The first report of using red or infrared light therapeutically came in 1967 when a Hungarian physician and scientist named Endre Mester, AKA the “father of photobiomodulation,” was trying to simulate burn injuries on mice using red and infrared light to see whether the recently invented laser caused cancer. To his surprise, Endre found that hair grew back faster on mice in the treated group than in the untreated group—and that the laser, in fact, did not, contrary to popular belief, cause cancer.
Almost sixty years later, health enthusiasts, biohackers and medical clinics alike are using red and infrared light therapy devices for everything from enhancing testosterone and cognition to promoting better sleep and red light devices have hit the mainstream as a remedy for headaches, plantar fasciitis, hair loss, and beyond.
As you probably know, I’m no stranger to these devices myself. Heck, just last week, on my Q&A Podcast 425, I talked about how, upon waking, the first thing I do is grab my Joovv GO (which has a handy new feature that allows it to double as a sunrise alarm clock) off my nightstand, lift up the covers, and set it right between my legs to “bathe my balls” for a few minutes in testosterone-boosting red and near-infrared light as I do my morning reading.
OK, I'll admit that's a bit fringe. But additionally, I’ve covered all sorts of light-related topics that go beyond ball-blasting in articles and podcasts such as…
- Ben Accidentally Gets A Bit High On Ketamine & Talks About His Journey Of Biohacking, Ancestral Health, Spirituality, Fitness & Much More With Light Expert Matt Maruca.
- The Danger Of Smart Drugs & The Rise Of Photobiomodulation As A Brain-Boosting Nootropic.
- Is The Sun The Ultimate Source Of Health & Vitality Or Just A Giant Orange Cancer Circle In The Sky?
- What Time Of Day Can You Eat A “Cheat Meal,” How Cold Can Make You Unstoppable, Lies We’ve Been Led To Believe About Sunlight & Much More!
- What’s The Deal With Fancy Red Light Devices? Your Go-To Guide On How To Use Red Light To Enhance Testosterone, Skin, Recovery, Cognition, Sleep & Beyond!
- Sunlight Makes You Skinny & Blue Light Makes You Fat: 11 Ways To Biohack Light To Optimize Your Body & Brain.
- Shining Laser Lights On Your Balls & Beyond: Photobiomodulation 101 – How To Use Near Infrared & Red Light For Collagen, Thyroid, Muscle, Skin & More.
- How Modern Lighting Can Destroy Your Sleep, Your Eyes & Your Health (& What You Can Do About It).
- How To Use Low Level Light Therapy and Intranasal Light Therapy For Athletic Performance, Cognitive Enhancement & More.
…and then most recently on my podcast “Light As Medicine, Metabolic Typing, COVID Controversies, Polar Bear Fitness, Healing Yourself With Laughter & More With Dr. Leland Stillman.”
Board-certified in internal medicine and specializing in integrative medicine, Dr. Stillman has a passion for doing whatever it takes to discover the root cause of his patients' medical problems, then addressing their medical issues by focusing on all aspects of the environment they live in, which includes—you guessed it—light.
In today’s article, a guest post by Dr. Stillman, you’ll discover how light creates energy within your cells, how your brain biohacks itself with light, why melatonin is not just for making you sleepy, the problem with modern society's shift away from natural, and towards artificial, lighting (and what you can do about it), how you’ve been misled about the sun’s role in skin cancer, and much more.
How Light Creates Energy Within Your Cells
Forget everything you learned in biology class about the bioenergetics of life.
The conventional view of cellular energy generation—that your body breaks down food to release energy, then harnesses that energy to create a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—is at best, a half-truth.
In 1962, Gilbert Ling, Ph.D., published a paper on what he called his “Association-Induction Hypothesis.” Ling’s hypothesis was that “structured” water generated the energy necessary to run the mammalian cell. Ling went against the commonly held dogma surrounding ATP by pointing out that the cell could not meet its energetic needs based on the energy found in ATP alone. If the energy stored in ATP could not meet the energy demands of the cell, then where did the rest of the energy come from?
There had to be another way for cells to generate energy.
