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Constipation

Updated 19 June 2018

What is 'blue light therapy' and how can it help relieve constipation?

People with chronic constipation may find some relief with the assistance of so called "blue light therapy".

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Constipation can be relieved with laxatives or enemas. While this offers temporary alleviation, using laxatives over a long period may end up damaging the body. Besides affecting one's natural salt and mineral balance, the body may become dependent on these laxatives and end up being unable to move the bowels naturally.

Enemas have been known to damage bowel muscle over time. Also due to most enemas being administered in a non-medical environment, they may introduce infection.

As an alternative, scientists are therefore looking to blue light therapy to provide relief. 

But before we get too excited, research is still in the experimental phase. However, the experiment itself is already a major breakthrough.

What is 'blue light therapy'? 

Light therapy is scientifically known as optogenetics. This involves the stimulation of cells or neurons in living tissue. But, in order for these cells to be stimulated, they would have to be genetically modified to respond to blue light.

The blue light allows for certain functions in the tissue's cells to be "switched on and off". When a blue light is shone directly on these cells, whether internally or externally, they are stimulated. Stimulating the cells of the bowel muscles then cause them to eliminate waste. 

The experiment

In the experiment, blue light therapy was used to stimulate the neurons in the colons of genetically engineered mice.

This stimulation led to the movement of the bowels and the elimination of waste after the neurons in the bowels had been genetically engineered to respond to light stimulation. Proteins extracted from algae were used to achieve this effect.

What this means

Lead researchers, Professor Nick Spencer from Flinders University and Dr Hongzhen Hu from Washington University, believe that light therapy may be the way to relieve chronic constipation in humans.

“The most exciting aspect is that this optogenetic technology using light has already been shown to work in targeting cells in other organs without breeding genetically modified animals, so this signals this approach could be applied one day to humans,” says Prof Spencer.

Constipation linked to obesity

According to the World Health Organization, obesity affects more than 1.9 billion people worldwide. Obesity is usually fuelled by diets consisting of processed foods and saturated fats. These diets lead to constipation. In the worst case scenarios, it may lead to chronic constipation.

When the research team shone a blue light on the gut of the mice, after 30 minutes their bowels moved and excreted the waste. However, when the light was on extracted bowels, they moved almost immediately.

The way forward

“We believe that light stimulation is a very smart way to promote gastrointestinal motility in mice and could potentially be used in humans in future if figured out how to put these light sensitive enteric neurons in humans," said Dr Hu.

Fortunately, according to Prof Spencer, the introduction of these light-sensitive ions into the human body has already been approved for cancer therapy. So the science for constipation relief, via blue light, may not be that far off.

Image credit: iStock