Light that makes you prettier, smarter and younger

Fading wrinkles, melting fat and brain fog blown away: bathing in the glow of red light for 15 minutes a day is invigorating, healing and even rejuvenating, studies suggest.

It sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s serious science: there is a type of light that can profoundly improve your health and even reverse aspects of ageing. But just like vitamins, if you don’t get enough of it, you can get sick.

Light is electromagnetic radiation that consists of a broad spectrum of wavelengths. Only a tiny part of the spectrum is visible to the human eye, but the invisible wavelengths also have an impact. Think of ultraviolet radiation (UVA and UVB) that can set the skin on fire, damage DNA and stimulates the synthesis of vitamin D. The light that I am going to sing the praises of in this blog is in the spectrum that is partly just visible and partly just not visible: red and near infrared light.

Ultraviolet light: wavelength 100 – 400 nanometres

Visible light: wavelength 400 – 700 nanometres

Red light: wavelength 600 – 700 nanometres

Near-infrared light: wavelength 700 – 1100 nanometers

For convenience, I refer to red and near-infrared light as ‘red light’ in this blog. Nowadays there are affordable panels with LED lamps that produce various types of red light – more on that later.

Scientists have, in relative silence, conducted thousands of studies with red light over the past decades. The results are nothing short of spectacular. In his book The Ultimate Guide to Red Light Therapy, author Ari Whitten lists the effects found with a daily dose of red light.

Red ad Near Infrared light seems to:

  • Stimulate fat loss
  • Accelerate wound healing
  • Boost testosterone
  • Stimulate neurogenesis and formation of new synapses in the brain
  • Inhibition of mental decline due to ageing
  • Faster recovery after exercise
  • Improve eye health
  • Reduction of wrinkles, lines and chapped vessels in the skin
  • Potentially supportive of cancer chemotherapy
  • Improved functioning of various endocrine glands
  • Improve fertility
  • Inhibiting gum inflammation

All these and other claims are based on small studies, the results of which must be considered preliminary. Yet, all the evidence put together starts to make a convincing case for red en Near Infrared light. A prominent pioneer of this new branch of science is Michael Hamblin, a professor at Harvard University. Because of the universal health effects of red light therapy, Hamblin expects that in the future everyone will have a red light panel in their home.

Melatonin is a versatile antioxidant

To understand why red light could have magical powers, we need to talk about a hormone: melatonin. Most people know melatonin as the ‘sleep hormone’. As soon as it gets dark, a group of cells in the brain called the pineal gland starts secreting melatonin and the level of the hormone rises in the blood. For our nervous system, this is the sign that it is time for bed. If you have trouble falling asleep, a melatonin tablet can boost this signal, making you sleepy. This trick can also work if jet lag keeps you awake.

Fewer people know that in addition to being a “sleep hormone”, melatonin is one of the most powerful and versatile antioxidants our bodies produce. Melatonin not only targets free radicals extremely effectively on its own, but it also stimulates the production of other endogenous antioxidants, including superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase and glutathione. In a recent article with the revealing title ‘Is Melatonin the Cornucopia of the 21st Century?’ Italian researchers describe the many beneficial effects and possible applications of melatonin: the hormone protects the brain, heart, vessels and skin, prevents bone loss, promotes male and female fertility, helps to shed excess pounds and probably prevents cancer.

How does melatonin do all this?

Mitochondria are the power plants of the cell

The answer lies with the mitochondria, the cell’s ‘energy plants’. Imagine 1,000 to 2,000 of these organelles in each cell, providing the energy that drives all cellular processes, from repairing damaged DNA to forming new proteins and controlling cell division. The reason we breathe is because mitochondria use oxygen to convert glucose and fatty acids into the energy that keeps us alive. This fundamental process creates a kind of waste: free radicals, aggressive molecules that attack everything in the cell and also the DNA in the cell nucleus. This harmful process is also referred to as ‘oxidative stress’. According to Denham Harman’s 1956 Free Radicals Theory of Ageing, this is the root cause of the degenerative process we call ageing. Since then, the popularity of supplements with antioxidants such as vitamins C and E has soared. However, we now know that bombarding the body with antioxidants does not significantly slow down ageing. Antioxidants are useful, but they do not stop the clock. That is why the Free Radicals Theory of Ageing has ended up in the junk drawer of science (but not thrown away!).