Several decades later, the answer is now clear. Gerald Pollack, Ph.D., a physical chemist at the University of Washington and the founding editor in chief of “Water: A Multidisciplinary Research Journal,” picked up where Dr. Ling left off and has spent the last few decades researching exactly how life uses light to create energy. His answer is that light structures water to provide energy for the cell to perform its vital processes. This structured water then interacts with the enzymes and proteins that run cellular machinery to augment their functions. This answer sounded so far-fetched at its inception, decades ago, that it was ridiculed and ignored. But, the idea has stood the test of time and now has been validated by some of the world’s foremost experts on water and biophysics.
Most people think of enzymes and proteins as if they were simple machines, but if that were true, you would be a simple machine. We cannot shine a light on a simple machine and change its function, but we now know that we can do that to living systems. Enzymes and proteins are made up of amino acids—carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen—bound together by electromagnetic force. That force is readily transmuted into light (any electrical light is simply a device that transforms electrical current into photons, or light). Light, in turn, can be transformed into electricity; this is what a solar panel does. When light strikes an enzyme, it interacts with these charged particles in ways that are difficult to detect in physical terms, due to the extremely small scale on which these changes happen. But, in the case of enzymes and proteins, we can evaluate how light is affecting their function by measuring the processes that they perform. Take the mitochondria, as one example. Your mitochondria use many different proteins and enzymes to generate energy. When illuminated with the right light, the efficiency of mitochondria can be improved. There is debate as to whether the enzymes and proteins, or the water that surrounds them, are the site of action of light. Different energies and frequencies can change the quantum structure of biological systems, and therefore different energies and frequencies can alter the functioning of those systems.
So, how does this work in practice?
To get some idea of the therapeutic potential, it might be helpful to start with what we know about the consequences of misusing light. Artificial light at night alters circadian rhythms, which increases your risk of depression, irritable bowel syndrome, metabolic dysfunction, hormonal imbalances, multiple sclerosis, and cancer. For more on the dangers of artificial light, check out Ben's article “Sunlight Makes You Skinny & Blue Light Makes You Fat: 11 Ways To Biohack Light To Optimize Your Body & Brain.”
On the other hand, when you correct an unhealthy, artificial light environment, you'll see improvements in everything from sleep to overall health—as I've witnessed firsthand with many of my patients. Additionally, light therapy is now being studied extensively in cancer research because it holds promise both for destroying cancer cells and for helping cancer patients to heal from the side effects of modern cancer treatments. If artificial light at night can cause disease, then it stands to reason that correcting your light environment can effectively treat these diseases. When you illuminate your cells with the proper light, you can increase the rate of energy generation to speed wound healing, hair growth, and neurotransmission, strengthen muscle contraction, and more.
How Your Brain Biohacks Itself With Light
In a 2019 paper in the journal Melatonin Research, Scott Zimmerman and Russel Reiter state, “The brain appears to be optically designed to distribute near-infrared photons to the grey matter even down into the folds of the brain…” The structure of the brain is no accident. What Zimmerman and Reiter are saying is that the brain is organized, based on our most advanced concepts of optics, to optimize near-infrared photon delivery to the grey matter—the area of your brain responsible for muscle control, vision, hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control.
Why might the brain be organized in this way?
The answer lies in how your cells use light to generate energy, as detailed by Gerald Pollack, Gilbert Ling, and many more. Two frequencies of light excel in structuring water, and these are red and infrared light. These two frequencies also do not disrupt circadian rhythms in the same way that blue and green light do—making them optimal for supporting energy generation within your body.
We absorb much of this light from emitters outside of ourselves, i.e., that big flaming ball of gas and plasma in the sky. More than 50% of sunlight is in the red or infrared spectrum (this varies with latitude and meteorological conditions). Look at a sauna or hot spring through a thermal camera, and you’ll see what your body perceives as heat: infrared light.
We have been obsessed with these frequencies since the beginning of time, and yet only now can we explain why at a quantum level.
See, your body also generates light within its cells. Your mitochondria generate light based on changes in the energy levels of quantum particles (electrons and protons). The burning of energy within a cell is a combustion reaction that liberates infrared and red light from the substrates (fats, proteins, and carbohydrates). How much energy a cell can generate depends upon a range of factors like pH (acidity vs alkalinity), salinity, temperature, electrolyte concentrations, genetics, and epigenetics. At extremes of any one of these parameters, energy generation becomes impaired.
