What Is Laughing Gas? Does It Actually Make You Laugh?

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Laughing gas, formally known as Nitrous Oxide, is a gas that when inhaled, triggers the release of dopamine molecules in our body. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, and plays an important role in the reward system of our body. N2O makes a person euphoric and in this state, people feel happy, which leads to them laugh. Although considered safe, there is proof that N2O can be neurotoxic and continuous inhalation of the pure gas for 10 minutes straight could even lead to fatal consequences.

It is a popular notion that laughing gas makes a person laugh, hence the name.. However, nitrous oxide generates a feeling of euphoria which makes a person want to laugh, thereby gaining its popular name of laughing gas.

Corners of the mouth turned up, crinkled eyes, head thrown back, and the bubbling sound of laughter… it’s always a pretty picture to imagine. Furthermore, laughter is extremely beneficial to your health. It can lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, reduce stress… the list is truly endless. However, while it’s not always possible to randomly laugh like there’s no tomorrow, it may be possible to get a little help if you’re feeling down. If you don’t know by now… I’m talking about laughing gas.

Laughing Gas And It’s Formula

Commonly known as laughing gas, the compound is more formally called Nitrous Oxide, or Nitrous. According to IUPAC nomenclature (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) it is Dinitrogen monoxide and its chemical formula is N2O. It is a colorless gas at room temperature and is non-flammable. It has a slightly metallic taste and smell and has been around for nearly 300 years, after first being synthesized in 1722 by Joseph Priestley. However, it wasn’t used for recreational or other purposes until the 1790s.

Laughing gas is popularly used as an analgesic and anesthetic agent, apart from its recreational uses.

Structure of Nitrous Oxide . (Photo Credit : Ben Mills / Wikimedia Commons)

Does Laughing Gas Actually Make You Laugh?

It is a popular notion that laughing gas makes a person laugh, hence the name. The idea has been depicted in movies as well, where people instantly start laughing upon inhaling the gas. However, is it actually that effective and fast-acting?

N2O triggers the release of dopamine molecules in our body, possibly through the antagonization of NMDA receptors (let’s keep an explanation of this mechanism for another time). Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, and plays an important role in the reward system of our body. Our reward system is basically when our body rewards us for doing a particular action – in this case, the reward is dopamine secretion. Dopamine is needed by our body in the right amounts at the right place. A shortage of dopamine causes diseases like Parkinson’s, etc. while an excess of dopamine induces euphoria.

Therefore, technically, N2O makes a person euphoric. In this state, people feel happy, which leads to them laugh. The effect of the gas also starts quickly, within minutes of its inhalation.

laughing man Profile view of a guy touching his belly and having a stomach ache at home
Photo Credit : antoniodiaz / Shutterstock

Also Read: The Science Of Laughter: Why Do We Laugh?

Health Risks

Nitrous oxide has been used in the medical field for its anesthetic and analgesic effects for a long time. It’s suspected to increase the opiate molecule production by our own body, thus acting as an effective painkiller. Due to these properties, it is popular to use, especially because it is considered safe for children. However, in recent years, there has been an ongoing debate about its potentially harmful effects.

Although insufficient, there is proof that N2O can be neurotoxic. Due to its anesthetic effects, it is suspected of having the capability to cause paralysis.

Inhalation of N2O also presents a risk of hypoxia, which is basically when your brain is starved of oxygen. Some studies suggest that continuous inhalation of the pure gas for 10 minutes straight could even lead to fatal consequences.

Is It Addictive?

As mentioned earlier, nitrous oxide triggers the release of dopamine, which is the same chemical responsible for addictions to substances like nicotine, cocaine, heroin, etc. This brings me to my next question – is N2O also addictive?

Cigarette smoking man
Nicotine is addictive (Photo Credit : Maxpixel)

The answer is both yes and no. Nitrous oxide gives the mind a high, but it doesn’t elicit compulsive behavior like other drugs, such as nicotine, marijuana, cocaine, etc. This is because it can block the effect of amphetamine, which is a Central Nervous System stimulant. Amphetamines are infamous for causing addiction and potential overdoses. Therefore, by these standard, nitrous oxide isn’t addictive.

However, as is the case with most drugs, people tend to get desensitized after prolonged use of the drug. This means that the person now needs to consume more of the drug to experience the same intensity of the effect. Similarly, even with N2O, over long periods of use, more of it needs to be inhaled to experience the same kind of feeling.

The mechanisms of action of N2O and its potentially harmful effects are still not properly understood. There is insufficient data to draw an informed conclusion as to whether N2O can be classified as a psychoactive drug or not. As of now, though, its benefits seem to outweigh the possible harmful effects, so it is still used for medicinal purposes.

Also Read: Does Nitrous Oxide Really Work As Shown In Fast And The Furious?

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References (click to expand)
  1. Nitrous oxide - Wikipedia. Wikipedia
  2. Savage, S., & Ma, D. (2014, January 28). The Neurotoxicity of Nitrous Oxide: The Facts and “Putative” Mechanisms. Brain Sciences. MDPI AG.
  3. Nitrous oxide | Go Ask Alice!. Columbia University
  4. David, H. N., Ansseau, M., Lemaire, M., & Abraini, J. H. (2006, July). Nitrous Oxide and Xenon Prevent Amphetamine-Induced Carrier-Mediated Dopamine Release in a Memantine-Like Fashion and Protect Against Behavioral Sensitization. Biological Psychiatry. Elsevier BV.
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About the Author

Mahak Jalan has a BSc degree in Zoology from Mumbai University in India. She loves animals, books and biology. She has a general assumption that everyone shares her enthusiasm about the human body! An introvert by nature, she finds solace in music and writing.