It’s not just diet that matters… light can have a huge effect on the body and overall health. Adequate exposure to sunlight, for example, actually makes the body produce vitamin D, an important nutrient. Photobiomodulation or red light therapy is another way of using light to affect health in a positive way (though it doesn’t produce vitamin D).
What Is Photobiomodulation?
Photobiomodulation therapy (also called PBM or PBMT) is a treatment that uses low-power lasers, light-emitting diodes, or other light sources to emit red light directly into the body. It can’t be felt (despite the fiery red glow, it doesn’t create any heat) so it doesn’t cause any discomfort. Photobiomodulation is also known as red light therapy, low-level light therapy (LLLT), low-level laser therapy, biostimulation, photonic stimulation, or light box therapy.
Studies have shown that different frequencies of light have different biological effects. Although it may not feel like anything is happening, these specific wavelengths of red light penetrate cells and create a positive change in the body. (The most effective wavelengths of red light are in the ranges of 630 to 670 nm and 810 to 880 nm.)
Photobiomodulation is FDA-approved for some conditions such as wound healing and joint pain. Other uses include:
- improved natural production of collagen and fibroblasts
- increased blood flow
- enhanced muscle recovery
- soft tissue repair
- improved skin tone
- reduced incidence of skin conditions
- inflammation reduction
- oxidative stress reduction
- new capillaries formation
- lymphatic system activation
PBM is usually well tolerated and safe for most people. Some may experience mild and short-lived side effects such as headache irritability and eye strain.
How Does Photobiomodulation Work?
Photobiomodulation works by affecting health on the cellular level. This therapy improves cellular energy production which improves many areas of health.
Cellular Energy Production
All living things need to make Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) or cellular energy. ATP is the source of energy for every cell in the body. Without it, we can’t function.
When cells are healthy and happy, ATP is produced by the following:
- During cellular respiration, an enzyme, cytochrome c oxidase (CCO), helps oxygen bind with NADH (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide and hydrogen).
- This produces ATP synthase (necessary for ATP production).
- ATP synthase converts proton energy into ATP.
When cells are not healthy and happy (because of illness, stress, etc.), the following occurs:
- Stressed cells create nitric oxide.
- Nitric oxide competes with oxygen and binds to CCO.
- ATP synthase production can’t be produced without NADH and oxygen.
- ATP can’t be produced without ATP synthase.
In other words, stress makes cellular energy production difficult, if not impossible.
How Photobiomodulation Affects Cellular Energy
One way to make sure we have happy cells producing enough ATP is by absorbing photons from red light into the skin.
Red light can penetrate 8 to 10 millimeters into the skin, which is enough to affect the body on a cellular level. It then stimulates the production of reactive oxygen species that help send signals from mitochondria to the nucleus.
Red light also breaks the bond of nitric oxide with CCO, allowing it to bind with oxygen to make ATP synthase.
Because photobiomodulation has an effect on mitochondrial health, any ailment that is caused by mitochondrial dysfunction could theoretically be helped with PBM. In fact, some experts believe that what we think of as adrenal fatigue is actually mitochondrial dysfunction, so PBM may be helpful with that ailment as well.
Is Photobiomodulation the Same as Using an Infrared Sauna?
PBM differs from sauna health benefits because they do not work the same or use the same wavelengths of light. Infrared saunas use near-infrared light or far-infrared light to heat the body. This impacts health by increasing heart rate, perspiration, and heat shock proteins. Infrared light from a sauna is invisible and penetrates much deeper into the body with wavelengths at 3,000-15,000 nm.
PBM is not designed to do these things. It is meant to stimulate mitochondrial function and ATP production, essentially feeding the cells so they function better.
Benefits of Photobiomodulation
Photobiomodulation affects cellular health so it has the potential to improve many areas of health.
Photobiomodulation has a profound effect on the skin in human and animal models. First, it’s considered an anti-aging skin treatment, improving wrinkles and other age-related skin issues.
PBM increases circulation to help form new capillaries and generate collagen. Collagen is very important for healthy and young-looking hair, skin, and nails. In fact, collagen is about 70% of the protein in our skin!
Red light therapy also improves production of fibroblasts. Fibroblasts are cells within the dermis layer (second layer) of the skin. They help maintain connective tissue and synthesize collagen, which helps with wound healing. Red therapy light stimulates these fibroblasts to do this important work.
Other skin benefits include speeding healing in:
- skin grafts
- infected wounds
- skin damage caused by cancer treatments, including those in the mouth and mucous membranes
Photobiomodulation can help with skin issues like acne, psoriasis, rosacea, and eczema. Again, it does this by stimulating collagen and ATP production.
