The Health Benefits of Laughter, Tears, and Kisses

In my video, Music as Medicine, I explored a study about how listening to Mozart can reduce allergic reactions. This reminded me of a similar study on humor, which I discuss in Laughter as Medicine. In the study, researchers took a group of people with dust mite allergies and directed half of them to watch a Charlie Chaplin video and the other half to watch the Weather Channel. The researchers then injected all subjects with dust mite poop. In the subjects who watched the humorous video, their allergic response was significantly reduced and this reduction lasted for a matter of hours. This suggests that “the induction of laughter may play some role in alleviating allergic diseases.”

Is there a chance that it might suppress our immune system too much? Apparently not. In fact, if you have people watch a comedian for an hour, their natural killer cell activity goes up, compared to watching nothing. Their white blood cell count, the number of immune cells in their bloodstream, also goes up. The level of immune-boosting interferon and antibody production go up as well and even stay up the next day. So, your body is actually pumping out more antibodies because you saw a funny video the day before. In short, humor seems to offer the best of both worlds at preventing over-reactive allergic responses, while also boosting immune protection.

There is a catch, though. You actually have to laugh. And the more you laugh, the better your natural killer cell activity gets. Exposure to a humorous video without laughing did not significantly affect immune function. Those who didn’t physically laugh did not benefit. This reinforces that it is not the funny video that improved immune function, but our laughter in response. Natural killer cells play a significant role in viral illness and various types of cancer. So, being able to significantly increase the activity of these cells using a brief and non-invasive method could be clinically important the next time you have a cold or cancer.

Laughter, like music or healthy food, offers potential benefits without any risks. Or…almost no risks. You’ve heard of side-splitting laughter? In a rare case, a 67-year-old woman attended laughter therapy sessions where, evidently, rapture led to rupture. Thankfully, you can’t actually laugh your head off, but you can laugh until you wet yourself. “Giggle incontinence,” as it’s called in the medical literature, is actually quite common in women, and is no laughing matter.

Does this mean that the next time you go to the theater, you should choose the comedy over the tear-jerker? Not necessarily. Researchers took people with a latex allergy and had them watch a weather video versus a heart-warming drama. Because viewing the weather information video did not cause emotion with tears, it failed to modulate allergic responses. The tear-jerker, however, successfully reduced the allergic response, but only in those whose tears were actually jerked. So, when it comes to improving allergies, laughing and crying both work, if you actually do them.

Anything else you can do? Kiss! There’s actually a whole science of kissing, which sounds like a pleasant enough college major, until you realize it’s about all the diseases you can get. But if you take people with seasonal pollen or dust mite allergies and have them kiss someone in a room for 30 minutes, they have a significant reduction in their allergic reactions, for both the pollen and the dust mites. If you instead just have them hug for that 30 minutes, there’s no benefit. Bottom line: Kissing significantly reduced allergic responses in patients with both allergic rhinitis (runny nose and itchy eyes) or allergic dermatitis (like a rash). “Collectively these findings indicate that the direct action of love may be beneficial,” though evidently cuddling wasn’t quite direct enough.

With all the side effects of antihistamine drugs, you’d think it would have been easy to get people to sign up for the kissing study. But, it was conducted in Japan where, apparently, they “do not kiss habitually.” The follow-up study, which found a similar benefit for an even more direct action of love, was also performed by researchers who apparently did not speak English as their primary language, evidenced by their speculation about females having more “organisms.”

Did I say “Mozart study”? Yes, there have been a bunch of them, in fact. I had fun with them in my videos Music as Medicine and Music for Anxiety: Mozart vs. Metal. I don’t go seeking out these peripheral topics; I just stumble upon them in the journals. There’s so much wonderful, juicy medical science out there. I wish there were dozens of different resources where one could find evidence-based reviews of the latest in the science of wellness. There could be another ten or so websites just on nutrition alone! If anyone out there is interested, I’d be more than happy to share all my know-how to facilitate its creation. I did help the Lifestyle Medicine Foundation develop Check it out if you haven’t already.