Free radicals from the mitochondria mainly damage the mitochondria themselves, which therefore age faster than the cells they supply with energy. As we age, mitochondria perform less well, their number decreases and they cause even more oxidative stress. The author of the Free Radicals Theory of Ageing replaced it with the Mitochondrial Theory of Ageing in 1972. Mitochondrial deterioration is now considered one of the root causes of ageing.

One reason why taking antioxidants does not have a decisive impact on the ageing process, could be because they do not penetrate the mitochondria – where they are most needed – or they do so insufficiently.

Melatonin protects the mitochondria

Melatonin from the pineal gland is distributed with the blood through the body and is readily absorbed by mitochondria*.  The ‘sleep hormone’ thus plays a crucial role in protecting mitochondria against oxidative stress. And thus against ageing. Because when mitochondria continue to function better, everything else continues to function better.

Unfortunately, the ability of the pineal gland to produce melatonin declines as we age. Moreover, in the evening and at night we ourselves suppress the formation of melatonin with the blue light from televisions, laptops, tablets and smartphones. After all, the pineal gland only produces melatonin when it is dark.

An important new insight of recent years is that mitochondria are not completely dependent on the melatonin produced by the pineal gland at night in the dark. Body cells make their own melatonin and this happens in the mitochondria * * * . The amount of melatonin made in our cells is altogether many times greater than what the pineal gland produces. Scientists now suspect that the melatonin made in body cells has a great inpact on health and ageing* .

Red light stimulates melatonin

While the pineal gland makes melatonin when it is dark, mitochondria produce melatonin under the influence of light. Red light*.

Red light is abundant in sunlight, but also in the soft glow of the moon, candles, the fireplace and a campfire. Old fashioned light bulbs emit red light too. You wouldn’t know it, but red light penetrates our body to an estimated eight centimetres and reaches sixty percent of all our cells* . It also penetrates the skull and reaches brain cells right into the folds of the cerebral cortex. Because (immune) cells in the blood collect the light, its effect is also distributed via the bloodstream to tissues that are inaccessible to red light.

Scientists think that our body is adapted to red light by the principles of evolution. In other words, over the past millions of years our body has learned to make use of red light. In fact, it has become dependent on it. Without red light, mitochondria produce little melatonin and the melatonin from the pineal gland is not enough. As a result, mitochondria are insufficiently protected against free radicals. The result is accelerated ageing of the mitochondria.

Too little red and too much blue light are disastrous for melatonin

Problem: Our modern lifestyle means that we absorb far less red and near-red light than in earlier times. Not only because we spend a lot of time indoors, but also because we have drastically reduced our exposure to this type of light since the incandescent light bulb was abolished. The energy-efficient bulbs with which we now light our homes and offices emit zero red light. They do, however, provide a lot of blue light, which suppresses the pineal gland’s natural melatonin production in the evening. So we are reducing both the pineal and mitochondrial melatonin by our own actions. And that is asking for trouble.

Solution: be outside all day and spend the evenings by the light of candles and the fireplace. Not realistic? Instead, a daily session with LED lights that emit red light may do the job. Ten to twenty minutes is said to be enough. This gives the production of melatonin in the cells a strong boost*. Harvard scientist Michael Hamblin, mentioned earlier, argues in this review that red light may even be used to rejuvenate essential parts of the immune system.

In recent decades, a new field of study has developed around red and near-infrared light. Treatments are referred to as photobiomodulation, low-level laser therapy and near-infrared phototherapy. The emphasis is on treatments lasting no more than thirty minutes, although it has been shown that under the influence of red and near-infrared light, the energy production of mitochondria increases within a few minutes*.

Some treatments involve irradiating the entire body. In 2012, Chinese athletes who spent half an hour every day for fourteen days on a red-light tanning bed in swimming costumes had their melatonin levels increased. Moreover, they performed better in a running test afterwards* . Results are also achieved with smaller light panels. According to a series of (small) experiments, by regularly shining red light on your face, you can reverse aspects of skin aging such as wrinkles, age spots and dryness* . By shining red light on the scalp, according to a number of studies, hair loss in general and hereditary male pattern baldness in particular can be combated * * * *.

If you want to know more about this subject, the following books are recommended:

Low-Level Light Therapy: Photobiomodulation by M. Hamblin and others.

The Ultimate Guide To Red Light Therapy by Ari Whitten.

Blog by Pim Christiaans