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Despite what the sunscreen industry would like us to believe, the drastic increase in use of these lotions and potions over the past several decades hasn’t made a big impact in skin cancer rates. But what it has done is made people afraid of ultraviolet (UV) light. While it’s true too much radiation from the sun can result in skin damage (not to mention a painful sunburn), those harmful effects are hardly the extent of what UV radiation is capable of—and its potential benefits far outweigh the risks.

As you’ve read in these pages numerous times, UV rays from the sun are the best source of the vitamin D your body needs to ward off cancer and dozens of other health problems. But that’s just the beginning of what ultraviolet light can do. Not only is it an extremely effective disinfectant with the ability to kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi in the air and on surfaces,1,2,3 but UV light also has the potential to prevent—and even cure—infections and diseases that other treatments are powerless against.

A strong history leads to an even more promising future

Using ultraviolet light as a medical treatment may sound like a new technology, but the medical use of ultraviolet light for the prevention and treatment of disease is not at all a new area of research. This form of therapy has been studied since the late 19th century, when researchers first experimented with UV light in patients with lupus and sepsis. In fact, back in 1903, a Danish physician named Niels Ryberg Finsen won a Nobel prize for his work with UV light and the treatment of disease.

There are even a few forms of ultraviolet light therapy that “mainstream” medicine uses. Ultraviolet radiation can eliminate or reduce pathogens floating in the air. This process is called air ultraviolet germicidal irradiation, or UVGI. UVGI is an important technology in many hospitals, research centers, and laboratories where contamination with bacteria and fungal spores poses a serious health risk.4,5 One recent study evaluated the infection rate in an operating room in which total joint replacements had been performed over a 19-year period. Infection rates were three times higher when only regular (laminar) airflow was used as compared to an ultraviolet light plus laminar airflow system. The UV lowered the number of bacteria in the entire environment, thereby reducing the infection rate, rather than just reducing the number of infectious organisms present at the surgical site.6 The researchers concluded that UV light is a very effective means of lowering the rate of infection during total joint replacement therapy.

The most common form of UV light therapy used by the mainstream for treatment purposes is probably for psoriasis. UV radiation works well for this condition because it penetrates the skin and slows the abnormal rate of skin cell growth.7,8 It’s also commonly used to treat acute tissue rejection in patients who have had heart transplants.9 And in 1988, the FDA even “approved” UV light therapy for the treatment of form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma called cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.10

But despite these mainstream uses, UV light therapy is still considered “experimental” and “investigational” (or even “quackery”) for many of the healthcare problems affecting people all over the globe. The application that seems to be the most controversial is ultraviolet blood irradiation.

Blood irradiation was developed in the 1920s, when a piece of equipment called the “ultraviolet blood irradiation (UVBI) device” was created to irradiate blood “extracorporeally” or outside of the body. UVBI was developed for medical use by an engineer, Emmet K. Knott and Virgil Hancock, M.D., and was used early in the 20th century to treat many types of diseases, including a wide variety of infections, many of them otherwise fatal. When antibiotics and vaccines were developed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, UVBI was almost completely set aside, even though a number of diseases, including hepatitis, streptococcal toxemia, and viral pneumonia, actually responded better to UVBI therapy than to antibiotics and vaccines, and even though UVBI was repeatedly described as quite safe in multiple publications.

With the rise in antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria and the growing interest in therapies that are less toxic, there is a reviving interest in UVBI as a therapy against infection. Even though it’s vastly underutilized, UVBI is still available here in these United States, and has remained a very important treatment modality in Russia and other countries, where many “modern” studies of its effectiveness have been conducted. So this month, we’ll cover the “modern” research, almost all reported since 1990, demonstrating that UV is “still” effective treatment for many problems.

Help your body create its own, internal vaccine

UVBI also goes by the terms light therapy, phototherapy, photophoresis, and photoluminescence. It uses UV light of varying wavelengths to destroy blood-borne pathogens, as well as to treat diseases not clearly linked to specific pathogens, and to improve general health. During a session, a small amount of blood, ranging from 60-250 cc, is withdrawn from a patient and sent through a chamber where it is irradiated with specific frequencies of UV light (since certain frequencies have different effects), and is then reintroduced into the body. This creates a kind of self-generated vaccine that can have many beneficial effects.

