People all over the world rely on the powerful medicinal properties of the cannabis plant for much-needed therapeutic relief, but its recreational use is often deemed a frivolous, or even harmful, activity.
While policymakers in the UK are still worrying about reefer madness, studies are showing that indulging in cannabis for pleasure and entertainment may have more therapeutic benefits than previously credited. How so? Because getting the giggles is good for you – not just for the mind, but also for your physical health and wellbeing. Is laughter really the best medicine?
The science behind laughter
Humans have been laughing for millions of years. Laughter is a primitive expression of emotion, just like crying. Though, unlike laughter, the intention of crying seems obvious; its evolutionary purpose is to signal a need for nurturing, but the significance of laughter is thought to be equally as important.
Laughing is intended to strengthen social bonds. To our ape ancestors, the social hierarchy was a predictor of survival, so laughter could have been the difference between life or death – and not just an expression of entertainment.
Why does laughter make us feel so good? Now, this is a big question. The short answer is that laughing activates a brain region called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This triggers the release of endorphins, which are famed for evoking euphoric feelings.
The long answer is that, aside from the immediate pick-me-up, laughter does a surprising amount of good for our mental and physical wellbeing. There is even data to prove it.
Laughter therapy: a healing tool
The physiological benefits of laughter are no joke (if you pardon the pun!). In recent years, scientists have investigated the effects of laughter on the mind and body in the form of laughter therapy, also known as laughter yoga or laughter meditation – a practice pioneered by Dr Madan Kataria in 1995.
The practice involves sustained, voluntary laughter and is often accompanied by breathing exercises and guided meditations. The premise is that the body cannot distinguish between forced and spontaneous laughter, so it triggers the same biological mechanisms in the body as genuine, joyous laughter.
There isn’t a huge amount of conclusive scientific research into laughter therapy, but the preliminary findings are rather remarkable. It appears to be effective at reducing stress, alleviating anxiety, and combatting depression. Laughing has also been shown to benefit immune health, gut health, reduce pain, lower blood pressure, and much more.
You might be thinking, how on earth does laughter improve our physical health? Well, allow us to explain; it’s fascinating how interconnected our bodily systems are. When our body is in a chronic state of stress, this elevates systemic inflammation and can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and depression. Laughing has shown to reduce our levels of cortisol, our stress hormone, thus helping to prevent or reverse this chronic stress.
When our mental health is at a low point and it’s hard to find the joy in everyday life, even forced laughter can evoke the same therapeutic benefits as an organic fit of giggles. It’s as if you’re tricking your body into releasing a tidal wave of endorphins, with very minimal effort.
It is, however, important to consider that a holistic approach to mental health treatment won’t benefit everyone. Laughter therapy may not be the future of psychiatry, but it is certainly an avenue to explore for those looking to find more joy in their lives.
If the thought of erupting into forced laughter makes you cringe, researchers have considered other options to facilitate laughter therapy. Incorporating medicinal methods, such as cannabis, could fast-track people into a more relaxed, giggly state. Could cannabis and laughter therapy be a match made in heaven?
Why does weed give you the giggles?
The cannabis plant has been championed for its powerful therapeutic properties for thousands of years, but even the psychoactive properties associated with its more recreational use could benefit our mood and our health. Anyone familiar with using cannabis will recall that getting the giggles – even if nothing is remotely funny – is a common effect of being ‘high’.
Before we get into the how and why, it’s time to introduce you to a complex and fascinating signalling network called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is in charge of regulating our nervous system and our immune system. It helps to balance countless biological mechanisms that influence how we think, feel, sleep, and fight off disease.
The psychoactive molecule in cannabis, called THC, interacts with the ECS by activating cannabinoid receptors in the brain. This is thought to alter the release of neurotransmitters, including dopamine – a chemical messenger involved in motivation, reward, and our mood.
These neurochemical changes effectively lower the threshold for what we perceive to be funny. Something as simple as the shape of an inanimate object could be enough for you to erupt into hysterics. And since laughing has shown to be contagious, cannabis could trigger side-splitting laughter in an entire group within a matter of seconds.
It should also be noted that cannabis does not affect everyone in the same way. THC is a compound that, for some, can evoke feelings of a euphoric calm – but, for others, it can worsen anxiety. So cannabis may not be everyone’s key to happiness.
How laughter could benefit the ECS
Even without the addition of cannabis, our ECS produces its own cannabinoids, called endocannabinoids. Anandamide, often nicknamed the ‘bliss molecule’, is an endocannabinoid involved in boosting our mood. It has been theorised that the ECS could be involved in the biology of laughter and that anandamide is likely to be involved, although much more research is needed.
Numerous studies have highlighted an association between an endocannabinoid deficiency and conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic migraine, and irritable bowel syndrome, among others.
Although researchers haven’t explicitly tested this theory, there is reason to believe that supplementing our ECS through cannabis-induced giggling or intentional laughter therapy (or both), could help to restore a homeostatic balance and contribute to our overall health and wellness.
Even if the science isn’t fully established, there is certainly no harm in trying to incorporate a bit more laughter into your life. With or without the help of cannabis, getting the giggles is definitely good for you.