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How Does Red Light Therapy Actually Work?

The evidence for the benefits of light therapy - or photobiomodulation - is pretty compelling.  In fact, most would consider it downright convincing.  Justin, Cofounder and Head of R&D for Joovv, recently documented that red light therapy really does work.  But as he mentioned, it’s imperative that you choose a device that delivers the right amount of light within a specific wavelength.  Remember that.  Wavelength and energy are vitally important when using red light therapy.

With the right wavelength of light, coupled with the right amount of power, numerous studies have shown the following benefits of red light therapy:

  • Improved skin tone and complexion
  • Enhanced muscle recovery
  • Reduced acne, rosacea, and eczema
  • Improved appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, scars, and stretch marks
  • Enhanced circulation
  • Reduced pain and inflammation
  • Quicker healing of wounds and injuries

Impressive list, right?  But how does red light actually produce these types of results?  What’s going on in our bodies that allows for this type of healing power?  You’re not alone if you’re asking these types of questions.  I studied Biology and Chemistry as part of my undergraduate education.  So naturally, before my experience with Joovv, I asked myself the same things.  

Light therapy enhances cellular function

If you’ve done some research regarding the benefits of light therapy, you’ll often see the following as the rationale for its anti-aging properties:

  • Increased circulation through the formation of new capillaries.  Or, in other words, more blood and oxygen will help to deliver proper nutrients to damaged areas.
  • Enhanced activity within your lymph system, leading to a reduction in swelling and inflammation.
  • Increased collagen production, which directly relates to the elasticity, firmness, and fullness of your skin.

This is great information.  And it makes sense.  But unfortunately, most articles stop there.  So, we’ll try and go a step further in an effort to answer this question: How does red light therapy actually work at a cellular level?  

Side note: Some of this information gets pretty nerdy.  But if you bear with me, by the end of this article, I think you’ll feel a lot better about your understanding of how light therapy works at a cellular level.

Let’s Start With How Our Cells are Supposed to Function

All living things need to make ATP.  Some people even refer to it as the “energy currency of life”.  ATP is a small molecule with a huge job: to provide usable energy for cells.  ATP is produced through cellular respiration, which includes the following 4 steps:

  1. Glycolysis
  2. Pyruvate oxidation
  3. Citric acid (Kreb’s) cycle
  4. Oxidative phosphorylation

Most of this activity occurs within mitochondria, the “powerhouse” of the cell.  For the sake of this article, we’ll focus on the last step, oxidative phosphorylation.  That’s where red light therapy is believed to help the most.  

Without going too far into the weeds, this step of cellular respiration involves an electron transport chain.  As electrons move down this chain, energy is released and used to pump protons out of a matrix, forming a gradient. Protons flow back into the matrix through an enzyme called ATP synthase, making ATP.  (1,2)

So where does ATP synthase come from?  Well, the enzyme cytochrome c oxidase helps oxygen bind with NADH to form the necessary hydrogen ions that produce ATP synthase. (3)  If you remember anything, set your mind on this: oxygen plus NADH is a good thing when it comes to healthy cellular function.

Whew!  That’s some pretty meaty information.  But I warned you, right?  So before we go on, make sure you understand how a healthy cell is supposed to function.  Take another look at the paragraphs above if you have to.  And remember, oxygen plus NADH is good!

What Happens When Our Cells Aren’t Healthy?

When we get sick, injured, stressed, etc., mitochondria in our cells can produce nitric oxide (NO).  To understand the ramification of this, let’s go back to that little enzyme, cytochrome c oxidase.  

During the creation of ATP synthase, nitric oxide competes with oxygen and binds to this enzyme.  This, in turn, stops the eventual production of ATP and thereby increases oxidative stress, which can lead to cellular death. (4)  

So in summary, stressed cells produce nitric oxide (NO), which binds to cytochrome c oxidase and halts the production of ATP synthase.  Got it?  

Red Light and Cytochrome C Oxidase

So How Does Red Light Therapy Restore Cellular Health?

