Inside: Red light and near-infrared light therapy stimulate collagen production, help fade stretch marks and scars, support muscle recovery, hormone health, and more. We’ll dive into why it works, plus what to look for in a light therapy device.
“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)
My Experience With Red Light Therapy
I started using red light therapy during a really stressful time in my life several months ago. My husband and I drove our family through the night to close on a home in a new state, only to find out when we arrived that the seller had encountered a problem and we couldn’t buy the house.
The whole experience was incredibly draining, so I ordered a Joovv light to hang on my bedroom door. It’s nice and compact, which is great when you’re working with a small space. (I had to put my beloved sauna in storage until we have a permanent home, which will probably be about a year.)
With most things – healthy eating or taking a supplement for example – it usually takes some time and consistent use before change is noticeable.
That’s why I was pretty surprised when I noticed a surge in energy levels and mood after a week or two. I had more energy and was able to bounce back from daily stresses more easily, which is saying a lot because we were still dealing with some pretty significant challenges from our move.
I didn’t think to grab a lab work “snapshot” of my hormone levels and oxidative stress markers before starting because I wasn’t expecting to notice such a dramatic shift, but I’m absolutely certain that my hormone levels have increased overall. I’m not going to go into details on that, but trust me. 🙂
I’ve also noticed that I’m recovering from workouts more easily and my skin tone and texture have noticeably improved. I’m super interested to see how my skin and energy levels improve as I continue to use it – I’ll keep you posted!
My husband husband loves it, too . . . he says it makes him feel refreshed. He’s also using it to help with recovery as he works through an old sports injury in his ankle/foot area. (He had surgery on it years ago and it didn’t heal quite right, and lately he’s been working on improving strength and flexibility.)
The bright bulbs generate red light (660 nm) and the dark bulbs generate near-infrared light 850 nm) , which is invisible to the eye.
There are four things I believe are most important when looking for a red light therapy device: optimal wavelengths, therapeutic-level intensity, the size of the area that can be treated, and a safe EMF rating.
Some devices don’t disclose what wavelength (or wavelengths) they use, and some do disclose them but incorporate wavelengths that are not considered to have much biological activity.
For example according to Dr. Michael Hamblin, who is an Associate Professor of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School, one of the most-respected researchers on photobiomodulation, and a member of scientific advisory board for Joovv, “Wavelengths between 700 and 770 nm are not considered to have much activity.” (13)
Joovv discloses the wavelengths they use – 660 nm for red light and 850 nm for near-infrared light. Both were chosen because the bulk of the scientific literature centers on their benefits, and you can get them separately or together. The 660nm range is better for collagen production and other skin benefits, while the 850 is better for deep tissue issues like muscle recovery, joint discomfort, etc. I opted for the version that comes with a combination of both.
Intensity (Therapeutic Results In Less Time)
Some devices use the right wavelengths, but they’re not powerful enough to create a therapeutic effect in a short amount of time.
Here’s how Wes from Joovv explained it at the Bulletproof Conference last year: If you turn on a faucet to fill a cup of water, you can let it fill drop-by-drop or turn the faucet on full blast. Both will get the job done, but one will take a lot more time. Joovv lights have enough irradiance (intensity) to deliver a therapeutic amount of light in under ten minutes.
I bought my first red light therapy device years ago in an effort to help my husband recover from the surgery I mentioned above. I didn’t realize at the time that it was the correct wavelength for superficial skin issues but not deep tissue concerns. Also, although it had enough power, it wasn’t much bigger than a pen light and my husband gave up using it because it took FOREVER to complete a treatment. With the Joovv light, he can treat his entire body in less time than it takes to wash dishes after a meal (which he also does often – love him!)
Low-EMF – Joovv claims that at the recommended treatment distance their device is no-EMF. Earlier this year I invested in an EMF meter that is more precise than the Trifield meter I’ve been using for years, and I was able to confirm that even with the new, highly sensitive meter the Joovv showed zero increase in EMF’s when I turned it on and stood at the recommended treatment distance.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are some of the most common questions I’ve been asked – if you don’t see yours listed please let me know in the comments and I’ll try to get an answer for you.
