Cannabis and Laughter is Good Medicine
Updated: Mar 5, 2022
The Science Behind Laughter, the Endocannabinoid System, and Your Health
Is smoking a joint and getting the giggles just a “recreational” waste of a few hours? Or is scientific theory below the surface suggesting the possibility of powerful and effective healing potential in this combination? As a yoga and meditation teacher, and a medical cannabis pharmacist, I believe the science behind combining intentional laughter meditation with cannabis is not just recreation. It is good medicine.
I first stumbled upon the science of laughter during pandemic lock down. Like most of us, I found myself in a bewildering new mental health landscape of scary newsfeeds, social isolation, and uncertainty about the reality of living in a world with coronavirus. I did not feel much like laughing. A friend mentioned the medical benefits of laughter she had learned from a Laughter Yoga training, and how the practice had helped her move through a tough time in her life. She told me that we need 10 to 15 minutes of belly laughter per DAY to maintain health, and I realized I couldn’t even REMEMBER the last time I actually laughed out loud longer than a chuckle. The kind of laughing fit that erupts into uncontrolled, belly and face aching, stress busting, head to toe healing, for 10 to 15 minutes a DAY? Sounds amazing, but I wasn't even close, and texting LOL (while definitely not laughing out loud) certainly didn't count. Watch a young child go about their day, and you'll see they laugh easily and often for no reason at all. But at some point, I had decided like most adults, that kind of laughter had to be a result of extraordinarily funny external circumstances, and that was a rare and lucky experience I usually didn't enjoy even once a month, let alone daily, especially during 2020.
Laughter Yoga is a way to intentionally create the healing mind-body habit of laughter on our own, whenever we want, with no humor necessary. It was created in 1995 by Dr. Madan Kataria, the “laughter guru,” an Indian medical doctor who started the first laughter club with just 5 people in a Bombay park. Now there are Laughter Yoga clubs in 110 countries, in schools, workplaces, prisons, elder care centers, factories, universities, and parks all over the world.
The science shows that whether we laugh in response to a stimulus, or “fake it till we make it,” the body can’t tell the difference if it is real or simulated laughter, and the health benefits are the same. Combined with pranayama (yogic breathing) and meditation, a growing body of scientific evidence shows the healing benefits of laughter in every system of the body, from your immune system to your heart to your brain health. Studies show that laughter practice can improve the gut flora, increase serotonin, reduce depression and anxiety, delay diabetic complications, improve immunity, increase pain tolerance, lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce cortisol, improve sleep, and more… I can think of no pharmaceutical drug that can do all of this, with only good side effects.
Laughter really is the best medicine, and I had no excuse left to stay in my comfort zone. I signed up for a virtual Laughter Yoga session with my friend, and the experience left me feeling an intense, transcendent, sustained relief like I couldn’t remember feeling in ages. We began the experience with breath and movement exercises, playful games designed to warm up the giggles, opening our willingness in meditation to smile and laugh for no reason, and eventually we were cracking up because of just pure, contagious giggling. We ended with a calm, smiling meditation and slow breathing. I felt like my body and mind were filled with new hope and light, and the afterglow lasted for the next two days!
Within days I had signed up for a Laughter Yoga training myself, and the more I practiced and taught it, the more I found myself curious about the science of WHY laughter is so healing. As a yoga and meditation teacher and 25+ year practitioner, I have dabbled in just about every style of everything at some point. But with laughter, I noticed major breakthroughs in my well-being unlike any technique I had ever tried, and I was astonished at the healing power I felt as I continued my laughter practice. My inflammation level dropped, my emotional tone was effortlessly and increasingly grateful and optimistic, my anxiety was greatly subdued (and anxious thoughts even became a source of comedy for me!), my sleep was more restful, and my gut health felt better than ever. It was easy and effective, I was transformed, and I had to know more.
Are we destroying our health by not laughing enough? What could happen if I kept laughing? All the benefits in my health continued and expanded as my laughter practice grew, and over time even the shape of my face even changed. People said I looked like I was getting younger. I think all the smiling and laughing gave me a natural face lift! I started laughing all day all the time, at first intentionally and eventually just by habit. Laughing while looking in the mirror, in the shower, driving in the car, and during stressful moments. I was grateful for masks, because I could smile and laugh undercover in public, especially at the gym, and I noticed performance enhancement in my workouts. Laughter is a fundamental, learnable biological habit that creates a surplus of well-being that has only good side effects. Much like quality sleep, meditation, breath, movement, and plant-based nutrition, laughter creates a synergistic ripple effect of healing and balance that enhances overall wellness.
As I practiced consistently, I found myself more likely to laugh, play, sing and dance, and connect with my loved ones, especially with children. My overflow of healing was changing me and radiating out into the world, which is true yoga. My mindset became more peaceful, and I was able to look at life challenges with more self compassion, humor, and ease. And when something funny did happen, my usual chuckle converted more easily into automatic belly laughing that left me feeling fantastic. When the body is laughing, and the mind comes up with reasons to laugh!
But I found that some of my students had trouble getting past the initial awkwardness of practicing laughter, and without the full gusto, they missed the intensity of the potential benefits. Sometimes forcing oneself to laugh can feel a little inauthentic or unnatural, and it may be tough to get the giggle engine started. And even more students were curious, but too shy to try it. That’s where I found that medical cannabis can help a lot of laughter practitioners get past the initial awkwardness, find humor in the experience, and accelerate the health benefits of uncontrollable laughter momentum.
