CAN RED LIGHT THERAPY STIMULATE YOUR MITOCHONDRIA TO PRODUCE CELLULAR ENERGY?
April 14, 2021 By Platinum Lights
Red light therapy, also known as low-level light therapy (LLLT) and photobiomodulation, is a safe, natural therapeutic method with an incredible array of health benefits. Research has clearly shown that red and near-infrared (NIR) light are powerful wavelengths that can effectively treat a wide range of conditions and deliver impressive health benefits.
Thousands of studies have shown remarkable results on everything from muscle recovery and collagen production, to promising signs of relief from chronic illnesses such as Lyme disease and even diabetes.
But what exactly is it about LLLT that makes it so powerful? How does it stimulate changes within the body that yield health benefits? To understand the fundamentals of this incredible technology, we need to examine its impact on the body at the cellular level—namely, its role in generating energy. The key to that process is a tiny part of a cell called the mitochondrion.
Mitochondria and ATP: Endless Energy Production
Mitochondria are organelles, or substructures, that float freely in most cells of nearly all living things. They’re often described as a cell’s powerhouse, or its power plant, and here’s why: These tiny, membrane-bound structures are responsible for converting nutrients into chemical energy that fuels cell activity.
Think of it this way: All the food you eat—the sugars, fats, and proteins—needs to be converted into energy that your body can use to keep on living. Mitochondria perform the first step in this extremely important process.
But generating energy isn’t the only thing mitochondria are good for. They also produce essential chemicals that your body needs to function, as well as break down and recycle waste products that would be otherwise harmful to your body.
Mitochondria also play an important role in helping cells die naturally, which is vital when we’re talking about abnormal cell growth, which results in tumors. For this reason, mitochondria are often the targets of cancer-fighting drugs.
WHAT IS ATP?
So, mitochondria are tiny energy-producing powerhouses. But what form does that energy take?
Mitochondria produce a molecule known as adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which contains energy within its chemical bonds. Often referred to as the energy currency of mitochondria, ATP shuttles its bonded energy to places within the cell where and when that energy is needed for various activities.
When those chemical bonds are broken, outcomes the energy. Special enzymes in ATP transfer that energy, giving the cell what amounts to a straight shot of fuel. It’s important to note that ATP itself can’t be stored, only produced by mitochondria for immediate use and then recycled.
So that’s how ATP works at a micro-level. What this means for your body at a macro level is pretty amazing: ATP energizes thousands of processes throughout the body, such as DNA/RNA signaling, muscle contraction, and brain functioning, among others.
These processes need ATP practically every second, as they burn through energy at a rapid pace to keep your body moving, breathing, eating, and thinking throughout the day. In fact, so much ATP is needed for you to simply stay alive that your body ends up turning over its weight equivalent in ATP on any given day.
WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES OF A LACK OF ATP?
If your body doesn't produce enough ATP, the consequences are dire. One 2015 study from the Gladstone Institutes demonstrated a link between impaired mitochondrial function, loss of ATP, and neuronal dysfunction. This could have implications for our understanding of illnesses such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.
Also, a research review published in the February 2019 issue of Frontiers in Pharmacology found a connection between mutations in genes related to mitochondrial function, and pathologies and dysfunctions of smaller organs, like parts of the eye and extraocular muscles.
The take-away is this: Not only do our bodies need enough ATP to stay alive; too little ATP causes undesirable effects that lead to physical impairment, organ malfunction, and even death.
Light Therapy and ATP
Before we delve deeper into ATP and potential therapies to ramp up its production, let’s talk about light: why we need it, and how it’s related to the mitochondrial function that produces ATP.
IS UV LIGHT GOOD FOR YOU?
It’s easy to take light for granted. We can summon it by flicking a switch long after the sun has set. But while visible light is useful, it’s not the kind of light our bodies crave, biologically speaking. We humans, are wired to thrive from daily doses of ultraviolet radiation (UVR).
In fact, it’s clear that UVR influenced the evolution of the human body. In equatorial Africa, the birthplace of our human ancestors, sunlight permeates the landscape at a direct angle, delivering strong UVR all year round. Scientists think this likely led to the shedding of early humans’ protective fur and influenced the evolution of skin pigmentation.
Darker, more pigmented skin evolved in hotter, equatorial climates, where it protected the body from the intensity of UVR. Conversely, lighter skin evolved in colder climates with little sunlight, as a way to let in as much UVR as possible.
Today, it is well known that too much UVR can damage the skin. That’s why most people cover their bodies with clothing and sunscreen, and choose wisely (in theory, at least) about when and for how long to expose their skin to the intensity of UVR.
UVR isn’t all bad, however. It’s actually critical for our bodies. The World Health Organization estimates that the annual disease burden resulting from very low levels of UVR exposure is far greater than the disease burden resulting from high levels of UVR exposure. Put simply, not getting enough sunlight seems to be a bigger threat to the body than getting too much.
Probably the most well-known consequence of too little UVR is vitamin D deficiency. Unlike other vitamins, vitamin D is not obtained through food, but rather, through a photosynthetic reaction to UVB radiation. A deficiency in vitamin D leads to poor metabolic functions, neuromuscular transmission, bone mineralization, and a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
In children, vitamin D deficiency can cause rickets, which is a disease that leads to stunted growth and skeletal deformities, including bowed legs. A number of studies have linked Vitamin D deficiency to disorders of the musculoskeletal system as well as autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis; while other research suggests that increased UVR exposure may help stave them off.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology explored these links, finding that UV-B light--i.e., a kind of light therapy that mimics sunshine—boosting the production of Vitamin D and regulatory T cells, which help keep our immune systems in check.
