I have spent the past fifteen years talking about how to eat to improve health. Well, it turns out that light can be just as important or perhaps even more important than what we eat. There is an abundance of research on the topic but few people seem to be aware of the benefits of light.
We need air, water and food to function but we also need light. Exposure to a particular section of the light spectrum including red and near-infrared can yield amazing health benefits. Our exposure to UV, far infrared and blue light also impacts our health but this article focuses on the benefits of red and near-infrared light.
In 1903, the Nobel Prize was awarded to a doctor, Niels Ryburg Finsen, for using red light to successfully treat lupus and smallpox. NASA studied red and near-infrared light in the 1990s and demonstrated that they help reduce bone and muscle loss in astronauts (1). Since then, more studies have identified applications of red and near-infrared light therapy for health.
For example, red and near-infrared light can benefit thyroid functioning. Studies demonstrate that those with Hashimoto's hypothyroidism who received red light treatments were able to reduce auto-immune activity against their thyroid, normalize TSH, and reduce prescription hormone needed (2, 3). Optimal levels of thyroid hormones are essential for thick hair, regular bowel movements, bone strength, blood sugar, cardiovascular health, healing, metabolism, brain function, reproductive hormones, and gall-bladder functioning, among other things. Regular light therapy can help optimize all these functions even in those without an officially recognized thyroid problem.
Besides activating the thyroid gland, researchers have found that light also activates the adrenal glands and regulates adrenal hormone production (4). The adrenals are grape-sized glands on the kidneys that produce stress hormones and are the secondary site of sexual hormone production. More beneficial light means better cortisol and other hormone regulation. This helps with mood, sleep and energy. When cortisol is out of balance from too much stress, poor diet or trauma, for example, it is known as cortisol dysregulation. This can lead to allergies, energy problems, belly fat, mood and blood sugar swings, insomnia, anxiety and depression. Problems with cortisol can be a red flag that a person may be at higher risk for other health issues. For example, cortisol dysregulation was found to be strongly associated with higher risk of death from breast cancer in one study (5). Because red light helps boost melatonin levels, it can balance cortisol and help with overcoming excess or deficiency in cortisol.
Red and near-infrared light can also have anti-inflammatory effects (6) and help with pain relief. Other studies have indicated benefits of red and near-infrared light for sleep, hair growth, wound healing, reversing skin aging and improving skin repair, skin tone, cellulite reduction, helping with healthy weight, and liver regeneration!
Another impressive benefit of the red and near-infrared light is its impact on health via melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone made primarily by the pineal gland in the brain in response to light levels. Melatonin is understood to be secreted to help initiate and maintain sleep. Without it, sleep cannot be induced properly. Red and near-infrared light helps to strengthen melatonin production naturally. Many people take a melatonin supplement to help with sleep. I prefer approaches such as red light over melatonin supplementation as it helps the body to make melatonin and balance hormones naturally.
Without melatonin, the biogenic amines (dopamine, serotonin, adrenalin, histamine) that are built photoelectrically and photochemically are not made properly and are not coupled to the cycles of light. This means that without a healthy light environment, anxiety, depression, energy, sleep, and mood issues can develop. A study found that the use of near-infrared light led to a significant reduction in depression and anxiety (7)!
Researchers found that melatonin plays a big role in overall immune health and genetic expression. Melatonin protects mitochondrial DNA, controls inflammation in cells and controls the turnover of DHA fatty acids inside our cells. That's a mouthful, but essentially, mitochondria are organelles inside our cells that produce ATP (how energy is carried in living cells). Melatonin triggered by the right light environment helps with energy balance. Mitochondria also control cellular stress responses like autophagy and apoptosis. These are ways that we breakdown infected cells or cancer cells, for example. Therefore, melatonin triggered by the right light environment also protects our health.
Mitochondria also direct other parts of the cells and influence a person's physiology through communication between cells and tissues. Mitochondrial functioning is a key factor in many diseases including cancer, auto-immunity, metabolic disorders, and neurodegenerative disorders. Melatonin protects mitochondrial DNA which in turn can reverse aging and turn disease processes on or off (8). Pretty exciting stuff!
The bottom line here is that if you have a healthy light environment, your melatonin levels can be optimized which in turn can slow aging and even potentially reverse disease processes.
How to create a healthy light environment
If you live in a place where you go out in the sunshine with minimal clothes year-round, then thumbs up!
If you live mostly indoors for some of the year like I do in Wisconsin, then you'll need to make some changes to your light environment:
1) Reduce artificial blue light. Artificial blue light is abundant in household lights, industrial lights, computers, tablets, and cell phones. It suppresses melatonin and is correlated with numerous negative health outcomes like insulin resistance and obesity (9). Wear blue blocker glasses especially after sunset and when using electronic screens. Install blue filters on your computer and phone screens. Turn lights down at sunset and before bed.
2) Go outside more. I understand red and near-infrared light are naturally strongest at sunrise and sunset (but it's good to go out any other time, too, the health benefits of being outside are great). I use a chart to log my daily time outside with the goal of 500-1000hrs annually and this, in addition to having a dog, have helped me increase my outside time.
3) The majority of the light therapy in the studies referenced above used near-infrared and red light. Purchase a near-infrared light bulb for as little as $10 such as this one on sauna space and install it in a heat lamp (can be purchased for low price at local hardware store). Be sure to purchase a low EMF bulb such as the one linked above. Joovv is an example of LED red light therapy that has impressive results. Sit 12-18 inches from the device. Clothes will block the light so you want to be minimally clothed for best results. Time period standing or sitting in front of the light will vary so follow the manufacturer's advice. For a near-infrared lightbulb, you would typically start with 20 minutes daily and increase time. An LED device like Joovv may require only 5-10 minutes for therapeutic benefits.
I currently use a near-infrared bulb almost daily like that from saunaspace. I have been doing this for the past two years. I read and fall asleep under it before bed on a far-infrared biomat pictured above. I can also tell that the blue blocker glasses I started wearing a year ago have helped with hormone balance (no more need for Chaste extract) and deeper sleep (more dreams). I am currently considering purchasing a joovv device to add red-light benefits to my indoor light environment.
In summary, there's plenty of evidence documenting that light therapy is beneficial for health. Now go outside more and get some red and infrared lights to use regularly to get started.
1.The Use of NASA Light-Emitting Diode Near-Infrared Technology for Biostimulation https://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=20030001599
2 Hofling et al 2010. Low-level laser therapy in chronic autoimmune thyroiditis: a pilot study. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20662037
4. Ishida et al 2005. Light activates the adrenal gland: Timing of gene expression and gluticorticoid release.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16271530
5. Stress hormone may contribute to breast cancer deaths. https://news.stanford.edu/news/2000/june28/breast-628.html
6. Hamblin 2017 Mechanisms and applications of the anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5523874/
7. Schiffer et al 2009. Psychological benefits 2 and 4 weeks after a single treatment with near infrared light to the forehead: a pilot study of 10 patients with major depression and anxiety. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19995444
8. Scientists reverse age-associated skin wrinkles and hair loss in a mouse model. https://www.uab.edu/news/research/item/9607-scientists-reverse-aging-associated-skin-wrinkles-and-hair-loss-in-a-mouse-model
9. From Dawn Till Dusk: The Dangers of Blue Light https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/from-dawn-till-dusk-the-dangers-of-blue-light/