Your brain consumes approximately 15% of your cardiac output and is responsible for approximately 20% of your body’s total metabolic activity, yet it weighs about three pounds (around 2% of your body weight). It is ten times more metabolically active, on average, than the rest of your body’s tissues. Not surprisingly, it contains an enormous number of mitochondria. A single neuron may contain thousands of mitochondria. When they degenerate, i.e. when their photonic output drops, your brain stops working.
This is part of why we are dealing with epidemics of illnesses of the skin, eyes, and brain—organs that are all exposed to light and reliant upon a healthy light environment.
We have moved indoors, out of the sun, and we no longer use saunas or spend time in hot springs. We have even gotten rid of incandescent bulbs in favor of fluorescent or LED bulbs, which emit zero infrared and often very little red light. We have removed infrared light from our modern world to the greatest degree possible, without realizing just how important this frequency of light is to our health. Ben covers many of the perils of modern lighting (and what you can do about them) in this podcast with Ben Greenfield and Matt Maruca.
Light, Melatonin, and Your Mind
Melatonin is the hormone of light, and it is essential to maintaining the mitochondria that illuminate your mind, along with a host of other functions Ben discusses in this podcast with Dr. John Lieurance.
Synthesized during the day in response to light, melatonin is produced and utilized in different parts of your cells, in response to different stimuli, at different times of day.
The analogy I draw to explain how melatonin is used is how you use water in your home. You turn on the faucet in your bathroom to wash your hands, the shower to bathe, and the kitchen sink to do the dishes. You probably tend to do this during the day. You apply water in different ways, in different parts of your home.
For a similar reason, the production and movement of melatonin in living systems are also tightly regulated. You wouldn’t leave your shower or sink running when you weren’t using them, would you? This is why I am generally against melatonin supplementation in the form of a pill. This, in my opinion, is the equivalent of trying to use the fire hydrant outside of your house to do the dishes. Your body’s regulation of melatonin is exquisite and should be controlled by light (although melatonin supplements do have their place in certain clinical contexts).
While melatonin is synthesized during the day in response to light, it is not present in the serum during the day. At night, and specifically after three to four hours in the absence of blue and green light, melatonin is released into the bloodstream where it is carried around your body to turn on your cellular rest and repair mechanisms. This means that looking into a brightly lit screen in the hours before bed and then popping a melatonin tablet before sleep is like pressing down on the gas pedal and the brake at the same time. It makes no biophysical sense. This is also why you should wear dark red or orange blue-light blocking glasses three to four hours before your typical bedtime.
Aside from making you feel sleepy, melatonin also protects your mitochondria from oxidative damage by scavenging free radicals and turning on mitochondrial repair and regeneration pathways. Free radicals, also known as reactive oxygen species (ROS), are the main source of long-term damage to living organisms. They are the key mediators of aging, and melatonin is the main endogenous means of neutralizing them. Chronic exposure to artificial light at night is linked to premature aging and disease due to these effects on circadian rhythms, which are mediated by melatonin.
Melatonin also indirectly controls all of the other hormones and neurotransmitters that your brain depends upon. It is the master circadian regulator and as such, it influences and (arguably) controls all other hormones and neurotransmitters. For example, abnormally high levels of melatonin have been documented to completely suppress sex steroid hormone production. Essentially, without energy from your mitochondria, you would not have the energy to produce hormones and neurotransmitters. Optimizing melatonin levels is the cornerstone of optimizing metabolism.
A naturalistic lighting environment is essential for optimal melatonin production during the day and for optimal melatonin activity at night. The key is bright light during the day and as little artificial blue and green light as possible. To achieve a healthy light environment, you can use blue-light blocking glasses; light-blocking tape on your light-emitting electronics; blue light filter apps or IrisTech software on your computer, tablet, and smartphone; Driftbox blue-light filter for your tv; and clear incandescent bulbs (preferably without any coating, which changes the beneficial wavelengths) or low-blue-light bulbs throughout your home.
Burning Out On Biohacking
Practically every biohack you have ever heard of helps your mitochondria emit more light in order to meet the bioenergetic demands of your body. Methylene blue, cold therapy, and intermittent fasting—just to name three of the most popular—all alter mitochondrial function, and therefore light emission.
But beware, most biohackers have no idea that they can actually burn out the metabolic pathways they rely upon to generate energy.
This is why my practice now largely consists of burned-out biohackers—people who have done everything from moving to Mexico in search of stronger sunlight to spending hours a week in ice-cold water.
How do they burn out?