Remember, nitric oxide competes with oxygen and binds with cytochrome c oxidase, which stops the eventual production of ATP.  Well, it might be best to consider red and near infrared light to be our little hero when it comes to nitric oxide.  More on that in a second.

Now, there are different theories as to how photobiomodulation actually helps to restore normal cellular function.  But the following mechanism of action is backed by some pretty solid research conducted at Harvard University.

You see, red and near infrared light (with the right wavelengths and intensity) breaks the bond between nitric oxide and cytochrome c oxidase.  This allows oxygen to bind to NADH, which restores the normal pathway for hydrogen ions to produce ATP synthase. (4) So in summary, red and near infrared light frees up cytochrome c oxidase to allow for the eventual production of ATP.  

By breaking that bond and restoring the production of ATP, the result is normal cellular metabolism.  And once our cells are healthy again, we’ll see the following benefits that have been proven time and time again through published clinical literature:

  • Increased collagen production due to stimulated fibroblasts via the release of cytokines
  • Enhanced circulation through the formation of new capillaries
  • Improved anti-inflammatory emissions due to increased lymph system activity
  • Increased muscle recovery, peak athletic performance, and weight loss
  • Enhanced testosterone production through the stimulation of leydig cells
  • Reduced inflammation and joint pain
  • And believe it or not, a lot more!

Light therapy increases collagen

Why Collagen is so Important for Enhanced Health

Collagen is a long-chain amino acid and the most abundant protein in the body.  It’s responsible for giving skin elasticity, hair its strength, and connective tissue its ability to hold everything in place.  In fact, the collagen protein makes up 30% of the total protein in the body, and 70% of the protein in the skin! (5)

While collagen is beneficial to the entire body, it's most noticeably beneficial to the skin. This is because as a person ages, the epidermic (outer layer of skin) thins and loses elasticity in a process known as elastosis. As this happens, a person tends to show more signs of aging and acquires more wrinkles.  

But don’t fear.  By restoring normal cellular function, red light stimulates the production of collagen, which is why so many people have reported about the rejuvenating benefits of red light therapy!  

Summary: Red Light Therapy Enhances Cellular Performance

By helping to restore natural cellular function, there’s a good chance you'll look and feel rejuvenated after consistent use of red light therapy.  But remember, wavelength and intensity are incredibly imperative.  Make sure you choose a device that delivers red light with the correct wavelength and an optimal amount of power.

References:

(1) Raven, P. H.; Johnson, G. B.; Mason, K. A.; Losos, J. B.; Singer, S. R. How cells harvest energy. 2014 In Biology 10th ed. AP ed. pp. 122-146. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

(2) Reece, J. B.; Urry, L. A.; Cain, M. L.; Wasserman, S. A.; Minorsky, P. V; Jackson, R. B. Cellular respiration and fermentation. In Campbell Biology. 2011 10th ed. pp. 162-184. San Francisco, CA: Pearson.

(3) Yoshikawa, Shinya Shimada, Atsuhiro; Shinzawa-Itoh, Kyoko. 2015 Chapter 4 Respiratory Conservation of Energy with Dioxygen: Cytochrome c Oxidase. In Peter M.H. Kroneck and Martha E. Sosa Torres. Sustaining Life on Planet Earth: Metalloenzymes Mastering Dioxygen and Other Chewy Gases. Metal Ions in Life Sciences 15. Springer. pp. 89–130.Huang, Ying-Ying; Chen, Aaron C.-H.; Carroll, James D.; Hamblin, Michael R. Biphasic dose response in low level light therapy. 2009 Nonlinearity in Biology, Toxicology, and Medicine.

(4) Huang, Ying-Ying; Chen, Aaron C.-H.; Carroll, James D.; Hamblin, Michael R. Biphasic dose response in low level light therapy. 2009 Nonlinearity in Biology, Toxicology, and Medicine.

(5) Di Lullo, Gloria A.; Sweeney, Shawn M.; Körkkö, Jarmo; Ala-Kokko, Leena & San Antonio, James D. (2002). Mapping the Ligand-binding Sites and Disease-associated Mutations on the Most Abundant Protein in the Human, Type I Collage.. J. Biol. Chem. 277 (6): 4223–4231