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For centuries medical science seemed to be in some sort of “arms race” to find a silver bullet drug to treat every disease. With the discovery of antibiotics, we became enamored with the concept that diseases were simple processes with simple causes so we figured that we should be able to find a simple elegant solution to treat each condition. It just so happened that most people assumed the solution would be a drug.
Unfortunately, the successes that were found with this model in the treatment of infectious diseases didn’t translate to the treatment of chronic lifestyle-based diseases.
Instead, it turns out that the main killers today, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, autoimmune disease, and dementia are multi-factored conditions that require a holistic approach to cure. As mainstream medicine has continued to fail quite miserably in treating these conditions with symptom-based drugs, a new model of thinking has emerged. One that is focused on the lifestyle factors that interact with our genes to turn on the underlying processes that drive degenerative diseases.
Lifestyle-driven functional medicine views the health of the body through a slightly different lens than purely conventional medicine. Instead of looking for symptom treatments that come at the end stages of the disease, we are focused on root-cause treatments that solve fundamental imbalances in the body’s function. Many of these can be detected early on in the process of health decline.
This new model is shining a light on new solutions for the plagues of our day by refocusing us on the most basic environmental inputs into how our bodies function. We are learning more and more that when our genetics are in balance with the environment that they are suited for, simple interventions can have a wide impact on multiple systems.
The Emergence of Light Therapy
One of the most powerful ways that our natural environment is designed to influence the body is through the effect of natural light. Of course, there is no way life could exist on this planet without the presence of our sun. The sun’s light is essential to life and it turns out that each part of the sun’s electromagnetic spectrum has a part to play.
All Types of Light Have Potent Effects
Most people are aware of the importance of the sun’s UV rays to stimulate our skin to create vitamin D. But what if I told you that wasn’t even half of it? One of the leading experts on the benefits of light therapy, Ari Whitten shared the following graphic on his website Turns out that every wavelength of light has an impact on our health in some way.
Previously we’ve highlighted the important role of UV light in stimulating Vitamin D production as well as the impact of blue light in setting a healthy circadian rhythm for the regulation of sleep and stress hormone health.
Far infrared light is often used as a powerful support for detoxification in infrared saunas like this great portable home unit that we love.
Red and Near-Infrared Light: The New Kid on the Block
The latest light wavelength to gain popular press has been red light and near-infrared light, and for good reason. Currently, there are over 3,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies that highlight the positive impact of these wavelengths of light.
It turns out that our cells have over a dozen mechanisms whereby they can transform light energy (photons) into chemical energy (the scientific name for this is photobiomodulation) and through these processes, we have learned that specific wavelengths of light have predictable effects on our tissues.
Key Benefits of Red and Near-Infrared Light Exposure
Some of the areas that have been studied include:
Improving Skin Health
Red and near-infrared light has the ability to cause an increase in the skin protein called collagen that can lessen the appearance of wrinkles, lighten sun-damaged skin and even lower local inflammation of the skin associated with acne and psoriasis.
Lowering Inflammation and Pain
Turns out that red and near-infrared light can cause a local release of endorphins, the body’s own pain-relieving substances as well as lower overall inflammation in the tissues. This is a fantastic therapy for those with chronic pain and fibromyalgia.
Improving Cellular Energy
Our cellular power factories called mitochondria have receptors for red and near-infrared light and these wavelengths of light trigger an increase in energy production, basically causing a more efficient production of energy in each cell.
Improving Repair and Growth
Because of the increased healthy function of the cells, red light and near-infrared light can speed the healing of soft tissues like muscles, ligaments, and tendons as well as aid in muscle recovery after exercise and increased muscle growth. Research also shows that red and near-infrared light can speed the healing of bone.
Boosting Fat Loss
Another impact of red and near-infrared light wavelengths on the fat cells of the body. When fat cells are exposed to red and near-infrared light, there is a temporary alteration in the permeability of the cell membrane, causing the cells to empty their fatty acids into the space between the cells. The cells shrink in size and the fluid is then taken up by the lymphatic system to be metabolized as energy. Red light is the safest and simplest body contouring and skin healing modality available on the market. Coupling red light therapy with diet and exercise can literally double the effect of body fat loss and improve muscle health.
Improved Brain Health and Mood
Studies have shown that transcranial red and near-infrared light therapy can improve cognitive performance, increase executive function, and improve attention span and short-term memory retrieval. Studies have also shown benefits in the treatment of anxiety and depression.
