For a long time I’ve been interested in light therapy. Up until recently I’ve just dabbled with 250W incandescent bulbs, and the odd red reptile light, suspended awkwardly in chicken lamps or whatever lamp I could access that would take such high wattage bulbs. However I only used these sporadically, not fully understanding the difference between these types of light spectrums and exactly why I was using them. Then I heard about the Red Light Man, Joe Hollins-Gibson, all the way over in the UK. His website clarified much of my confusion, and inspired me to get more serious about using more red light, more regularly. I purchased one of his compact but powerful Red Light Devices (pictured below), and when I contacted Joe directly with more questions, he generously shared more of his knowledge with me. Since then we’ve been Skyping and have put together this 2 Part Q&A that will hopefully throw light on this topic, if you’ve been unsure yourself about how light therapy (red light in particular) can improve not only your skin, but your overall health.
Emma: How did you first get into light therapy and what inspired you to get into the business of making your own lights?
Joe: I’m not quite sure where I first came across red/IR light therapy. I think it’s one of those things many people have heard of, but usually dismiss outright as woo-woo and unscientific. The dodgy marketing pervasive in the industry doesn’t help with that. Plus it can be expensive, inconvenient and with no obvious mechanism behind it.
I first started to take it seriously when I saw Danny Roddy doing blog posts about it with regards to hair loss. His explanations of the mechanism from a bioenergetic perspective really made sense. Going from there I discovered the field of photobiomodulation (which is basically the scientific name for red/IR light therapy) and delved into the literature/studies done using low level lasers and LEDs. I found tens of thousands of high quality studies (start with this one) on both animals and humans, treating everything from superficial wounds to severe infertility, and it quickly became evident to me that red/infrared light is a fundamental factor in cellular metabolism and health, across all species. Some of the key researchers I’ve learnt from are Dr Michael Hamblin, Dr Tiina Karu and Dr Ray Peat.
That was several years ago now, and having not found any good light therapy products at a reasonable price, we founded Red Light Man and went from there.
Emma: How does ‘red light’ differ to sunlight, and how does it affect us differently, to increase metabolism and at the skin level to prevent, rather than promote, skin ageing?
Light Basics & Light Therapy
What we consider ‘light’ is a part of the electromagnetic spectrum, more specifically – photons travelling through space with certain wavelengths. Human eyes can see these photons, providing they are between the wavelengths of 400nm (blue) and 700nm (red). Beyond that on either side you have the invisible ultraviolet and infrared – our eyes just don’t have receptors for these. The wavelength of the photon determines the colour our eyes perceive.
Sunlight contains photons of a wide variety of wavelengths/colours (250nm – 2000nm) and the exact spectrum at any given time depends on the solar elevation. Sunlight at sunrise and sunset for example is dominated by the red end of the spectrum, so is quite valuable, whereas midday sunlight (and twilight) contains more of the blue light. If you were to look at the sun from outer space, it would appear totally white. The atmosphere has a big impact on the light reaching the surface of earth, due to an effect called Rayleigh scattering (which also explains why the sky is blue).
Sunlight vs. light therapy
Red (& infrared) light, as used in therapy, refers to the wavelength range 600nm – 950nm, which is a narrower range than sunlight, but contained within it. So is it possible to use the sun for red light therapy? Sort of but not really. This is because the power density (photons per area) of red light contained within sunlight falls just below the established density required to give direct effects on mitochondrial function, especially deeper in the body. This isn’t to say that sunlight is without benefits, but just that appropriate red light therapy from artificial sources has different benefits to it.
Midday sunlight in excess can lead to sunburn and photoaging due to the damaging effects of blue and ultraviolet on the skin. Red light therapy however actually works to prevent photoaging, plus soothe and heal sunburn; it has been shown to stimulate, heal and restore the quality of skin (see here).
Light therapy for energy
The reason red and infrared light are good for the skin (or brain or muscles etc.), is thought to be due to the effects on mitochondrial energy production. The light is absorbed by a protein called Cytochrome C Oxidase, which exists inside our mitochondria and is intricately involved in the final stage of respiration – producing ATP (energy), carbon dioxide and water.