For less funny and racy ways to combat allergic diseases, see my videos:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

The Health Effects of Heavy Metal Music

As I discussed in my video Music as Medicine, the stress-reducing effects of music appear to extend throughout the clinical spectrum—even to the critically ill, intubated in an intensive care unit. Those listening to Mozart through headphones cut stress hormones like adrenaline in half compared to those with headphones playing nothing, which resulted in a lower mean arterial blood pressure. But are all types of music just as relaxing? That’s the subject of my Music for Anxiety: Mozart vs. Metal video.

Researchers compared the effects of Mozart, Pearl Jam, and Enya on normal, healthy subjects. After listening to Mozart for 15 minutes, people reported a significant reduction in tension. With new age music, they also felt a reduction in tension, as well as greater relaxation and less hostility, but they reported significant reductions in mental clarity and vigor. After listening to grunge rock, people said they felt more hostile, tired, sad, and tense, with reductions in caring, relaxation, clarity, and vigor. But these were subjective measures—asking people how they felt. What about objective measures?

After 30 minutes of classical music, the stress hormone cortisol significantly dropped in the research subjects. But if instead of listening to Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6, Opera 68, they listened to techno—Cyber Trip, Techno Shock, or Techno Magnetiko—their stress hormone levels went up. Endorphin levels also went up, which may make you think, “Oh that’s nice,” until you realize that endorphins are our body’s natural painkillers—they go up after a variety of aversive stimuli, like getting burned or prodded.

These results may just be a function of the music’s tempo. The research shows that people get the same bump in breathing and blood pressure from listening to fast classical music like Vivaldi’s Presto, which was found to be as stimulating, or even more so, than the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

What about heavy metal music? Researchers randomly assigned participants to self-selected music, classical, heavy metal, or silence. “Listening to self-selected and classical music produced increased feelings of relaxation as well as sitting in silence, but not for the heavy metal condition.” Compared to relaxing and pleasant Renaissance music, exposure to arousing and “unpleasant” heavy metal causes a heightened amylase response in men. Amylase is an enzyme in our saliva that digests starch. When we go into fight or flight mode, we start immediately churning out the enzyme to provide sugars for quick energy. So, you get a spike in amylase when you go skydiving, if you’re dunked into cold water, or… if you make a guy listen to heavy metal for ten minutes. With all that extra enzyme, if he’s eating bread while banging his head, he can end up digesting it better!

Metal is more likely to cause the medical community indigestion, though. Although the American Medical Association’s Group on Science and Technology admits there’s “no evidence that this music has any deleterious effect on the behavior of adolescents,” that doesn’t stop them from suggesting there’s anecdotal evidence that those who identify with such bands as “Slayer” and “Metallica” may be at risk for drug abuse or even “participation in satanic activities.” In response, one doctor wrote to the medical journal to reply: “for every teenager who commits suicide or some crime under the influence of heavy metal music, there are dozens of white-collar criminals engaged in such activities as insider trading, savings and loan fraud, [and] government corruption….”

Maybe we should instead be blaming Bach or Barry Manilow.

What about smells instead of sounds? See Orange Aromatherapy for Anxiety, Lavender for Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Wake Up and Smell the Saffron.

Don’t forget about dietary interventions for pain and emotions. Check out:

You can also learn about another dimension of mental health in my video Plant-Based Diets for Improved Mood and Productivity.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Mozart as Medicine

We’ve been playing music since the Paleolithic Era, 40,000 years ago. Music as therapy has been documented since at least biblical times. The first music therapy experiment was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1914. As to why he placed a phonograph in the operating room as his patients lay fully conscious and awake during surgery, the surgeon explained it was “a means of calming and distracting my patients from the horror of the situation.”