The use of cannabis has been widespread among many peoples worldwide as an herbal remedy for thousands of years. It was only in the 20th century that colonialism, xenophobia, racism, and capitalism created a global spread of cannabis prohibition and mass imprisonment. And the racist war on cannabis is not over. Even in states that have legalized cannabis, Black people are still more likely to be arrested. It’s important to me clinically, morally, and yogically to center for justice within this work, because collective and connected healing IS yoga.
Combining cannabis and yoga is increasing in popularity, but ties between cannabis and yoga are as old as both. Cannabis is described as a “laughter mover” in Ayurveda, and Shiva’s plant has been used as herbal medicine for thousands of years by people in India and other regions. Ayurvedic medicine is the root South Asian system of healing that includes yoga. Cannabis (Bhang, Ganja) indications in Ayurvedic medicine include a wide range of uses, such as gastrointestinal issues, pain, seizures, dysmenorrhea, infections, and even dandruff. Cannabis and South Asian yoga and meditation traditions were never opposed, and in fact have always co-evolved and intertwined.
(A caveat about alcohol… combining medicinal plants such as cannabis with yoga is not the same as alcohol, as in the "beer yoga" trend. Alcohol has no medical use, is poison to the body, and it lowers, rather than supports, our level of wellness, balance, and consciousness. Yoga is about engaging reality and awareness, not numbing, and I don't see a yogic, clinical, or scientific purpose to support the combination of alcohol with yoga, or to conflate alcohol with plant medicine of any kind).
Laughter, cannabis, and yoga have widespread effects and interactions with the endocannabinoid system, the system of balance and homeostasis in the body that has been summarized as what makes us “relax, eat, sleep, forget and protect.” The endocannabinoid system regulates a myriad of interconnected physiological balance systems in the body, including appetite, blood pressure, pain, embryonic development, sleep, nausea and vomiting control, memory and learning, immune response, and more. Imbalances in the endocannabinoid system are correlated with illness and disease. The effects of cannabis are a result of a symphony of compounds in the plant, such as cannabinoids, terpenes, and bioflavonoids, that modulate the endocannabinoid system.
The science behind why cannabis causes laughter involves a combination of dopamine and other neurotransmitter releases that elevate mood, stimulate the frontal lobe of the brain, and reduce the inhibition of the laughter reflex. Anandamide is an endocannabinoid, or endogenous compound that the body creates naturally, which fits into CB1 receptors, the same receptors that make THC the psychoactive compound in cannabis. Your body’s natural THC is named anandamide because “ananda” means “bliss” in Sanskrit, and the bliss molecule is likely to be deeply involved in the biology of laughter. Because laughter benefits so many systems of the body, laughter would theoretically modulate the endocannabinoid system from head to toe in unimaginably intricate, complex, and beautiful ways.
The pharmacist in me delights in learning the scientific and theoretical links between laughter, cannabis, and synergistic healing. The yoga practitioner in me looks to my own experience for evidence in myself. Yoga is an embodied, experiential science, and the results in the lab of my own body, mind, and life are unmistakable. I am healthier, happier, and more centered because of this work, and I feel called to share it.
Through my research and practice, I developed a practice called Elevated Laughter Meditation to share the healing benefits of laughter, mindful meditation, and endocannabinoid balance. The practice includes pranayama breathing, seated smiling meditation, simple exercises, and fun techniques to create a habit of belly laughter readiness. Side effects may include sore cheeks! Cannabis, CBD, or other plant medicine is optional before or during the session, but it is definitely not required to practice and benefit. Classes include education about the science behind laughter, the endocannabinoid system, and holistic cannabis medicine. I am a proud nerd to the bone (sci-fi fan, and I even taught high school STEM). Learning science, or what I call science meditation, is maybe my favorite spiritual practice. I believe the nerdiness of the class session makes it more effective. When we are aware and pay attention, the physiology will follow. Science meditation deepens awe, inspires the soul, strengthens intentions, improves sensory awareness, expands consciousness, and enhances the embodied benefits.
Laughter can regulate the endocannabinoid system without cannabis. I find that medical cannabis users often over medicate, which can lead to issues like unwanted side effects, bad experiences, and tolerance to dosages. That's right, maybe you would have better results with more laughter and less weed! I recommend a holistic approach to include natural endocannabinoid balance with more than just cannabis, through practices like yoga, laughter, breathing, movement, meditation, rest, good nutrition, and joy-based stress reduction you enjoy. As a medical cannabis pharmacist specialist, I provide consultation and education to patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers about their individualized medical cannabis needs. Cannabis is not for everyone, there are risks, drug interactions, serious health considerations, and individualization with the help of knowledgeable support is key.
Elevated Laughter Meditation is offered at Sun People Yoga, an all-virtual yoga community I co-founded, that offers affordable, inclusive yoga and meditation centered on the needs of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). You can also book a private Elevated Laughter Meditation session for your group, friends, workplace, or organization as a way to stay connected and enjoy laughing virtually together from anywhere in the world.
The stigma around weed and the giggles does not make clinical, yogic, or moral sense to me. Scientifically, medically, and holistically, I think it is time to take laughter and cannabis seriously. (OK but not too seriously…. LOL! I had to. Hehe.)