Improved Hormone Balance & Fertility
Millions of people suffer from diabetes and one of the main long-term outcomes for those people is foot ulcers due to poor blood flow to those areas. Red and near-infrared light can not only improve circulation to those areas but by increasing the energy available to those cells, they can return to normal function. In addition, red and near-infrared light can lower the stress hormone cortisol as well as sperm motility in men and therefore improve fertility.
IdealBody Light Therapy
So what is the best device? There are all sorts of options out there and different applications for different conditions. We’re trying to get a therapeutic dose of light in the right frequency to the right tissues. So we have to consider a few parameters; namely wavelength, power (or wattage), and treatment time.
Different devices can have slightly different wavelengths of light and still be “red”. The least expensive red light diodes are usually 635 nm but there is some evidence that higher wavelengths between 650 and 685 may be more beneficial.
As I mentioned before, beyond the red visible light spectrum we have infrared that is invisible to our naked eye. It is also very healing so if we can get exposure to infrared wavelengths of light as well, we’re doubly benefitted. Those are typically in the 850 nm wavelength range.
Okay, so once we have the right wavelength, we have to get the right depth of penetration. This has to do with the power that is pushing the light waves. This is measured in milliwatts or watts. Generally, the higher the wattage, the deeper it will penetrate. A little laser pointer used to do your office presentation is 5 milliwatts. Very weak. There are some very expensive clinical lasers that are very weak and surprisingly, they have research to back up their effectiveness but it is a bit counterintuitive as to how a weak laser can do as much as a more powerful one can.
This gets into laser “classes” and is beyond the scope of this podcast but obviously, surgeons are using lasers to cut parts of the body or vaporize hair follicles so suffice it to say, the higher the wattage, the more heat is generated and the more potential for damage to the tissues. Even higher-power therapeutic lasers have to be constantly in motion so that the tissues don’t overheat. By that same logic, the higher power of the light source, and the number of light diodes, the wider the treatment area can be and the shorter the treatment time can be.
Now we have to also talk about the difference between lasers and LED diodes. Both of these sources can produce specific wavelengths of light but lasers have special optical properties that force the wavelengths of light to all line up together into a beam. Because they are all lined up we say that the light is “coherent” and it doesn’t dissipate as quickly. That’s why a laser pointer can shoot a straight beam for long distances. In contrast, non-coherent light would be more like a flashlight. Even a bright flashlight will dissipate the light over a wider area and lose its intensity over distance. Because of these optical properties, laser diodes are more expensive than LED in general.
I realize that even with only discussing these 3 parameters, I’m already in the weeds on this.
Let’s just summarize and say that not all devices are the same. It really comes down to what you’re wanting to do with this therapy.
For instance, in our office,
we have a 50,000 mW super pulsed laser with 3 different wavelengths of light, 660, 875, and 905 nm with a treatment area of 2cm. These are used primarily for the treatment of injured tissues like muscles and joints in a clinical setting.
But we also have a full-body system with over 5,100 LEDs of red and infrared diodes at 190 mW per diode that wraps around and covers most of the body. We have treatment packages that allow for up to 8 full body sessions per month for under $200.
When it comes down to incorporating red light therapy into your lifestyle on a consistent basis, we have to find systems that are affordable. You may have seen wall systems that a person can stand in front of. These are okay but the price goes up based on the size of the panel. They do allow for large treatment areas but the farther away you stand from them, the less benefit they provide.
Another option that we’ve found to be really helpful for people is a smaller pad like this DNAVibe pad that is under $300. Not for total body use but excellent for spot treatments and they have a pretty good-sized treatment area. LED with red and near-infrared as well as a pulsed magnetic field and micro-vibration.
For more information on those devices, I’ll add links in the show notes.
Okay, that’s enough information for today. Remember, all wavelengths of the light spectrum have a role to play in our health. Red and near-infrared lights are enjoying lots of attention right now because of the amazing healing potential that they carry. There are a lot of parameters that determine the dose of light that you are able to access. Work with a practitioner that is knowledgeable about these factors. And if you want to benefit from this tech at home, click to learn more about the devices that we recommend for home use.
Okay, that’s it. Until next time, let your light shine before others and do something good in the world today.
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Disclaimer: This podcast is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical care by a licensed practitioner. This podcast is provided on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services. If you’re looking for help on your journey, we recommend that you seek out a qualified functional medicine practitioner.