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Healing the Body With Photobiomodulation: A Special Interview With Dr. Michael Hamblin

Dr. Michael Hamblin is an associate professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. He is the principal investigator at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine in Massachusetts General Hospital, and a member of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. 

Transcript highlights:

JM: Dr. Joseph Mercola

MH: Dr. Michael Hamblin

MH: Photobiomodulation now includes lights of all wavelengths -- visible light, light from the blues, through the green, through the red and into the infrared. That states at about 750 nanometers and goes all the way into maybe 1,200 nanometers. That's near-infrared, which has a lot of biological effects. It also penetrates well into the body, because other colors of light, like blue green, have a lot of biological effects, but they don't penetrate too well. 

JM: They do have important biological effects also. With respect to the penetration, it's my understanding that those higher wavelengths beyond 900 to 1,000 nanometers tend not to penetrate well.

JM: This mechanism of action differs from the near-infrared, which seems to focus on the cytochrome c oxidase in the mitochondria primarily, improving or increasing the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), but also releasing nitric oxide, which has important signaling effects.

MH: Okay. I think you're absolutely right that the accepted mechanism in the mitochondria involves dissociation of nitric oxide from cytochrome c oxidase, increasing electron transport and ATP synthesis. 

MH: By and large, the thing to remember about photobiomodulation is it's highly biphasic in dose. Many people have got themselves into trouble by giving too much light. 

JM: Most of the original research was done with lasers. But there's this massive trend in the research now. Your great example of that is toward using light emitting diodes (LEDs), which are more cost-effective. It seems to be more of an effective and efficient way to provide the therapy. 

JM: It wasn't really stated but I want to make it clear that most of us eat food for fuel. This fuel is converted to basically fats and glucose and it really generates ATP. But a big section of that ATP generation that you alluded to is really this exposure to the near-infrared, which powers the mitochondria to produce additional ATP so it's both.

MH: I would sort of say that you can't say that light is a food. What light does is it allows you to use your food much more efficiently. 

MH: But the light does help the cells make the best use of the food they've got [and] the better production of energy. For instance, in the western world, people are getting obese and nobody exercises, light does seem to combine very well with modest amounts of exercise. You could lose weight, your muscles perform way better, and it has a huge amount of health benefits, things like diabetes and blood lipids. Even psychological health is benefitted by exercise combined with light.

MH: Everybody likes sunlight. Provided that you take precautions against getting too much ultraviolet, I think sunlight's fine. But you know, we have busy lives and since you can get a therapeutic dose of near-infrared from an LED array for maybe 10 minutes a day, I think that's probably the way to go.

MH: We've done a lot of studies over the years. We cannot really detect a difference between red light, like 660, and near-infrared, let us say 810, 830, and 850. First of all, all the 800s seem to be the same. Also something in the mid-600s, like 660, is the same as near-infrared. A few other folks have claimed to find some differences, but there's not much difference really.

JM: Really? So the red at 660 will still provide the same mitochondrial benefits?

MH: Yup. Absolutely.

MH: The theory is the absorption spectrum of cytochrome c oxidase has two peaks: one in the mid-600s and one at around 800.

MH: People say red light is good for relieving inflammation, inflammatory conditions. I think near-infrared is good for regenerating things, possibly because things that need regenerating are usually deeper; tendons, bones, cartilage. Things that need regenerating are usually deeper inside. It's quite clear that near-infrared penetrates better. Everybody agrees on that. Obviously, one of the big growth areas is the brain. Again, this is really intriguing because folks find benefits in the brain by putting all sorts of light on the head: high power near-infrared, lasers, high power LEDs ... The photons can be absorbed in the blood. You have blood circulating in your scalp. You have bone marrow in the bone of your skill. It's known that light is very good at activating stem cells in bone marrow. That's one of the big deals. clearly photobiomodulation has huge effects on the brain. 