This ATP is essential for all functions of life. It is thought that the light removes an inhibitory/stress molecule called nitric oxide, therefore restoring the normal function of processing oxygen again. From this perspective, red light has a unique anti-stress effect. Other hypotheses state that different wavelength ranges (peaks: 620nm, 670nm, 760nm, 830nm) hit different parts of Cytochrome, leading to different effects on electron flow, or alternatively that the light has nothing to do with mitochondria and exerts its benefits by changing the structure and surface tension of cellular water.
I believe that all of these hypotheses could be true, but whatever the actual mechanism, red light indirectly normalises energy production, which downstream enables our body to perform all of its normal functions optimally; from quicker cellular repair/healing to normalised collagen production.
Emma: Speaking of collagen, I’d love to know your thoughts on the misconceptions surrounding this topic, particularly in the beauty industry. We hear about ‘anti-ageing’ products and treatments that claim to tout the ‘benefits’ of “stimulating collagen production, for more youthful, wrinkle-free skin…” However this is a contradiction, since it’s the overproduction of collagen that occurs with ageing, replacing the more flexible elastin, that actually creates wrinkles.
This becomes even more confusing when people are encouraged to increase their dietary consumption of gelatin (cooked collagen) and gelatinous meats for regenerative and pro-metabolic benefits. I recently asked Biologist Ray Peat to elaborate on this distinction, and this was his response:
“Collagen is a stress-resisting component of connective tissues, and various kinds of stress cause cells to produce more of it—pressure, stretching, high estrogen, hypoxia, nitric oxide, lactic acid, etc. Several of the amino acids in gelatin have antistress effects that probably often protect against excessive collagen synthesis.” – Ray Peat PhD
Collagen & Skin
Yeah, it’s one of the most misunderstood topics in the health and beauty world. A lot in the red light therapy industry focus on how light benefits wrinkles and ‘stimulates collagen production’. That’s true in some ways and untrue in others though – too much collagen formation is actually the root cause of wrinkles, fibrosis and scars. You can see this more obviously in animals. For example meat from a lamb is tender and easy to chew, but meat from an older sheep is harder and chewy (usually needs slow-cooking) – simply due to the accumulation of collagen over time. Layers of healthy cells that give flexibility, elasticity and normal function are replaced by hardened collagen deposits. Some even think this phenomena on the scalp is one of the primary causes of pattern baldness. In general it seems to be an adaption to local and systemic stress, making an organism ‘tougher’ but less versatile. Acne scars are a good example of too much collagen formation.
(pictured: A seasoned truck driver showing advanced collagen formation on the right side of face, but smooth skin on the left.)
I suppose the fact that some gelatin/collagen protein powders are actually healthy to consume makes the topic more confusing. The common perception is that gelatin/collagen powder or gelatinous broths and such help to ‘stimulate collagen production’ by providing the raw amino acid materials for better joints/firmer skin or something. In fact though, consuming dietary collagen helps to give a pro-thyroid hormonal effect from the glycine content – improving sleep and reducing inflammation. In stressed individuals, consuming dietary collagen will therefore actually reduce their internal collagen production.
Collagen, metabolism and light
You ideally only want a minimal amount of collagen deposited around the body to act as a framework for healthy cells to be housed in – have too much and there’s no more room for metabolically active cells anymore – with scars being the best example of this, but also wrinkles, fibrosis, and general lack of flexibility over time.
So a stressed metabolism leads to greater collagen production, and that’s a bad thing if you want to look youthful. Inflammation is the cause of the excess production.
A perfectly healthy metabolism leads to normal collagen production. Red light, by supporting a healthy metabolism (through improved energy production), gives the normal collagen production that you want.
Basically light works against all of the stress hormones that cause inflammation and excess collagen production. So red light most certainly does prevent wrinkles, by normalising collagen production. It is also proven to prevent and reduce scar formation after surgery or other wounds. We have more information on the topic here.
Read Part 2 here – Getting started with light therapy at home, and how to use light for maximum effects.
Disclaimer: My posts are not meant to be individualised treatment plans, protocols, etc. I share what I research and use, and that is it. They are meant to spark thought based on the normal anatomy, physiology and biochemistry of the body. The information contained in this blog should not be used to treat or diagnose disease or health problems and is provided for your information only.