So What Does Infrared Light Actually Do To The Body?
Now that we’ve explored the nature of light, we’ll take a look at how Infrared bioactive light actually affects the body. What does infrared do to the skin? How does infrared light promote healing? How can invisible light actually help with pain? These are a few of the points that can be helpful to understand before making your decision about infrared light therapy.
To find the answers, we’ll examine NIR light’s mechanisms of action:
When researching infrared light, you’ll see the term “photobiomodulation” come up quite a bit. This is because red light therapy is designed to enhance cellular function and promote greater efficiency and balance in the cellular energy making process. That, in a nutshell, is what’s happening when photobiomodulation comes into play.
Let’s go all the way back to basic biology. We each have trillions of cells in our bodies, and each one needs energy to function. This energy comes from the food, water, and oxygen that we bring into our bodies and metoabolize through the process of cellular respiration. The product of this vital process is adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a carrier of energy that our body is constantly producing and consuming. The more efficiently we can create ATP, the better we feel and function.
Infrared light makes the cellular respiration process more efficient and in turn helps your body make and use ATP energy more effectively. Infrared light exerts its influence directly on the mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cell. Red light therapy can both increase the number of mitochondria and boost their efficiency.
This boost comes from stimulating the electrons of the mitochondria during cellular respiration, helping to clear out nitric oxide (NO), a barrier to ATP production. Nitric oxide builds up almost like sludge in a car’s engine, gumming up the works and slowing down the cell’s system of ATP production.
Red and NIR light flush out that “gunk” to help prevent and reverse this problem. Thank the photons in red and NIR light for doing the dirty work. By exciting the electrons in the nitric oxide molecule, its bonds break down so hydrogen ions can move through the process more effectively.
Now we’ll take a closer look at each step of this process.
The Mitochondria in Cells Power the Body
Mitochondria are double-membrane structures in our cells responsible for cell signaling, steroid synthesis, cell apoptosis, and cellular energy. As we mentioned earlier, mitochondria convert food, water, and oxygen into ATP energy the cells and body can use. ATP energy is so critical for biological function, it’s often called “the energy currency of life.”
Mitochondria are unique, with their own ribosomes and DNA. There can be as few as 1-2 mitochondria per cell, or as many as thousands. The number of mitochondria changes in response to physiological conditions such as exercise, nutrients, or certain environmental factors.
What is Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP)?
Our body uses the high-energy molecule ATP to do pretty much everything. On average, a person will recycle their own body weight equivalent in ATP every single day. With it fueling everything we do, you can imagine how important ATP is to overall health. The more efficiently cells can make and use energy, the better the body should function.
This is where infrared light comes into the picture. Red light therapy can help enhance the performance of energy-making mitochondria in the cell as well as increase the sheer number of mitochondria in the cell.
Infrared’s main mechanism of action in mitochondrial function is in promoting a higher-performing electron transport chain mediated by cytochrome C oxidase (Cox). The usual dissociation (breaking down) of binded nitric oxide (NO) and Cox (NO-Cox) helps to remove this harmful barrier to ATP production.
Since NO is a competitive inhibitor of oxygen, it can use up oxygen’s “seats” on the ATP synthase enzyme, causing the cell to work less efficiently and limiting the eventual production of ATP. The presence of NO also increases oxidative stress, which can lead to cellular death.
The photons in red and NIR light combat NO by exciting the electrons, helping break up nitric oxide bonds so H+ ions can move through the process more effectively, resulting in greater levels of ATP energy.
Treating the body using high or low temperatures, or thermotherapy, is designed to alter tissue temperature over time to induce a desirable biological response. Think heat pads, hot water bottles, heated blankets, or ice packs. The most popular options are designed to deliver temperature change to a targeted area without affecting too much of the surrounding tissue.
As you probably know, cold (ice packs, cold compresses) is usually used on burns or immediately after tissue injuries to reduce swelling. (You should never apply heat right after an injury as it will increase swelling.)
On the other hand, heat is primarily used for relaxation, comfort, and recovery, and taking the edge off several kinds of body pain, mostly duller and persistent pains associated with stiffness, cramping, and strains.
More specifically, heat is often applied in these general pain and soreness situations:
- Acute soreness from over-exertion and exercise.
- Stiffness and pain in specific areas related to arthritis, muscle knots, and most kinds of cramps.
- General pain and sensitivity from afflictions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis, drug side effects, vitamin D deficiency, and sleep deprivation.
Deep heating is thought to lessen nerve sensitivity, increase blood flow, increase tissue metabolism (through the previously discussed photobiomodulation process), decrease muscle spindle sensitivity to stretch, cause muscle relaxation, and increase flexibility.
One of the most proven and helpful benefits of heat therapy, including the deep penetrating heat from infrared light, is improved blood flow. Heat stimulates the cutaneous thermoreceptors that are connected to the cutaneous blood vessels, causing the release of bradykinin which relaxes the smooth muscle walls resulting in vasodilation.
Blood flow directly impacts healing and inflammation. Since inflammation is a component of many types of pain, the simple application of heat can work wonders.
Infrared Light Effects on Skin
With skin being the largest organ in your body, skin care is not just about beauty (although that’s important, too). Your skin plays a vital role in immunity, body temperature, and hormone regulation.
Since red light therapy can enhance cellular function and ATP production, it can serve to promote healthier skin across your entire body.
The myriad important functions of the skin rely on millions of cells working together and communicating with one another. When the mitochondria in those skin cells absorb healthy red and NIR light, they not only produce more energy (ATP), but more pro-collagen, collagen, basic fibroblast growth factors (bFGF), and fibroblasts. These components are critical to maintaining skin elasticity and overall health. Collagen alone makes up around 75% of skin’s support structure. Collagen production decreases with age and is also damaged by free radicals and environmental factors (sunlight, smoking, etc.).
Through its heat-therapy powers of vasodilation, red light therapy can also increase microcirculation that improves cellular balance.
All of these benefits work together to promote healthy homeostasis and balance. Balanced skin cells operating at full capacity do all of those jobs better, leading to healthier, glowing skin that looks and feels fantastic.
Low-Level Laser (Light) Therapy (LLLT) in Skin: Stimulating, Healing, Restoring
Asheesh Gupta, PhD; Daniela Vecchio, PhD; Magesh Sadasivam, MTech; Michael R Hamblin, PhD; Nadav Pam, MD; Pinar Avci, MD; Zeev Pam, MD
“LLLT appears to have a wide range of applications in dermatology, especially in indications where stimulation of healing, reduction of inflammation, reduction of cell death, and skin rejuvenation are required. The application of LLLT to disorders of pigmentation may work both ways by producing bothrepigmentation of vitiligo and depigmentation of hyperpigmented lesions, depending on the dosimetric parameters.”