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“I’m in.” <– Whether it’s standing in a cryotherapy tank at -280F degrees, spraying beneficial bacteria on my skin, or floating in 1,000 pounds of dissolved epsom salt, when Katie of Wellness Mama and I discover something new to try, that’s my first response.

That’s why when we found ourselves in front of a full-body Joovv red light therapy device at a biohacking conference, you know exactly what I said.

You see, our bodies can “eat” light. If that sounds woo to you, I get it. I felt the same way until I started looking into the hundreds of high-quality (randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled) published studies on red light and near infrared light therapy.

Also called photobiomodulation, red light therapy is helpful for everything from thyroid function to wound healing. We’ll dive into the full list later on, but here’s a short preview:

  • Increasing Collagen and Elastin Production – These are the main proteins that provide structural support for our skin. Collagen provides suppleness, while elastin provides elasticity. (2)
  • Fat Metabolism – Although the exact mechanism is not yet fully understood, red light therapy increases the body’s ability to metabolize fat. It may be due to its ability to disperse (some say melt) adipocytes, which are cells that store fat. (3) 
  • Increasing Energy Levels – As we’ll discuss in the next section, red light therapy generates cellular energy, thus increasing overall energy levels.
  • Detoxification Support – Red light therapy causes an increase in lymphatic system activity, which I talked about in this post on dry brushing assists with detoxification (4)

The science of how our bodies metabolize (or “eat”) light to achieve these benefits centers around something called cytochrome c oxidase, which we’ll dive into more later. But first, you’re probably wondering . . .

What is red light therapy? (Photobiomodulation)

You’ve probably heard that exposure to blue light at night can reduce sleep quality, cause hormone imbalances, and contribute to weight gain and depression or anxiety, but what’s not as well known is that other wavelengths also have biological effects. I’m not just talking about the light that enters our eyes, either. Our skin can also sense light, and both forms of light exposure have a biological effect. (1)

Red light and near-infrared light, for example, have well-documented healing and rejuvenating effects on the body.

How does red light therapy work?

Short answer: Just like plants convert light energy into chemical energy via photosynthesis, our bodies have the ability to metabolize red and near-infrared light into a form of cellular energy – adenosine triphosphate – that is essential to restoring, repairing, energizing, and maintaining our bodies.

Long answer: Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is often referred to as the “energy currency of life.” We can go for a period of time without food, water, and even air, but if our bodies were deprived of ATP for even seconds life could not continue.

The recipe for this “energy currency” hinges on an enzyme called cytochrome c oxidase. It’s the glue that makes ATP by helping oxygen (O) bind with nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) and hydrogen (H) to form NADH, the hydrogen ions that make ATP synthase.

Unfortunately, when we’re stressed (hello modern life!), sick, or injured, our cells produce excessive amounts of nitric oxide, which “steals” cytochrome c oxidase by binding with it so that it can’t do it’s job. Without enough cytochrome c oxidase to help bind together the oxygen and NADH, our capacity to make ATP is reduced.

Without sufficient ATP,  our body’s ability to make collagen, metabolize fat, synthesize hormones and perform other tasks diminishes.  We started to feel tired. We find that we aren’t bouncing back from stress or illness as quickly. We aren’t able to repair and heal as well as we’d like.

Red light and near infrared light works by breaking the bond between nitric oxide and cytochrome c oxidase, thus freeing up the cytochrome c oxidase to make ATP.

Not just any light, though – you need the right wavelengths and intensity.  Red light in the 630-670 nanometer range and near-infrared light in the 810-880 nanometer range are recommended because they have the most documented benefits.

1. Increases Collagen Production and Skin Repair

As you can see in the image above, red and near-infrared light penetrate deeper into skin than other colors, which allows their healing wavelengths to:

  • Improve skin clarity, tone and texture (3)
  • Increase collagen (which provides suppleness) and elastin (which provides elasticity) (2)
  • Assist with fading of scars (including acne scars) and stretch marks (5)
  • Decrease inflammation
  • Help with acne – One study found that light therapy helps by reducing inflammation and impacting sebum production. (3)

Several studies have also found red and near-infrared wavelengths helpful for healing sun damage. (11)

2. Hair Growth, Thickness and Shine

No, it won’t cause you to grow hair in new places (whew!), but several studies have found that red light therapy can increase hair follicle activity. For example, in this analysis, hair thickness, density and shine were improved with light therapy.

3. Supports Detoxification and Circulation

Photobiomodulation stimulates an increase in lymphatic system activity, which as discussed in this post on dry brushing assists with detoxification. (4) It also increases circulation via the formation of new capillaries, allowing more blood and oxygen to deliver nutrients throughout the body (6)

4. Optimizes Metabolism and Energy Levels

Although the exact mechanism is not yet fully understood, red light therapy increases the body’s ability to metabolize fat. It may be due to its ability to disperse (some say melt) adipocytes, which are cells that store fat. (3) 

Also, I sometimes joke that coffee is like a hug for my brain, but it only yields a temporary benefit that can actually deplete energy levels if not consumed wisely. Our mitochondria, on the other hand, are the source of true vitality within our bodies. They’re the powerhouses that make our cellular engines run, and the more robust they are they more energy we have to work with everyday.

5. Benefits for the Thyroid and Hormones

Researchers have found that it also has a beneficial impact on thyroid function for both women and men. There is also some evidence to suggest it may increase testosterone production in men. (10) (12)

6. Supports Healing And Recovery

Because it stimulates the production of ATP that restores, repairs, energizes, and maintains our bodies, red light therapy can be helpful for:

Reducing discomfort in the neck, back and joints (7)
Faster wound healing (6)
Faster muscle recovery (8)
Enhancing athletic performance (9)

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