Video/Article: Ben Greenfield on Red Light Therapy (Photobiomodulation)
What is Light Therapy?
One great thing about light therapy is that it’s been widely studied in clinical trials around the world for decades, starting with NASA nearly 30 years ago. In trial after trial, light therapy has been found safe and effective at promoting a wide range of pretty incredible health benefits. Now let’s geek out on some of the science.
These are some of the major areas that are backed by a large body of clinical research
Skin Health & Anti-Aging: Studies have found light therapy improves skin tone & complexion, diminishes signs of aging, speeds the healing of wounds and scars, and boosts natural collagen production. In one double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 74% of the participants reported a visible improvement in fine lines and wrinkles. Natural red and near-infrared light has also been found in clinical trials to have a therapeutic effect on the symptoms of painful skin conditions like psoriasis, herpes, and acne.
Muscle Recovery & Physical Performance: This one is my wheelhouse and the biggest reason I swear by my daily, full-body red light therapy sessions. When you train hard and perform at a high physical level, muscle recovery is essential. Red light helps my body spring back from the pain and strain of a punishing workout faster, so I can do it all over again sooner without getting hurt. Being able to train more and stay healthy is the best natural formula for gaining a competitive advantage, regardless of what sport you play. Red light not only helps you recover, but it stimulates muscle growth too. One study—from the European Journal of Applied Physiology—compared muscle growth and strength between two groups of athletes—one using light therapy combined with exercise, the other using exercise alone. Researchers demonstrated that muscle thickness and strength were significantly improved (by over 50%!) in those who used light therapy. These results were clearly measurable using ultrasound imaging and isokinetic dynamometry.
Joint Pain & Inflammation: In 2000, a systematic review in The Journal of Rheumatology set out to see just how effective light therapy could be for arthritis. This review found significant results across thirteen randomized controlled trials. The best results were demonstrated in people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, with light therapy reducing participants’ pain by 70 percent compared to the placebo.
Increased Cognitive Function: One clinical study of men and women with a history of traumatic brain injury were administered red and NIR light therapy treatment for their brains in 18 sessions over 6 weeks. The researchers noted improved sleep, better executive functions, improved social functioning, and an increased ability to perform tasks and activities. Participants also reported improvements in depression, anxiety, headaches, and overall cognition.
Healing Wounds & Burns: Red light therapy has been shown in trials to aid the healing of wounds, burns, and scars by inducing the release of cytokines and chemokines in cells. In a 2018 study of light therapy and chronic wounds in diabetes patients, researchers found that the group treated with an LED device for 8 weeks resulted in scars with a smaller mean surface area compared to the non-LED group.
Melatonin & Sleep: I’ve mentioned many times how I’ve been sleeping better since strategically incorporating light therapy into my daily routine. Artificial light can knock your circadian rhythm out of whack, but red and near-infrared light does the opposite and helps reset your internal clock. Clinical studies show light therapy also increases natural melatonin production for healthier sleep.
The 101 is this: light therapy—also known as photobiomodulation (PBM)—is a natural, non-invasive therapy that delivers beneficial wavelengths of light to your skin and cells. Full-spectrum light includes many colors, including wavelengths we can’t see, but only a select range of red and near-infrared light is clinically therapeutic for the purposes of PBM.
A legit light therapy device uses medical-grade LEDs to deliver clinical doses of light power to your skin, without heat, excess UV rays, drugs, chemicals, or major side effects. Red light therapy has been used in fancy spas and clinics around the world for a few decades, but only in recent years can you buy a device for your own home, and that’s been a huge game changer.
A light therapy device harnesses therapeutic wavelengths of natural light and delivers it directly to your skin. The photons of red and near-infrared react with the mitochondria in your cells, where they stimulate the electrons during cellular respiration—the process that’s responsible for all our adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production.
Here’s a bit more detail on the mechanisms at play: red and near-infrared light has a particular resonance with a key enzyme during cellular respiration—cytochrome c oxidase—or CCO for short. When our bodies are stressed or overworked, we produce a lot of nitric oxide (NO).
It’s a cool little molecule, but just like anything, too much can be a bad thing.
During cellular respiration, excess NO tends to bind with CCO, which can halt the production of ADP—adenosine diphosphate—a precursor to ATP. This is where red and NIR light comes into play. These wavelengths can sort of “excite” the electrons during oxidative phosphorylation—the last phase of cellular respiration. This, in turn, breaks the bonds between NO and CCO, resulting in normal cellular function and the eventual production of more ATP energy. Because NO is freed up at the same time, it’s also one of the reasons most people—including yours truly—feel a pump after using light therapy.
There are some secondary mechanisms at play too. Natural red and NIR light can help create a better oxidative environment in your cells, resulting in the activation of numerous intracellular signaling pathways, increased protein synthesis, enzyme activation, and enhanced cell cycle progression.
One more thought on how light therapy works: the aforementioned mechanisms are pretty well-accepted by researchers studying PBM. However, there’s still a lot we’re learning about the therapy. For example, some smart folks from Sydney University in Australia recently discovered that red and NIR light can help restore healthy gut microbiome, which suggests a different mechanism of action altogether.
At the end of the day, it’s pretty obvious that certain wavelengths of light are highly beneficial, which I’ll cover in more detail below. But it still feels like we’re on the edge of truly understanding how this all works in our bodies.