Nearly 100 million adults in the United States both have diabetes and pre-diabetes according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Diabetes is a chronic disease characterized by high blood glucose levels (blood sugar). It results from the body not producing enough insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas.When insulin levels are low, glucose builds up in the body, which can cause various health problems.
There are three types of diabetes: type 1, type 2, and gestational. Whichever type you may have, light therapy could be the treatment solution you’ve been looking for. This article will explore red light and near-infrared (NIR) light for diabetes: a novel solution that helps treat this disease's complications at the cellular level — healing from the inside out.
Red and Near-Infrared Light for Diabetes
While some people with type 2 diabetes (also called adult-onset diabetes) can achieve target blood sugar levels with lifestyle changes, diabetes medications, or insulin therapy may also be needed to control blood sugar. Many medications cause serious side effects. Diabetes has no cure, and symptom management is the only way to coax the disease into remission.
Red and NIR light has been used successfully to treat the complications associated with diabetes. Before we delve into that, let’s do a quick overview of what this treatment method actually is.
Red light therapy, also called low-level light therapy (LLLT) or photobiomodulation, is an umbrella term referring to the red light and NIR light. It uses powerful light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs to deliver intense beams of red and NIR wavelengths to bare skin.
Wavelengths of light are measured in nanometers (nm). Research has shown that red wavelengths from 630nm to 660nm, and NIR wavelengths from 810nm to 850nm, have the greatest scope of benefits — and come with no side effects.
Although studies often focus on either red or near-infrared wavelengths, experts say the best treatment approach is to use both. Doing so will provide skin-deep as well as deep-tissue benefits. For example, the 630nm to 660nm wavelengths address the skin's health, and the longer 810nm to 850nm NIR wavelengths penetrate deeper into the body. NIR wavelengths can even penetrate bone and hard connective tissue like cartilage.
Increase Capillary Formation for Improved Blood Flow
Thomas Burke, Ph.D., a retired physiologist with the University of Colorado Medical School, has studied blood flow — specifically changes in blood flow — for more than 30 years. Dr. Burke’s extensive research into the effects of red light therapy on circulation has led him to conclude that infrared light increases blood flow in any site in the body to which it is applied. This has profound implications for treating slow-healing wounds such as diabetic foot ulcers, which affect approximately 15 percent of patients with diabetes.
One effect of diabetes is meager amounts of nitric oxide produced by the body, which hinders normal blood flow. This is one reason people with diabetes often develop a circulatory condition called peripheral arterial disease, in which narrowed blood vessels reduce blood flow to the limbs. Many diabetes patients also develop diabetic neuropathy, a peripheral nervous system disorder that causes loss of feeling in the extremities, especially the feet.
The combination of poor blood flow and neuropathy can make people with diabetes more susceptible to ulcers or infections in the feet that, if allowed to spread, may require extreme measures such as amputation. LLLT can help circulation by stimulating the formation of tiny capillaries in areas treated by the light. This allows for better oxygen and nutrient delivery to the body’s peripheral regions, including the feet, which seem to bear the brunt of diabetic complications.
Increased Cellular Metabolism and Energy
The decreased blood flow that’s characteristic of diabetes interferes with the proper functioning of mitochondria, the “energy factories” inside most body cells. When mitochondria function normally, their primary job is to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an energy-rich molecule that serves as fuel for cells. ATP is essential for normal cellular functioning, including repair and replication.
Poor cellular energy, officially known as mitochondrial dysfunction, is one of the main causes of diabetic neuropathy, so restoring normal mitochondrial function is essential. When there’s a chronic blood sugar imbalance, cells become stressed, unable to function properly, and unable to repair themselves.
Low-level light therapy addresses mitochondrial dysfunction by increasing ATP production. This, in turn, energizes cells and sparks a chain reaction of beneficial biological processes and improved health. When mitochondrial function is returned to normal, it supports skin ulcers and neuropathic pain and helps restore normal peripheral nervous system functioning.
Restored Normal Nerve Functioning
Until LLLT was developed, loss of sensation in the feet of diabetics was considered progressive and irreversible. Even today, the recommended treatment is often anti-inflammatory drugs that interrupt pain pathways. These drugs do not address the underlying problem: abnormal nerve signaling due to inflammation and mitochondrial dysfunction.
Today, diabetic neuropathy can be treated using near-infrared light. According to a 2015 study by medical researchers from Iran, NIR light therapy effectively reduces neuropathic pain and promotes damaged nerve cells' regeneration.
An earlier study by researchers from Japan also focused on LLLT’s effects on nerve regeneration. It is known that disrupted blood sugar levels can lead to oxidative stress, which can cause inflammation. The study revealed that NIR light acts as an antioxidant and reduces inflammation, conducive to nerve regeneration.
Increased Collagen Production
Diabetes can cause uncomfortable, often painful changes in the skin, including severe dryness, peeling, cracking, and abnormal callus growth. Red light therapy boosts the body’s natural collagen production so that as skin cells are renewed, the damaged skin can be gradually replaced by healthy skin. Improved blood flow and cellular functioning also support healthy skin growth.
Reduced Inflammation for Faster Wound Healing
Diabetic foot ulcers may form due to a combination of poor circulation, immune system deficiency that makes it hard for the body to fight off infection, diminished foot sensitivity (diabetic neuropathy), and ill-fitting shoes. Infected and dead tissue will need to be removed. The growth of healthy new tissue needs to be supported with blood sugar management and optimal mitochondrial functioning, and collagen production.
A Stronger Immune System
Improving health requires a robust immune system, and LLLT can help in several significant ways. For instance, it stimulates the production of stem cells, which are the body’s master cells with the potential to develop into many different types of cells. Stem cells remain in a dormant, non-specialized state until they are needed, when they are mobilized into action and carried to various parts of the body where they take on specialized roles.
Also essential for a healthy immune system is the thyroid, which LLLT helps to balance. People with diabetes have an increased risk of developing hypothyroidism, which is an underactive thyroid. Hypothyroidism results in mitochondrial dysfunction and poor cell functioning.
Also, research has shown that LLLT supports liver regeneration for more efficient waste disposal. This helps treat systemic inflammation and supports the workings of the immune system.
LLLT is not an instant cure for any condition. You may experience relief after just one session, but the greatest results will come with time as the body’s cells regenerate and optimize their functioning. This can take a few weeks to a few months. Several sessions per week can help manage and minimize diabetic complications and keep the disease in remission on an ongoing basis.