MH: There have only been a few studies so far about photobiomodulation for Alzheimer's since Alzheimer's is going to be the huge epidemic and it's going to decimate health care costs and all this. In fact, most drug trials for Alzheimer's have failed dismally, right? The cost of billions of dollars. A few folks with small trials for Alzheimer's get results so good that nobody can believe them. These are folks who can never say a coherent sentence, and in weeks and months, suddenly kind of start talking with their relatives. People who have to be fed suddenly start using a knife and fork. I mean a lot of people just can't believe it. We do have some statistics, only relatively small series of patients, but we do have statistical significance. In my opinion, the effects are so surprisingly good that this has to spread. It really has to spread. People have to do big trails and I would expect in five or 10 years that photobiomodulation for Alzheimer's has to be pretty much out there. 

MH: A lot of people have problems with the brain. But other people have like orthopedic problems, musculoskeletal problems, where typically, near-infrared photobiomodulation works great.

MH: I think that a lot of applications that are going to be great, nobody's really studied that much. I'll give you one example, which is kidney failure. Kidney failure is the third leading cause of death. These are old folks who are dying from kidney failure. You can't really give them transplants because they're elderly. You put a near-infrared LED array where their kidneys are and it seems to work like a dream. 

JM: Any other exciting applications that you've seen in used for? I wasn't aware of the kidney one.

MH: Diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Where d you put the light? I think Most people end up putting it on the belly, right? Because light has effects on fats and it can melt it away a little bit. It's anti-inflammatory. A lot of these problems are caused by having excess inflammation in your belly fat, the big sort of reservoir of all these inflammatory cytokines.


JM: It's simple to do. At 600 and 850, is there any danger to looking at that light when you're standing in front of the bed, from your prospective? It's probably healthy and beneficial, I would think.

MH: Red light can dazzle you, especially at 630. If you look at a 630 nanometer rate you get dazzled, but it's not harmful for the eyes. It takes you a while to recover. Near-infrared is actually very good for your eyes, things like 830 or 850. As I get older, I know that my eyesight is not as good as it was. I quite often stick some 850 nanometer light in my eyes. 

JM: They're essentially affirmed that there's no danger at these frequencies, energy intensities rather.

MH: Absolutely. In the future, we envisioned some devices which will get FDA clearance for efficacy and will be clinically used in hospitals and [by] ophthalmologists, even psychiatrists and all medical professionals. Then there would be a whole army of other devices that people have at home. I can see the day when every household will have one or two light therapy devices. 

JM: Great. Are there any other developments on the horizon that we're unaware of that you have insights to because you're networked in that community?

MH: In Rio de Janiero, in the Olympics, there were a lot of light therapy devices. The competitors weren't bragging about them too much because sports is a hugely sensitive thing for performance enhancement. All these drugs and supplements and things can be illegal. There is no conceivable sort of forensic test for having exposed yourself to light. 

JM: What would the intention be for the muscles that they've just exercised or they're using most actively? It's not going to improve endurance. It would just be muscle recovery, I would imagine, right?

MH: Endurance to some degree. There's basically two ways athletes use. One is preconditioning before your sports event, and then there's after, which helps recovery and delayed onset muscle soreness and all these things. If you combine light therapy with training regimens each day, do your training, you get light. You go on like that and you can train a lot more effectively. I think this is going to really spread. 

JM: It's exciting. As I said at the beginning of our interview, I'm really enamored with it because it's so inexpensive and so safe and so natural. LEDs aren't typically natural, but they're replicating a natural source, which is the sunlight source, which we've have since our ancestors first existed, whenever that was. It seems that optimizing that exposure would be a simple strategy that can improve your biology with relatively little to no risk. 


MH: We're just coming up pretty much to the 50th anniversary. Endre Master was the first one to start trading non-healing wounds in 1967.

JM: He did that with lasers, didn't he?

MH: Yeah, he did it with the ruby laser and then the Helium-Neon (He-Ne) laser. For 20 year, everybody used lasers. But now, LEDs are rapidly taking over.

JM: But as we mentioned earlier, photobiomodulation has been around for centuries. In the most recent times, Kellogg in 1910 and Finsen with the Nobel Prize in 1902 or 1906, somewhere around there. We've been doing this for a long time. It's just that there's this emphasis and encouragement in the conventional medical model to rely on expensive and dangerous medications because they can and they're encouraged to do that rather than the simple strategies. 

MH: Something like psychiatric drugs are just horrendous. They have virtually no positive benefits. They have huge numbers of side effects. Just putting a simple light on your head works downright better than these drugs.