After pregnancy, many women have hair loss issues. I know I saw way too much hair go down the drain in the morning after having a baby. PBM is a surprisingly good remedy for hair loss. A 24-week study found that participants who used a red-light-emitting helmet had significantly improved hair density and hair thickness without any serious side effects.
The reason for this improvement could be that PBM improves collagen production and circulation, which in turn supports healthy hair.
Metabolism and Weight
PBM is also beneficial to metabolism and can help maintain a healthy weight. Researchers of a 2017 study believe that photobiomodulation affects cells that store fat by reducing levels of a protein (CTRP7) associated with glucose intolerance, insulin resistance, and high triglyceride levels. In other words, PBM can improve metabolic function by suppressing CTRP7.
Photobiomodulation can also affect the appetite. A 2012 study published in the International Journal of Endocrinology showed that light can affect hunger. In sleep-deprived patients, red light therapy helped control levels of the hormones leptin and ghrelin.
Leptin affects appetite and energy consumption by interfering with the body’s natural hunger signals. Balanced leptin helps prevent cravings and overeating, which in turn helps with maintaining a healthy weight.
As someone who suffers from Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, I was really interested in learning about photobiomodulation and how it may help the thyroid. What I found is that PBM can have a huge impact on thyroid health.
One 2013 clinical trial showed an impressive improvement in thyroid health from light therapy. Many participants were able to reduce or eliminate their thyroid medication. During the nine-month follow up to the study, a whopping 47 percent of the participants no longer needed medication.
Other studies also found that photobiomodulation can help reduce the need for medication. This is a huge finding considering so many thyroid patients are told they will have to take medication for the rest of their lives.
When looking at Hashimoto’s (autoimmune thyroid problems) specifically, the study also found a reduction in thyroid peroxidase (TPOAb) antibodies. These antibodies point to an autoimmune thyroid condition. Reducing this antibody count means patients are having less of an autoimmune hyper reaction and may avoid some of the issues with autoimmune thyroid disease.
As Dr. Isabella Wentz mentions in this blog post, photobiomodulation can reduce these antibodies by increasing transforming growth factor B (TGF-B). This cytokine helps to reduce thyroid autoimmunity by making the body more tolerant of itself.
Cellular energy production and health, as well as collagen production, play a part in joint and musculoskeletal health. Collagen acts as a shock absorber in the joints and also acts as a glue to hold them together. In degenerative diseases like arthritis, lack of collagen and increased inflammation are often present. PBM can help reduce the symptoms of degenerative tissue disease. A 2009 Cochrane systematic review found that PBM is beneficial for treating rheumatoid arthritis pain and stiffness.
According to a 2009 study, patients with other degenerative tissue ailments also found lasting relief from PBM treatment.
How to Use Photobiomodulation Therapy
You can find this treatment at some rheumatologist or dermatologist offices, and some spas and salons may also offer this therapy at $50-$100 a session. PBM is still considered an alternative treatment by many healthcare professionals (despite its FDA approval) so getting your insurance company to pay for it may be difficult.
According to Michael R. Hamblin, Ph.D., PBM may be finally coming into the mainstream, so it may be covered by insurance in the future.
What I Do
Because of my thyroid condition and the high price tag of in-office use, I bought a photobiomodulation device to use at home.
I own the JoovvOriginal Combo light because it uses a combination of wavelengths. (Higher frequency wavelengths offer deeper penetration while lower wavelengths offer cellular rejuvenation.) It also uses LED lights that utilize a low power density (up to 100 mW/cm2) and last a long time.
I interviewed the makers of the Joovv light in this podcast so you can hear all of the fascinating science-geek details! Since I did that interview, another red light company (appropriately called Red Therapy Co.) has started making a comparable home device.
Cautions & Side Effects
This is one therapy that is well researched. (PBM was first researched by NASA!) It is an FDA-approved therapy and considered safe for most people.
There are a few cautions though:
- PBM is thought to be safe for pregnant women but I still recommend you talk to a midwife or doctor before making any decisions.
- Some PDM machines use pulsing light. Anyone with a history of seizures would be better off with a non-pulsing light. (I don’t see any benefit to the pulsing light so I would avoid it anyway.)
- The red light from a PDM machine is considered safe but may be too bright for comfort for some people. Wearing tanning glasses can help.
As always, discuss any new therapy with your healthcare provider to make sure it’s right for you. Personally, I love my Joovv light and have noticed great benefits in the time I’ve been using it, which I write more about here.
Have you tried photobiomodulation? How did it work for you?