Cortisol, Laughter, and Sleep

This week, I’ve been learning about cortisol. Not really on purpose – I happened to see a segment of Bang goes the Theory which was about cortisol levels and jet lag, and then also saw The Science of the Young Ones, and they had a section about whether laughter can reduce stress levels – and they measured blood pressure and cortisol levels.

So here’s some stuff that I’ve learnt:

Cortisol is a stress hormone (I probably knew this before). It naturally rises and falls over the course of a 24 hour period, peaking shortly after you wake up and then falling throughout the day. – and helps wake you up and send you to sleep (this was what the bit about jet lag was studying)

Sleep deprivation and prolonged stress both provoke increases in the level of cortisol, and if you have high cortisol levels for a long time that’s associated with chronic stress, a suppressed immune system, and (unsurprisingly) greater susceptibility to illness. High cortisol levels bad.

Excitingly, in an experiment on a group of paramedics, an hour’s ‘laughter-yoga’ (I didn’t understand where the yoga came in … it seemed to be essentially doing daft things and laughing a lot) decreased the group’s cortisol levels pretty dramatically. Laughter literally is medicine – and without dodgy side effects!

I was feeling that earlier this week – I was invited by friends round to dinner at theirs on Tuesday, and there were 8 of us there and some of them were slightly hyper (hadn’t seen each other for ages, that sort of thing) and it was absolutely hysterical … and I’d been feeling a bit lonely / stressed out that day, and I definitely, definitely noticed feeling better after dinner.

The moral of the story is … cortisol levels are interesting, and important. Do your best to get a decent amount of sleep, and laugh a lot, and you’ll probably be less stressed and more healthy.

(Sources: Bang goes the Theory – episode 3, The Science of The Young Ones, and Counting Sheep: the science and pleasures of sleep and dreams (Paul Martin))

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One Response to Cortisol, Laughter, and Sleep

  1. Bill says:

    Cortisol levels are indeed interesting but let’s not confuse cause and effect. If stress causes cortisol to increase it does not follow that lowering cortisol by excessive sleep or lauging will reduce stress.

    The body has seen fit to regulate cortisol. Too much and the immune system may get suppressed and we become susceptible to infections. It’s possible that with too little our immune system gets over excited and we could get auto immune diseases (like rheumatoid arthritis).

    A little bit of stress is exciting, and laughter is relaxing. But I wonder how stessed the host felt at the dinner party? I just wonder if we should be concerned at all about adjusting our own cortisol levels by altering our behaviour. Most of us cannot measure cortisol. And we don’t know what all the effects may be.

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