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Preventing and Treating Heart Attacks with Light

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using light to prevent and treat heart attacks altrendo images/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

It’s certainly no secret that if you suspect that you’re having a heart attack, the sooner treatment begins, the better. Untreated, heart attacks may cause serious permanent damage to the heart muscle and in some cases may become life-threatening.

As a result, early medical intervention for a suspected heart attack is essential. Immediate treatment can limit the amount of damage that the heart muscle may suffer as a result, not to mention the fact that early intervention can save a life.

Often, suspected heart attacks are treated with therapies such as aspirin, oxygen, or nitroglycerin well before arriving at the hospital and confirming the diagnosis.

Once a heart attack is confirmed, patients may be treated with a variety of medications such as clot-busters, beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, or anticoagulants.

Sometimes, heart attack patients may need procedures such as angioplasty or coronary artery bypass grafting or CABG.

Now, researchers at the University of Colorado medical school believe that there may be another treatment option on the horizon which not only limits the amount of damage the heart muscle suffers as a result of a heart attack, but may help to prevent heart attack as well.

According to study findings, the key to preventing future heart attacks and heart muscle damage may rest in something quite simple and available to all -- strong or intense light. According to Tobias Eckle, MD, PhD, heart attack patients may well experience a reduction in heart muscle damage from exposure to simple, ordinary daylight.

Eckle, an associate professor of anesthesiology, cardiology, and cell and development biology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine indicated that the “study suggests that strong light, or even just daylight, might ease the risk of having a heart attack or suffering damage from one.” (ScienceDaily 1)

Why does exposure to light reduce the risk of heart attack and lessen the amount of damage the heart muscle suffers as the result of a heart attack? Researchers believe that the answer lies in the body’s circadian rhythm.

Circadian rhythms exist in most living things. Driven by our biological clock, circadian rhythms follow a 24-hour cycle and include behavioral, physical, and mental changes.

While naturally occurring, circadian rhythms can be affected by outside influences in our environment such as light. A disruption in circadian rhythms is linked to numerous conditions including sleep disorders such as insomnia, and mental conditions such as depression or bipolar disorders.

Researchers found that one of the proteins in the brain which helps regulate circadian rhythms, Period 2 protein, is also responsible for helping to limit heart muscle damage in heart attack patients.

During a heart attack, the oxygen supply is severely limited or non-existent due to the blocked arteries and restricted blood flow. Normally fueled by fat, a heart deprived of oxygen has to switch to glucose as a back-up fuel supply.

When the heart is unable to switch to the back-up fuel source, the heart muscle becomes damaged as oxygen-deprived cells begin to die.

Period 2 protein is key in enabling the heart to make the change in fuel sources. One of the key triggers for activating Period 2 protein is strong light.

More studies are certain to follow to better understand how light impacts and changes the heart’s metabolism. Prescribing sunlight as a treatment for heart attack patients or as a heart attack prevention therapy is probably premature. Still, it’s possible that one day we may well be told to take an aspirin a day and get a daily dose of sunlight to prevent heart attack.


University of Colorado Denver (2012, April 25). Intense light prevents, treats heart attacks, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 29, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120425143641.htm

Circadian Rhythms Fact Sheet. National Institute of General Medical Sciences. 30 Jan 2012. http://www.nigms.nih.gov/Education/Factsheet_CircadianRhythms.htm
How is Heart Attack Treated? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. 01 Mar 2011.

Journal Reference:

1. Tobias Eckle, Katherine Hartmann, Stephanie Bonney, Susan Reithel, Michel Mittelbronn, Lori A Walker, Brian D Lowes, Jun Han, Christoph H Borchers, Peter M Buttrick, Douglas J Kominsky, Sean P Colgan, Holger K Eltzschig. Adora2b-elicited Per2 stabilization promotes a HIF-dependent metabolic switch crucial for myocardial adaptation to ischemia. Nature Medicine, 2012; DOI: 10.1038/nm.2728

Reviewed May 1, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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