Whenever you subject your body to stress or change its environment, it responds by altering internal biochemical processes. For example, when you immerse yourself in cold water, specialized fat tissue in your body starts to burn carbohydrates and fats to generate heat. This response requires activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which runs on dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. These amino acids are produced from the amino acid tyrosine. Whenever you create the demand for these amino acids by activating the sympathetic nervous system (as you do with cold exposure), you must increase the supply. Likewise, to burn fat to generate heat, your body uses the carnitine shuttle system to move those fats into your mitochondria. What can happen with excessive stress of any kind, such as cold exposure or psychological stress, is the exhaustion of these amino acids. I routinely see low tyrosine levels in people who have been exposing themselves excessively to cold. I also see signs that their carnitine shuttle has burned out, and therefore their mitochondria must rely on sugar, rather than fat, to generate energy.
Stressing your body without quantifying its resources is like stepping on the gas when you have no idea what the fuel level is in your gas tank. This is why light alone is not the solution to complex neurological problems, but it is a powerful tool that you can use to help your mind achieve optimal performance.
In this age of slathering sunscreen from head to toe all day long, it may surprise you to read that avoiding sunlight is a risk factor for death that is equivalent to smoking. Yes, supposed “health-conscious” people make a point of never smoking, but they think nothing of living indoors 98% of the time. Sunlight exposure has been linked to lower risks of cancer, diabetes, obesity, depression, autoimmune diseases, autism, and allergies. For this reason, prudent sun exposure is a healthy habit.
But what about skin cancer?
In a large study in Sweden, “The mortality rate amongst avoiders of sun exposure was approximately twofold higher compared with the highest sun exposure group, resulting in excess mortality with a population attributable risk of 3%.” This does not mean you should go out and get sunburned: sunburn and excessive tanning bed use are both linked to premature skin aging and skin cancer, which is why I don’t recommend either. Healthy doses of sun exposure have actually been shown to potentially reduce mortality due to melanoma. (Yes, this study actually found that “sun exposure is associated with increased survival from melanoma.”)
How is this possible?
UV light in sunlight drives vitamin D production, and the authors of that study suggest that, “the apparently beneficial relationship between sun exposure and survival from melanoma could be mediated by vitamin D.” What the authors of that paper may not have been aware of is that melatonin may play a part as well, as it seems to protect us from skin cancer. This is why I tell my patients, “If the sun causes skin cancer, then spoons make people fat.” Healthy sun exposure means avoiding sunburn, while still getting enough sun to maintain optimum vitamin D levels.
What about sunscreen?
Sunscreen may cause more harm than good—effective at preventing sunburn, but sunscreen to protect against skin cancer is a completely different story. Many of the chemicals in sunscreen are toxic, and it remains an open question as to whether many sunscreens could promote skin cancer. Even the Environmental Working Group has published a guide on sunscreen that points out many of the flaws in the simplistic narrative that “sunscreen prevents skin cancer.” If sunscreen prevents skin cancer, then throwing out your spoons prevents obesity. Sunscreen can prevent sunburn, and we have every reason to believe that it could therefore prevent skin cancer, but not all sunscreens are the same. This is why I personally use a physical barrier zinc oxide sunscreen rather than a chemical sunscreen.
With that said, there is a downside to even natural, physical sunscreens, which is that they often block UVB as well as UVA rays. This means that using any sunscreen, physical or chemical, can prevent you from producing vitamin D, which is essential for good health, including the prevention of skin cancer. I always counsel my patients that prudent sun exposure—avoiding burning, rather than avoiding the sun entirely—is vital to a long and healthy life. Learn more about sunscreen in Ben's podcast “Top 12 Keto Myths, The Dark Side Of Tabatas, Dad Bod, Healthy Sunscreen Alternatives & More!” and his article “Sunscreen: Is The Risk Worth The Reward?”
Bringing Red and Infrared Light Back Into Our Modern World
There’s no doubt that red and infrared light are essential to good health, but saunas and hot springs are not exactly convenient, affordable, or practical solutions for most people.
So, how can you bring red and infrared light back into your modern life?
The most convenient solution for restoring red and infrared light is via light therapy devices. You’re no doubt familiar with devices like the Joovv devices that Ben mentioned earlier. Some of the many benefits you could expect to experience from such devices include:
- Improvements in skin tone and complexion, and diminished signs of aging.
