Dr. Pratt is interviewed for this Union Tribune article on laughter and health.

By Erinn Hutkin Special to U-T San Diego 12:01 a.m. April 1, 2014

April Fool’s Day means humor, and in society, funny can be found everywhere, from TV to movies to comedy clubs and social media and of all places, even medical facilities and hospitals.

Around San Diego and elsewhere, hospitals and other medical offices are offering classes in laughter yoga for community members, employees and patients with conditions such as cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. Some are sending in the clowns to see those in hospitals and some even offer laughter therapy.

The reason? Funny makes you feel good and it can have a positive impact on patients.

“You’re not going to cure yourself through laughter,” warns Michael Coleman, executive director of Laughter Matters, a San Diego-based nonprofit offering laughter yoga to hospitals, business and wellness facilities, “(But) it might improve people’s mood and attitude.”

Coleman said laughter offers physical, emotional and social benefits. On the physical side, he said laughing is an exercise because it involves using the heart and lungs and gets blood pumping through the body and to the organs, which relieves tension, stress and pain by releasing endorphins.

George Pratt, an author and psychologist at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, said the average person laughs 17 times a day, but giggling 100 times per day is the same as exercising for 10 minutes on a rowing machine or 15 minutes on an exercise bike.

In addition to helping lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels, Pratt said laughter has the ability to decrease stress hormones while at the same time increasing healthy hormones in the body that can reduce anxiety and depression — and not just on a momentary basis.

He said laughter also reduces stress hormones and kicks up the immune system, which he said is a big boost in the treatment of cancer and HIV patients.

In addition, Coleman said laughter also has the ability to ease minds and lift moods by shifting activity from the more analytical to the creative side of the brain.

“It clears minds,” he said. “The more you do it, like any exercise, the more you’ll get out of it.”

It’s something he sees in his laughter yoga classes, where those who attend sit in a circle and do simple stretches and practice laughing exercises without jokes or comedy. He said he’s done classes for Parkinson’s patients or caregivers and been told later that the patient hadn’t laughed since they were diagnosed.

Another benefit of the program, he said, is that patients such as those with Alzheimer’s don’t have to understand a joke to laugh, but they still reap the benefits of a good chuckle.

“It creates this connection between people,” he said. “It takes you out of your head.”

Another benefit, Pratt said, is that laughter helps people be calmer and change perspectives for the better, which he said can be helpful for patients.

“If you can relax about it, you’re going to cope better,” he said.

Even outside medical settings, laughter has plenty of health benefits, Pratt said. He said those with positive attitudes and the ability to laugh can receive benefits ranging from happier marriages to longer life expectancy.

“Whatever makes you laugh, do more of it,” he said.

And that’s no joke.