ (a Buddhist term that signifies higher levels of concentrated meditation), surely it is the proof any doubting Thomas needs to confirm the power of mind-body connection?

In the wise words of late humour-writer and lecturer Josh Billings, “There ain’t much fun in medicine, but there’s a heck of a lot of medicine in fun.”

Laugh your way to Sydney’s upcoming ‘Mind & Its Potential’ convention on 18-19 November. For more information visit www.mindanditspotential.com.au

Check out www.laughterworks.com.au for tips to redefine your happiness, health…and abs!