- Natural collagen production boost.
- Improvements in fine lines and wrinkles.
- Therapeutic effect on symptoms of psoriasis, herpes, and acne.
- Muscle thickness and strength improvements (by over 50%).
- Pain reduction (70%) in people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.
- Improved sleep and cognition, including better executive functions, improved social functioning, improvements in depression, anxiety, headaches, and an increased ability to perform tasks and activities.
- Better healing of wounds, burns, and scars.
- Increases in natural melatonin production.
Similar to the Joovv, I have EMR-Tek Firestorm and Inferno devices in my office. Every day after I shower, I turn on these lights for ten to twenty minutes while I work at my standing desk. In those ten or twenty minutes, I get more red and infrared light than most office workers get in an entire day, or even an entire week. I recommend them to my patients, and the further from the sun they live (the further north or south from the Equator), the more they need it. The Inferno puts out approximately 50,000 lux at 6 inches, and that isn’t even counting the infrared light that it emits (which is measured differently, since it is not visible light). On a sunny day at my latitude (Richmond, Virginia), the mid-day sun is around 50,000 lux. On a cloudy day, it’s between 5,000 and 10,000.
The average seasonal affective disorder lamp puts out about 10,000 lux, but only at the surface of the lamp. I find it funny that lamps that are supposed to make you happy are still only as bright as a cloudy day.
You can learn more about red light devices in Ben’s article “What’s The Deal With Fancy Red Light Devices? Your Go-To Guide On How To Use Red Light To Enhance Testosterone, Skin, Recovery, Cognition, Sleep & Beyond!”
Another option that has benefits specific to the brain, is the Vielight, a transcranial laser stimulation device that uses the optimal frequency of infrared light to promote energy generation within the brain. In one controlled study using a Vielight, subjects demonstrated significantly improved memory and mood. This treatment method also showed improvements in executive functions. Other studies on transcranial laser stimulation devices showed improved attention-biased modification (ABM) in people with depression as well as improved reaction times.
You can learn more about the Vielight in Ben’s article “The Danger Of Smart Drugs & The Rise Of Photobiomodulation As A Brain-Boosting Nootropic.” and in his podcast “How To Use Low Level Light Therapy and Intranasal Light Therapy For Athletic Performance, Cognitive Enhancement & More.”
The fundamental importance of light for optimal health and performance is at long last starting to be understood and appreciated by doctors, scientists, and the general public.
Light is one of the secrets to my success in cases where other clinicians have failed. I believe it will change the world of medicine and make obsolete medicines that today are making the pharmaceutical industry billions of dollars (which might be why it has remained a well-kept secret for so long).
It is no coincidence that the structure of your brain optimizes infrared light delivery to the grey matter. When you illuminate your cells with the proper light, you can increase the rate of energy generation, resulting in a host of positive effects on your body. As the primary driver for energy generation within your cells, and one of the most promising new technologies to treat everything from hair loss to low testosterone to psychiatric and neurological diseases, light's effects on your body’s systems are undoubtedly critical and wide-ranging.
Light is nature’s perfect medicine.
Conversely, lack of exposure to proper light can be the catalyst for disease and dysfunction. Artificial light exposure at night— specifically blue and green wavelengths—suppresses melatonin release at night, ruins circadian rhythms, and prevents melatonin from repairing and rejuvenating your body.
Thoughtful exposure to sunlight has been linked with lower rates of cancer, diabetes, depression, and other major conditions. In addition to natural sunlight, the most effective and convenient solution that I’ve found for increasing therapeutic light is light therapy devices such as the Joovv, EMR-Tek lights, and the Vielight, along with the use of infrared sauna therapy.
A thorough understanding and application of proper light has allowed me to treat patients who have been considered incurable. I believe that light will change the future of medicine, and that light’s therapeutic potential is limitless.
Light shapes life—how is it shaping yours?
If you’d like to learn more about how to use light to biohack your way to wellness, you can apply to work with me directly at StillmanMD.com.
Leave any comments, questions, thoughts, or experiences you have had with light, the sun, photobiomodulation, or anything else covered in this article below, and I’ll get back to you.
I would like to thank Dr. Anthony G. Beck, for mentoring me in the use of phototherapy in my practice, his advice has proven invaluable; and Dr. Jack Kruse, for his work in explaining to the world just how powerfully light shapes life, and specifically human health and disease.