Now that we have anesthesia, music is used to calm nerves before surgery. Normally we use Valium-type drugs like midazolam (sold as Versed), but they can have a variety of side effects, including sometimes even making people more agitated. A study from Sweden sought to determine if relaxing music has a greater anxiety-reducing effect than a standard dose of midazolam. Researchers whipped out some Kenny G, and the music worked significantly better than the drug. Those listening to Mr. G had lower anxiety scores, heart rates, and blood pressures. This is perhaps the first report of any anti-anxiety therapy working not only as good as, but even better than, benzodiazepine drugs. The difference in side effects of relaxing music compared to the drug is obvious: There were none. Soft jazz causes no post-operative hangover. The researchers suggest we should start using music instead of midazolam.

Music may also reduce anxiety and pain in children undergoing minor medical and dental procedures, helping with blood draws and shots. It may even reduce the pain of spinal taps. However, Mozart is evidently powerless against the pain of circumcision.

It doesn’t take a randomized controlled trial to demonstrate that listening to music can be relaxing. Tell me something I don’t know. Well, if you take someone with a latex allergy and inject their skin with latex, they get a big, red, angry bump. But if you repeat the test after they’ve been listening to Mozart for 30 minutes, they develop a much smaller bump (as you can see in my video, Music as Medicine). That is, they have less of an allergic reaction. If you think that’s wild, get ready for this: Beethoven didn’t work. The subjects had the same reaction before and after listening to his music! Schubert, Hayden, and Brahms didn’t work either, as all failed to reduce the allergic skin response. The reducing effect on allergic responses may be specific to Mozart.

So Mozart’s looking pretty good, but what if he could be suppressing our immune systems in general? That would not be good. The same researchers also injected a chemical that causes reactions in everyone, not just in allergic people. Mozart had no effect. It seems Mozart suppresses only the pathological allergic reaction. If that isn’t crazy enough for you, the researchers drew subjects’ blood after the music, stuck their white blood cells in a petri dish with a little latex, and measured the allergic antibody response. The white blood cells from those exposed to Mozart had less of an allergic response even outside the body compared to cells taken from Beethoven blood. How cool is that?

Music may even impact our metabolism. This inquiry started with a 2012 study published in the journal Pediatrics, which found the resting energy expenditure (the number of calories burned when just lying around) was lower in preterm infants when researchers piped in Mozart. This may explain why infants exposed to music put on weight faster, so much so they are able to go home earlier.

Gaining weight faster is great for premature babies, but not necessarily for adults. Could listening to music slow our metabolism and contribute to weight gain? Well, one study found no effect on adults. But the researchers used Bach, not Mozart. Bach doesn’t cause a drop in energy expenditure in babies either. These data suggest there may be “more a ‘Mozart effect’ than a universal ‘music effect’.”

What if we just listen to music of our choice? Does that affect our metabolism? We didn’t know… until now. It turns out that listening to music appears to actually increase our metabolic rate, such that we burn an average of 27.6 more calories a day just lying in bed. That’s only like six M&M’s worth, though, so it’s better to use music to get up and start dancing or exercising. Music can not only improve exercise enjoyment but also performance—a way to improve athletic performance that’s legal.

Male bodybuilders may be less enthused music’s effects. After listening to music for just 30 minutes, testosterone levels drop 14% in young men and go up 21% in young women. Do all kinds of music have this effect or just some types? Thirty minutes of silence had no effect on testosterone levels at all, while a half-hour of Mozart, jazz, pop, or Gregorian chants (no relation 🙂 all suppressed testosterone. What about a half-hour of people’s personal favorites? Testosterone levels were cut in half! Testosterone decreased in males under all music conditions, whereas testosterone increased in females. What is going on? Well, in men, testosterone is related to libido, dominance, and aggressiveness, whereas women get a bigger boost in testosterone from cuddling than from sex. So maybe we evolved using music as a way to ensure we all got along, like a melodious cold shower to keep everyone chill.

Is that crazy or what? I’m fascinated by the whole topic. For more, see Music for Anxiety: Mozart vs. Metal

Sounds are the only sensory-stimulators that can have an effect on us—so can scents! See:

Exposure to industrial pollutants may also affect both allergic diseases and testosterone levels:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: