The Microbiome’s Backstory
Not too long ago, the scientific community reached a tipping point in its understanding of the gut and the microbiome it houses. Past studies uncovered clues to the microbiome’s significant role in maintaining mental, cognitive, and physical health. Now, recent studies are discovering a connection between light and its effect on the microbiome.
Having a healthy microbiome means cultivating a thriving colony of “good bacteria” in the gut through dietary and lifestyle changes. These good bacteria feed on the improved nutritional intake to create byproducts, known as postbiotics, that the body uses for its benefit.
For years, people have turned to prebiotic, probiotic, and synbiotic supplements to influence the composition of their microbiome. However, emerging studies reveal yet another non-invasive way to influence the microbiome’s diversity and composition, this time using light.
Lighting The Way to a Thriving Microbiome
Besides healthy nutrition and dietary supplements, exposure to light affects our microbiome’s composition, function, and diversity.
Natural Light and the Microbiome
The composition and function of the microbiota in our gut go through diurnal oscillations, meaning they turn over every 24 hours to help us maintain homeostasis. At a fundamental level, researchers have gathered enough evidence to suggest that microorganisms interact directly with our circadian genes. Therefore, exposure to natural light invariably affects the microbiota’s clock as well.
This partly explains why the persistent disruption of our circadian clock, through our modern lifestyles and constant exposure to the specific type of blue light emitted by screens, smartphones and other gadgets, leads to an imbalance in the ratio of good to bad bacteria in our gut. This imbalance is otherwise known as dysbiosis. For some, obesity, depression, and other metabolic diseases are microbe-induced conditions provoked by an imbalanced exposure to light.
Light Therapy and the Microbiome
Light therapy, otherwise known as photobiomodulation (PBM), has a long history of its own. Going as far back as 3,500 years, in ancient Egypt and in India, humans have turned to heliotherapy, or sunlight therapy, to treat various skin conditions and physical ailments.
Although sunlight benefits the body, it is also a full spectrum light capable of healing and damaging the person it treats. As a result, researchers sought to unpack the entire light spectrum, seeking benefits and applications for light at each level of the spectrum. This gave rise to the practice of photobiomodulation and paved the way for the most recent discovery of how light therapy benefits the microbiome.
What researchers found
In a recent animal study (Liebert et al., 2019), researcher Marie Ann Liebert and her team showed that photobiomodulation, as light applied directly to the abdomen, resulted in the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
While the science shows photobiomodulation works, it is not completely clear why. According to Liebert, there are a few plausible explanations for why the microbiome benefits from light therapy, and it could very well be that all the following mechanisms work in concert to help the microbiome.
The wavelength matters
Many positive microbiome changes were observed when using near-infrared (NIR) light rather than just red light. NIR light contributed to an increase in good bacteria in the gut and a decrease in bacteria “associated with a dysregulated microbiome.” (Liebert, 2019)
Reducing inflammation matters
Photobiomodulation has been clinically proven to reduce inflammation. By reducing a body’s inflammatory response, it is possible that PBM creates an environment in which beneficial bacteria can thrive.
The abscopal effect matters
There is yet another explanation that relates to the abscopal effect, or remote tumor-shrinking effect, of PBM. Liebert noted in her study (2019) that when photobiomodulation is applied to one area of the body, it triggers our immune cells, stem cells, and possibly an unidentified third agent which may positively affect the microbiome.
Better Tools for Better Health
Ever since Dr. Gershon, the “father of neurogastroenterology,” coined the term “Second Brain” back in 1996 to refer to the gut, its microbiome, and the enteric nervous system through which it communicates with the brain, functional medicine practitioners and self-care enthusiasts have made gut health a priority in their quest to achieve overall wellness.
Photobiomodulation is yet another effective practice that can supercharge the microbiota. It brings balance to our circadian clocks, reduces inflammation, and helps us get the most out of our synbiotic supplements by stimulating the growth and diversity of our microbiome.
Photobiomodulation in the palm of your hands!
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