How does sauna therapy compare with red light therapy?
They work using different – yet interdependent – mechanisms that make them complementary with each other.
Red light therapy is like eating a nourishing diet that builds the body up, but instead of metabolizing food your body metabolizes light to create the ATP needed to restore, repair, energize, and maintain your body.
Sauna therapy uses a mechanism called hormesis – aka beneficial stress – to stimulate a “cellular cleanup mode” called autophagy. Basically, imagine a bunch of little Pac Man guys going throughout the body and eating up cellular trash and debris that’s been lying around.
Our bodies need ATP to do the cleanup, and interestingly the more cleanup our bodies do (through frequent hormetic stress like exercise, sauna therapy and intermittent fasting) the more robust our ATP function becomes, so as you can see they truly are interdependent.
If you’re wondering about near-infrared saunas, here’s what you need to know: The lamps/heaters that deliver radiant heat to the body (which is the point of sauna therapy) usually contain on a very small amount of the wavelengths that break the cytochrome c oxidase bond and free up the body to make more ATP. Near-infrared saunas are beneficial, but not in the same way as light therapy.
Is red light therapy safe?
In general photobiomodulation is considered very safe, and although I can’t speak for all devices out there the light I use is considered safe for adults, kids, and even pets.
Regarding safety for the eyes: Dr. Michael Hamblin, who is the Associate Professor of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School I mentioned above, says that eyewear is not necessary. However, some people prefer to wear it because the light is very bright.
How long do Joovv bulbs last?
They have a lifespan of 50,000 hours.
Which is wavelength is better? Red light or near-infrared light?
The 660nm (red light) range is better for collagen production and other skin benefits, while the 850 (near-infrared) range is better for deep tissue issues like muscle recovery, joint discomfort, etc.
Which Joovv light do you use?
I opted for the version that comes with a combination of both red and near-infrared wavelengths. They have a 60 day free trial period, so if you don’t love it you just have ship it back in the original packaging.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you ever tried red light therapy?
What was your experience?
Sources for this article:
1. Cronin, Thomas, (2017) Seeing without eyes – the unexpected world of nonvisual photoreception. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/seeing-without-eyes1/
2. Wunsch, A et. al. (2014) A Controlled Trial to Determine the Efficacy of Red and Near-Infrared Light Treatment in Patient Satisfaction, Reduction of Fine Lines, Wrinkles, Skin Roughness, and Intradermal Collagen Density Increase. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24286286
3. Avci M.D., Pinar et.al. (2013) Low-Level Laser Therapy for Fat Layer Reduction: A Comprehensive Review. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3769994/
4. Hamblin, Michael. (2017) Mechanisms and applications of the anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5523874/
5. Ferraresi C et. al. (2012) Low-level laser (light) therapy (LLLT) on muscle tissue: performance, fatigue and repair benefited by the power of light. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23626925
6. Abreu Chaves, Maria Emilia de (2014) Effects of low-power light therapy on wound healing: LASER x LED. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4148276/
8. Al Rashoud, AS et. al. (2014) Efficacy of low-level laser therapy applied at acupuncture points in knee osteoarthritis: a randomised double-blind comparative trial. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24418801
9. Baroni, BM et. al. (2015) Effect of low-level laser therapy on muscle adaptation to knee extensor eccentric training. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25417170
10. Ahn, JC et. al. (2013) The effects of low level laser therapy (LLLT) on the testis in elevating serum testosterone level in rats. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/287248836_The_effects_of_low_level_laser_therapy_LLLT_on_the_testis_in_elevating_serum_testosterone_level_in_rats
13. Hamblin, Michael R. Mechanisms of Low Level Light Therapy. Retrieved from http://photobiology.info/Hamblin.html