UVBI treatments sometimes include the addition of other compounds, either before or after irradiation. This combination therapy has been termed “photodynamic antimicrobial chemotherapy, or PACT. PACT is used along with UV light to inhibit pathogens in blood products.11 Conventional medicine has even embraced one form of PACT that involves exposing blood withdrawn from a patient’s body to UV radiation and a substance called 8-methoxypsoralen (8-MOP). This is the form of UV therapy used to treat cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, as well as systemic sclerosis and several other inflammatory conditions.12, 13

But “alternative” physicians, especially those who’ve read the older research, often accompany or follow UVBI therapy with hydrogen peroxide, which acts as a “synergist” to increase the effectiveness of UVBI.

While not all the “mechanisms of action” of UVBI are understood (some aren’t even guessed at yet), research has found that it increases the oxygenation of the blood,14 increases important “blood markers” that indicate healing, and inactivates viral, and fungal, and bacterial toxins, including botulism and diphtheria toxins. It also improves chemical balances and cell permeability. And what makes UVBI even more impressive is that it not only begins working after just one treatment, but the effects are cumulative and persist for some time after each treatment session.

Several animal studies have demonstrated these quick, long-lasting effects. For example, when a group of horses that had been exposed to the anthrax virus had their blood treated, investigators noted increased hemoglobin content as well as red and white blood cell counts. An important measurement of inflammation, the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), increased after the first hour and remained elevated until the fourth day, and returned to normal after six days—but none of the horses “came down” with anthrax. The UVBI apparently stimulated the destruction of the infectious organisms.15

Light as air: UVBI offers major benefits for chronic lung disorders

One of the most important uses for UVBI in humans is in the treatment of lung diseases, including asthma, COPD, and bronchitis. In one study of chronic bronchitis, patients who were given UVBI treatments every two to three days experienced significantly more improvement than the control group that received only conventional therapy.16

UV blood irradiation even has positive effects in patients with chronic forms of tuberculosis, which is notoriously difficult to treat.17 But following UVBI therapy, patients experienced reductions in their clinical symptoms, and increases in one of the standard measurements of breathing capacity called forced expiratory volume (“FEV”). They also had decreased levels of the bacterial pathogen, Mycobacteria tuberculosis, and improved markers of overall blood health (hematological indices).18

Studies have also shown that UVBI helps alleviate the inflammation of the trachea and bronchial tubes (“tracheobronchitis”) that often occurs after tracheostomy surgery (the creation of a new opening for air entry into the trachea at the base of the neck).19

Breathe easier without the blood

If you have asthma or other breathing difficulties but the thought of blood irradiation leaves you a bit squeamish, less-invasive forms of UV light therapy may still help. One animal study evaluated the ability of UV-B rays to induce airway immunity. A group of mice were exposed to enough of a dose of UV-B radiation to cause skin redness. Several days later, the researchers induce airway allergies in the mice. The results of the study demonstrated that UV-B radiation effectively reduced airway hyper-responsiveness and response to allergens, suggesting it as a possible therapy for asthma and other inflammatory diseases of the respiratory system.20

Another recent study involving a small group of mold-sensitized asthmatic children looked at the effectiveness of UV irradiation units installed in their homes’ central heating and cooling systems. The UV irradiation of home air was found to be effective in reducing airway hyper-responsiveness and other clinical symptoms, and is a promising therapy for the treatment of allergic asthma.21

No job too big

High blood pressure is still one many people’s primary concerns.. You may be surprised to learn that UVBI can help bring blood pressure levels back to normal ranges. In one study, arterial blood pressure in hypertensive patients who underwent five to seven sessions of UVBI dropped an average of 24 percent from initial levels. The general health of patients also improved and the clinical effect persisted for four to eight months, on average. Blood pressure isn’t the only aspect of cardiovascular health to be of which to be aware, and UVBI certainly isn’t the only natural treatment that can help alleviate hypertension, but researchers suggest that it may be a beneficial addition to other therapeutic measures for the treatment of cardiovascular disease.22

While UVBI is a good addition to the other effective natural treatments for hypertension, there are very few treatments—natural or otherwise—that are effective for terminal kidney (renal) failure. But in one study in which patients with chronic renal failure were treated with UVBI, immune function was stimulated, a low white blood cell count was corrected, and patients demonstrated overall improvement.23

Making cancer treatments safer

As I mentioned earlier, UV light therapy has been used successfully as a treatment for cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, a type of cancer that is generally very resistant to chemotherapy and radiation. But this isn’t the only cancer application for UVBI. It also helps combat some of the negative effects of traditional chemotherapy and some of the hazards associated with cancer surgery.