HOW DOES LIGHT STIMULATE ENERGY PRODUCTION?
It is well documented that light benefits the human body in myriad ways, such as supporting Vitamin D production and other important biological activities. But it does so much more than that. Various wavelengths of light have been linked to a robust mitochondrial function and ATP generation.
A 2015 study by researchers from the UK and Brazil found that when fruit flies receive a daily dose of 670 nanometers (nm) of radiation, they show elevated ATP levels and reduced inflammation. The researchers also noted an increase in average lifespan: Fruit flies that received 670 nm exposure ended up far more likely to survive into old age.
Just how different wavelengths of light stimulate greater energy production remains unclear. One theory says that light acts on cells through an enzyme called cytochrome c oxidase. This is the last enzyme in the mitochondrial electron transport chain, which is the mechanism that transfers electrons to produce ATP.
Explored further in a 2008 study published in Photomedicine and Laser Surgery, the belief is that once cytochrome c oxidase is stimulated by light, this transfer is accelerated, which may lead to increased ATP production.
However, a 2019 study published in the Annals of Translational Medicine disputes this idea, arguing that water, not cytochrome C oxidase, is what influences ATP upregulation in cells. Researchers found that red and near-infrared photons decrease the viscosity or watery nature of the mitochondria envelope, which in turn helps a mitochondria’s internal engine work faster and produce more energy.
In that same 2019 study, researchers measured ATP synthesis in muscle cells from mice that had been exposed to red and NIR light. The study found that exposure times of three hours to six hours “could be the best time-response for light therapy to improve muscle metabolism.”
This study was among the first to identify and examine the correlation between red light/NIR light therapy and mitochondrial function. In doing so, it gave biological credence to other studies—which have mostly been based on human subject research—that attempt to measure the benefits of red light therapy on athletic performance and muscle recovery and repair.
In fact, the authors of the 2019 study concluded that there might be cumulative effects to LLLT in muscle post-exercise recovery if light therapy is administered at intervals less than 24 hours. They also recommended further investigation of light therapy for muscular pre-conditioning in studies that take into account their research about ATP upregulation.
Red Light Therapy for Good Health
We’ve talked about how dysfunctional, underperforming mitochondria have adverse effects on the body. The opposite is also true: Cellular energy is what helps a body thrive—not only enabling it to undertake its day-to-day functions but also perform better and even heal faster.
HOW DOES LIGHT THERAPY IMPACT CELLULAR PROCESSES?
Stimulating energy in cells by exposing them to wavelengths in the red and near-infrared light spectrum can amp up important biological functions. A growing body of evidence, such as the studies outlined here by photobiomodulation expert Dr. Michael R. Hamblin, shows that red light and near-infrared light therapy accomplishes this revving-up of biological functions by affecting the body at the molecular, cellular, and tissue-based level.
Red light therapy as a practice involves exposing the body over a period of time to specific wavelengths of light, the most effective of these being the 630nm to 660nm (red light) and 810nm to 850nm (NIR light) range.
Studies dating as far back as 1987 report an increase in the production of collagen and other essential skin elements after exposure to low-energy laser irradiation in vitro and in vivo animal models. Exposing skin to red and NIR light was shown in one 2007 study to speed up wound healing. Its authors concluded that light therapy involving a combination of 830 and 633 nm wavelengths proved “an effective approach for skin rejuvenation.”
Additional research has shown that exposure to red and NIR wavelengths of light was effective at healing skin conditions such as psoriasis, burns, scarring, vitiligo, and herpes virus lesions.
WHAT ARE THE CELLULAR BENEFITS OF RED LIGHT THERAPY?
Red light therapy has been shown to stimulate the kind of cellular activity needed to combat a host of ailments and diseases resulting from dysfunctional cellular processes. One example is the use of red light therapy in combating male pattern baldness or androgenetic alopecia.
A 2014 study showed promising results with male and female candidates who used a laser hair comb over a period of time. Specifically, this resulted in a statistically significant difference in “terminal hair density” between those who received the treatment and those who received a placebo. The researchers concluded that LLLT may be an effective treatment for pattern hair loss in both men and women.
Red light therapy has also been shown in many studies to promote better muscle recovery when used before and after exercise. This is due to red light’s scientifically proven ability to stimulate, heal, and regenerate damaged tissue. A 2016 metastudy showed that of 46 separate, validated studies reviewed, the majority showed more positive than negative or insignificant effects associated with photobiomodulation therapy among athletes.
To add to the lengthy list of benefits is a growing number of studies showing positive results with red light therapy in the treatment of Lyme disease, and other research that shows great promise in treating Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. The latter is seen as an effective neuroprotective treatment that could help protect neurons from death.
Use Red Light Therapy to Power ATP Production
The biological process by which our bodies create the energy necessary to survive is as old as life itself. Yet science has only recently discovered how light can tap into that process and motivate its most important players—namely, mitochondria and ATP—for increased health benefits.
Jump-starting our own internal “energy factories” for the sake of better cellular functioning is one way to promote the healing and rejuvenation of our bodies. And while red light therapy is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure life-threatening diseases, early research shows that the more energy we can produce by hacking into mitochondrial processes, the more biologically energized our bodies will be.