Feeling Good about Memorial Day?

memorial_dayWe’d like to start this post by wishing all of our US readers a wonderful Memorial Day. And for those elsewhere, Happy Monday!

For some of us, Memorial Day signifies a welcome day off from work and the unofficial start of summer. For others, the day is all about trips to memorials or cemeteries with family. And for a few it may be a day in private introspection and remembrance.

Memorial Day aloneIf you’re one of the latter, or tend to keep to yourself on this day, you might want to re-consider this year.  According to research, getting together with friends and family for a grill out or participating in a parade can have positive health benefits.

Holidays offer the opportunity to gather with others to laugh and bond. Social activities have been shown to reduce stress, and satisfying social relationships have been shown to result in fewer health problems and longer, happier lives. In contrast, an isolated, less social life has been linked to depression and cognitive decline, according to reports in the Harvard Women’s Health Watch.

One study of almost 5,000 adults in Alameda County, Calif. showed that individuals who maintained strong social connections live longer than those who lived more isolated lives. Subjects were rated using a social network index, which translated their answers into a number. A high number indicated a strong amount of social contacts while a low number represented social isolation.

memorial-day-partyOver the following nine years, researchers tracked the subjects’ health. They found that people who placed lower on the social network showed an increased risk of death, implicating social isolation as a major risk factor for poor health.

So why are social connections so healthy? It appears that both biological and behavioral factors are at play. Some research points to stress reduction when we’re happily supported and surrounded by a social circle. Conversely stress, wreaks havoc on our immune system which in turn negatively affect coronary arteries and heart health.

Of course, holidays such as Memorial Day, can also bring out the worst in us.  Excessive drinking, eating and sun-tanning are not good for our health. And sadly, bingeing on beer with a buddy or piling your plate with potato salad in the company of others doesn’t make it any healthier!

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Laughing on the lbs

We’ve all heard the expression “Fat and Happy”. While many in modern society might consider this an oxymoron, new research may provide a more scientific explanation.

Laughter is considered a positive stress (eustress) that involves complicated brain activities leading to a positive effect on health.

It was first suggested that laughter can benefit a person’s health as far back as the 1970s. Norman Cousins, a political journalist, diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, documented his use of laughter in treating himself into remission. He published his personal research results in the New England Journal of Medicine and is considered one of the original architects of mind-body medicine.

Now, researchers from Loma Linda, CA have picked up where Cousins left off.  Dr. Lee S. Berk, a preventive care specialist, and his colleagues have been studying the human body’s response to laughter and have found that it helps optimize many of the bodies functions. Berk’s group was the first to establish that laughter helps optimize the hormones in the endocrine system, including decreasing the levels of cortisol and epinephrine, which lead to stress reduction. They have also shown that laughter has a positive effect on modulating components of the immune system, including increased production of antibodies and activation of T-cells, especially Natural Killer cells.

Their studies have shown that repetitious “mirthful laughter,” which they call Laughercise©, enhances mood, decreases stress hormones, enhances immune system activity, lowers bad cholesterol (LDL) and systolic blood pressure, and raises good cholesterol (HDL).

Their latest research expands the role of laughter even further.

14 healthy volunteers were recruited to a three-week study to examine the effects that laughter and distress have on modulating the key hormones that control appetite.   During the cross-over study, each subject was required to watch a 20 minute video that was either upsetting or humorous in nature. Volunteers waited one week after watching the first video to eliminate its effect, then watched the opposite genre of video.

For a distressing video clip, the researchers had the volunteer subjects watch the tense first 20 minutes of the movie Saving Private Ryan. This highly emotional video clip is known to distress viewers substantially and equally.

For the eustress video, the researchers had each volunteer choose a 20-minute video clip from a variety of humorous options including stand-up comedians and movie comedies. Allowing the volunteers to “self-select” the eustress that most appealed to them guaranteed their maximum humor response.

During the study, researchers measured each subject’s blood pressure and the hormones-  leptin and ghrelin, which are both involved in appetite. What they found was that volunteers who watched the distressing video showed no statistically significant change in their appetite hormone levels during the 20-minutes they spent watching the video, while in contrast, the subjects who watched the humorous video had changes in blood pressure and also changes in the leptin and ghrelin levels. Specifically, the level of leptin decreased as the level of ghrelin increased, much like the acute effect of moderate physical exercise that is often associated with increased appetite.

The  research  may provide new insights and thus  potential options for patients who cannot use physical activity to normalize or enhance their appetite.  For example, many elderly patients often suffer from what is known as “wasting.”  They become depressed and, combined with a lack of physical activity, lose their appetite and jeopardize their health and well-being.  Based on Berk’s current research, these patients may be able to use Laughercise© as an alternative activity to regain their appetite.

Meanwhile, with pool season almost upon us SRxA’s Word on Health will be spending the summer watching Saving Private Ryan…again and again!