Yes, You Can Be Red Light Deficient.
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
Red light therapy (RLT) is a very trendy topic these days. Everyone is talking about it. As someone who is a big advocate of RLT, I’m happy to see how much traction it is gaining. Before we get more into this, let’s do a quick refresher on some of the different kinds of light and how they affect us.
Sunlight is the main source of natural blue light (short wavelength, high energy). Think of blue light as your “wake up and go” type of light. Blue light is important for mental alertness and performance. If coffee were a light, blue light would be it. This type of light tells our bodies to slow down the production of melatonin (the sleep hormone that our bodies produce).
But get this. Serotonin (a neurotransmitter and hormone that acts as a mood stabilizer) is a precursor to melatonin, and the body makes serotonin from exposure to blue light. So what this essentially means is that you need blue light to make serotonin and then later make melatonin.
This is why, along with getting vitamin D, getting exposure to sunlight daily is so key to our overall health and wellness.
Then There is Artificial Blue Light.
After the sun has set and it gets dark outside, we don’t really need blue light for the purpose of regulating our circadian rhythm (the inner 24-hour cycle that governs literally all our bodily functions from when we get up and go to sleep, when our metabolism is most active and when various organ systems work at their peak efficiency). Melatonin responds to darkness. When it gets dark outside, our brain receives the signal to start producing melatonin.
The problem is most of us are exposed to very high amounts of artificial blue light through smart phones, computers, tablets, televisions, LED (light emitting diode) lights and fluorescent lights when it’s time to start getting that melatonin production going. This may be one of the reasons why so many of us suffer from insomnia and other sleep issues. It’s also important to note that it’s kind of putting a bandaid over a problem instead of getting to the root of the issue if you do not get sunlight during the day and then take melatonin supplements at night.
Sunlight (so natural blue light) offers many of the same benefits that red light does, however, exposing ourselves to the sun also exposes us to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays that can lead to premature skin aging and skin cancers if we get too much sun. This is why sunscreen, protective clothing and getting sun in moderation is key. It really is a delicate balance.
The issue people are currently battling is that they just get too much artificial blue light. It’s not like technology is going anywhere. If anything, it’s only going to get more prominent. So what we need is something to counteract all of this artificial blue light, and the sun cannot be the solution. Of course, you should try to limit looking at your phone or the television at night. You can also wear protective glasses that help block blue light, but the majority of us need something more aggressive. Enter red light therapy (RLT).
This therapy does not just involve a light that is tinted red. Red light therapy is a form of low-level laser (light) therapy (LLLT). It is offered in many medical office settings, and there are also red light boxes and red light face masks (more on this later) that you can purchase with a simple click on Amazon and use at home. If you get RLT at a medical office or medical spa, it will look like you are in a tanning bed. But think of it as a healthy “tanning” bed. During a session, the light delivers wavelengths of natural red and near infrared light. It’s like the wavelengths you get from sunlight without the harmful UV rays.
Unless we are regular recipients of red light therapy, I guess one could say that we are red light deficient. Remember, just as our vitamin and mineral levels should be in balance, our light levels should be balanced too. So many of us need this red light because, again, the exposure to artificial blue light is constant. “Back in the day” people didn’t have to worry about red light therapy, because they had no choice but to live with just the sun or candlelight and fire. They didn’t have to worry about how TVs and smartphones impacted their health (trust me I understand there were different issues, but we are not talking about that!).Mitochondria - the Cell's Powerhouse.
Red light has shown that it greatly helps with mitochondrial function. Almost every cell in our bodies has several thousand mitochondria. They process oxygen and help convert food into energy. More specifically, mitochondria help metabolize and break down carbohydrates and fatty acids. They make 90 percent of the energy our bodies need to function properly. So to say that they have an important job in keeping us healthy is an understatement. Essentially, red light increases the amount of energy in the cells.
According to one doctor who used red light therapy at home for three months (10 minutes a day, five days a week), red light therapy produces a low level inflammatory and free radical response which makes the body become more tolerant to cellular stresses in the future. It’s like red light therapy exercises the cells and gets them stronger. I highly recommend watching this doctor’s video to get some key insight on the benefits of RLT.
The doctor mentioned, who works long hours in a hospital with exposure to very little sunlight, said that three months of at-home red light therapy (he used a red light box) made him feel overall very good. He even broke his toe during a workout and said that applying red light seemed to help with pain and healing.
These two doctors, who are also advocates of red light therapy, discuss the question of how much is too much. The answer is we don’t really know, because this is really a new area of study. The concern is because RLT has become so popular, now people are purchasing red light face masks and boxes that they can use at home with really no guidance. People may be overusing them or buying gimmicky products that are not even effective.
Red light increases proliferation of cells, and the doctors discuss a study in which mice were seeded with tumors. When exposed to red light over a period of time, these tumors grew. So people might think that RLT could cause cancer to grow, however, we do not have a definitive answer. Furthermore, these tumors could have grown regardless and RLT may increase cell proliferation but it is also shown to cause acceleration of the cell cycle as a whole. This has proven to be highly beneficial.
Red Light Therapy & Sleep?
There is some evidence that red light therapy helps with sleep. I know I have slept better since starting this form of therapy. One study actually "confirmed the effectiveness of body irradiation with red light in improving the quality of sleep of elite female basketball players and offered a nonpharmacologic and noninvasive therapy to prevent sleep disorders after training."
NASA Research Also Hightlights the Benefits of Red Light Therapy.
As you can probably imagine, astronauts face many risks during space missions. Apparently they are exposed to very high levels of radiation - 10 times the radiation they are exposed to on earth. Keep in mind that some astronauts are in space for months. A trip to Mars takes six months! It's also important to note that because there is no gravity in space, astronauts experience muscle and bone atrophy as well as slower wound healing.
In the late 1980s, an engineer named Ron Ignatius partnered with NASA to study light-emitting diode (LED) technology and how it could possibly help plants grow in space. In 1995, Ignatius successfully executed a LED plant-growth unit that grew potatoes on a space shuttle.
"But the research had a side effect. The LEDs were red and blue because these are the most efficient light wavelengths for driving photosynthesis, and NASA scientists who spent time working with their hands under the lighting found that abrasions on their hands seemed to heal faster than normal," according to this account from NASA.
"This was how NASA stumbled into the world of medical light therapy. The agency saw a possible solution to a longstanding problem of space travel: without gravity, astronauts’ muscles and bones atrophy, and any wounds heal slowly, all of which endangers missions."
According to Science Direct, exposure to "red or near-infrared (NIR) light in low level light therapy (LLLT) is found to stimulate cellular processes and bioenergetics, resulting in enhanced wound healing, pain control, neurodegenerative diseases treatment, etc.”
There is also evidence that red light contributed to "healing of musculoskeletal injuries in Navy Seals, accelerated wound healing in Navy submarine crew members, and reduction of pain in children with oral mucositis."
For more information about red light therapy, read here.
I hope all this inspires you to learn as much as you can about red light therapy. Additionally, try to spend some time in the sun and do your best to reduce artificial blue light exposure every evening.
Enjoy your healthy life!
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Please consult with your doctor or another competent healthcare practitioner to get specific medical advice for your situation.
The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses, and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products, and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.