Last month’s article was devoted to the importance of mitochondrial health in the production of energy for the body in the form of ATP. This currency of energy used by the body is important not only in movement of muscles, but also the movement of energy for clear thinking, the movement to activate immune system responses, and the energy for reducing pain. To summarize, it all happens with food we consume through the Krebs Cycle and combining NADH with oxygen as it passes through the Electron Transport Chain to form water and carbon dioxide. This happens in the 250 quadrillion mitochondria we have within all our cells. However, there is a missing piece to this process, which is the importance of red and infrared light on our mitochondria.
Heliotherapy is a term that describes the use of sunlight for healing. We know humankind has used sunlight for healing since the beginning of recorded history. There are records of its use in ancient Egypt over two thousand years ago and Hippocrates writes about the healing power of sunlight in 400 BC. In 1800 and 1801, two German scientists, Frederick Herschel and Johann Ritter discovered infrared and ultraviolet radiation, respectively. By the late 19th century Nielson Ryberg Finsen received the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology by using a lamp that included blue and red lights to treat various diseases especially lupus vulgaris. In 1967, Dr. Endre Mester performed an experiment on mice with shaved hair with low levels of laser light (of the infrared spectrum) to see if the laser caused cancer. To his surprise their hair grew back faster than the control group. Dr. Mester went on to start the Center for Laser Light Research in 1974.
The diagram below shows the entire solar spectrum of light. Most of us have heard about UV or ultraviolet light which is the light from the sun that can cause a sunburn if you are overexposed to it, and it is UV light that is needed to produce vitamin D and regulatory T cells, important for our immune system.
However, there is another part of sunlight, the red and infrared spectrum that has its own healing benefits, especially the wavelengths of light in 630 nm to 850 nm of the red and near infrared spectrum (NIR). The infrared spectrum will not cause a sunburn. Sun block will not stop it. It cannot pass through glass, but it can pass through light clothing and can give us a feeling of warmth even on a cloudy day. It is strongest at dawn and dusk as opposed to UV or ultraviolet light which is strongest at mid-day. Infrared light (810 nm and above) can penetrate further into the body than ultraviolet light. It can pass through bone and deliver its wavelengths of photons from 1-8 cm deep into tissue. This is especially true when we are outside on a sunny day surrounded by greenery. Trees and other greenery reflect NIR, and we absorb more NIR when we are around them. The illustration below from a research study on melatonin and NIR shows the 8 cm penetration despite absorption differences due to darker skin with increased melanin composition.
It is believed by a research study in 2008 that one of the beneficial effects of this penetration is to activate the final step in the electron transport chain within the mitochondria throughout our body by activating an enzyme called cytochrome c oxidase. Cytochrome c oxidase allows the transfer of electrons more easily to produce more ATP. Nitric oxide, normally a beneficial molecule, when in the mitochondria can prevent cytochrome c oxidase from binding with oxygen to make ATP. Some research is showing that red light and NIR light knocks out the nitric oxide and allows the oxygen to bind to cytochrome c oxidase to produce extra ATP and putting the nitric oxide in the blood vessels where the resulting benefits of vasodilation would take place. Another study in 2019, argues that infrared light decreases water viscosity in the mitochondria which results in increased ATP production instead of directly activating cytochrome c oxidase. While the exact reason is being debated, the common conclusion from these studies and many others is getting exposure to infrared light should be an important consideration in our strategy to stay healthy or in regaining health. Here are some areas of research showing that light therapy helps with.
We know artificial light has a negative effect on our health by disturbing our bodies natural circadian rhythm. Modern life has us in front of computer screens exposing us to blue light and working indoors during the day depriving us of the natural light our bodies crave. As we age a condition common to all diseases is mitochondrial decay and a loss of energy.
In the past several decades science has progressed to where we can understand on a microscopic level in our mitochondria what was only theoretical for hundreds of years about the effect of sunlight on our bodies. It is only in the past two decades that technology has progressed to where we can effectively use man made red-light therapy to reproduce and deliver red light therapy to replenish what is commonly deficient in all of us living modern lives. These therapies go by different names such as photonic stimulation, photodynamic therapy, photobiomodulation or LLLT (low level laser therapy) devices. According to Dr. Michael Hamblin an associate medical professor at Harvard Medical School, photobiomodulation is the term that most are gravitating to. This will be a subject of a future newsletter.
In the meantime, with winter fading and the days shifting towards more weather friendly days, it would be a good practice to spend more time outdoors. Graduated exposure is the rule especially if you are fair skinned and have light eyes. However, even those sensitive to the sun can get benefit to the red spectrum wearing a hat and light clothing, especially if exposure takes place “by the dawns early light” and “twilights last gleaming.”