In one study, patients undergoing chemotherapy which had caused a significant drop in their red blood cell counts had 200 ml of blood removed, then irradiated, and immediately returned to them. The red blood cell counts returned to normal.24

During surgery, patients of course lose blood, and surgeons try to recover some of it to give back before the surgery is over. This process is called “intra-operative blood salvage.” But during cancer surgery, the lost blood could be contaminated by cancer cells, so surgeons are hesitant to salvage it. In one study (done “in vitro,” not on a living patient) using a number of cancer cell lines and tumor preparations, researchers irradiated salvaged blood to see if the process could eliminate the potential for cancer cells to spread. Following irradiation of tumor-cell-contaminated blood, even though cancer cells were still present, there were no signs of them spreading. The authors of this study concluded that there was a clinical basis for using UVBI during surgery as a means of salvaging useable blood.25 A later study using intra-operative blood salvaged by using UVBI confirmed these results and concluded that UVBI is an important way to save blood resources while avoiding cancer cell spread and the necessity for transfusion, which carries its own set of risks.26

And speaking of risks associated with blood transfusions, results of a recent study showed that YV light combined with amotosalen (a synthetic but relatively safe version of naturally occurring plant compounds called “psoralens” found in figs, celery, parsley, and other plants) could inactivate parvovirus B19, a virus that may be transmitted through blood transfusions but, until now, evaded attempts to disable it.27

Germ-killing with UV

In addition to all the benefits we’ve gone over so far, ultraviolet light is also particularly effective in killing antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, which are a serious and increasing problem in many hospitals and other healthcare facilities these days.28, 29 And like the asthma treatments mentioned in the sidebar on page X, UV light therapy for these forms of potentially deadly bactera are done without withdrawing blood from patients. In one study patients with chronic body-surface ulcers were treated using a lamp that emitted ultraviolet C (UV-C) light, held about an inch away from the wound site. After just one 180-second treatment, there were significant reductions in all types of bacteria, most notably Pseudomonas aeruginosa, as well as methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA), which has been making headlines worldwide recently A second study of the effects of UV light treatment on antibiotic-resistant strains of S. aureus and Enterococcus faecalis showed similar results with exposures as little as 5 seconds.30 These results confirm other studies showing that UV-C can kill many types of bacteria present in superficial, chronic wounds.

When UV light is applied at the site of an infection it inactivates pathogens by creating something I’m normally warning you to avoid: free radicals. But, in this case, free radicals are a good thing, since they’re causing oxidative damage to the invading organisms, not to your internal organs.31

As you’ve seen, all of this modern research has shown UV light and UVBI to be a safe and effective (not to mention inexpensive) treatment with rapid clinical response for a wide variety of acute and chronic conditions. But conventional medicine still hasn’t gotten around to employing it as often as it should, as was done with great success (and reported in many, many peer-reviewed professional journals) in the 1920s through the 1950s. In 2008, UVBI therapy is done almost entirely by physicians—including Tahoma Clinic physicians—skilled in natural and nutritional medicine, as well as intravenous (IV) therapies (see “Resources”, page 8.) But with the ever-increasing spread of antibiotic-resistant micro-organisms, it’s well past time “conventional” medicine to goes “back to the future” and starts using this long-ago-proven therapy. The UV-treated conditions we covered in this article—all but one reported in the past two decades, and the majority since the year 2000–are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to UVBI’s healing potential.

Next month, I’ll tell you about those research reports published right here in these United States from the 1920s through the 1950s documenting the use and effectiveness of UV light and UVBI to safely and effectively treat tens of thousands of humans with infections, including viral pneumonia, staphylococcal septicemia (serious, often fatal systemic “staph infection”), poliomyelitis (“polio”), erysipelas (streptococcal skin infection), puerperal sepsis (an often fatal infection also termed “childbirth fever”), staphylococcal skin infection (furunculosis), and paralytic ileus (paralysis of the bowel after surgery, and thrombophlebitis (vein inflammation followed by blood clot). You’ll also read about UV light’s benefits for more common conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, herpes, psoriasis, and diabetes.

Thanks to Lauren Russel N.D. for her organization and summary of the data collected for this article.

Read Part 2 – Time-tested strategies for beating superbugs and more of today’s deadliest health threats

References On Next Page