Photobiomodulation: A Primer to The Biology and Chemistry of Red Light Therapy
There’s an increasing popularity and excitement around Photobiomodulation, but is it all just hype, or is it a legitimate therapeutic treatment with promising benefits?
What is Photobiomodulation?
It sounds complex, however, when you break it down it’s really quite simple - photo refers to light, bio meaning life, and modulation refers to change. Photobiomodulation is the use of light to bring about a change in life.
To be more precise, photobiomodulation refers to the use of red light at specific wavelengths that targets the chromophores in cellular mitochondria. Mitochondria are cellular organelles which are often referred to as the “powerhouse” of the cell due to their function in the production of energy. These mighty little structures break down nutrients and turn them into energy, or adenosine triphosphate, also known as ATP.
Adenosine triphosphate is required by all living things to generate energy that the body can use. When mitochondria absorb red and near-infrared light, they produce more ATP, which aids energy transportation within cells and causes increased cell proliferation. Cell proliferation is the action through which cells divide and replace damaged or dead cells.
Each cell has an ‘oxidative environment’- the balance of chemicals inside the cell in which the ATP reaction takes place. Red light helps to provide an optimal environment, ensuring cells can more efficiently and effectively communicate with one another to carry out tasks within the body.
It becomes apparent why red light therapy has numerous benefits once you understand the cellular reaction. Instead of simply aiding with one task, red light assists in supporting the cells that perform an incalculable number of functions within your body. From collagen production to the appropriate inflammation response – there’s essentially an endless string of processes going on in your body right now, and red light can optimize each of the billions of cells performing those tasks.
What About Oxidative Stress?
Oxidative stress is just one of many buzzwords circulating the health and wellness community in recent years. It has been attributed to accelerating the aging process, like sagging skin and wrinkles. It may also contribute to the development of a number of more serious conditions, such as diabetes and cancer. But what exactly is oxidative stress?
What is Oxidative Stress?
Essentially, oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants. Both of these molecules are needed for normal, healthy reactions in the body. When free radicals outnumber antioxidants, it can lead to a state called oxidative stress.
Free radicals are oxygen-containing molecules with an uneven number of electrons. The uneven number allows them to easily react with other molecules and enables them to cause large chain chemical reactions in the body. This reaction is known as oxidation, which can be helpful or harmful. Antioxidants, however, are molecules that can donate an electron to a free radical without making themselves unstable. This causes the free radical to stabilize and become less reactive.
Effects of oxidative stress on the body
Oxidation is a normal and necessary process that takes place in the body. Oxidative stress, on the other hand, takes place when there’s an imbalance between free radical activity and antioxidant activity. When functioning properly, free radicals can help to combat pathogens.
When there are more free radicals present than can be kept in balance by antioxidants, the free radicals can start damaging fatty tissue, DNA, and proteins in your body. Proteins, lipids, and DNA make up a large part of your body, so that damage can lead to a broad number of diseases over time. These include diabetes, atherosclerosis or the hardening of the blood vessels, inflammatory conditions, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and cancer. Oxidative stress also contributes to the aging process and can affect skin’s collagen production, causing lines, wrinkles and sagging skin.
What causes Oxidative Stress?
Oxidative Stress can be a result of various daily environmental toxins such as mold, plastics, pesticides and heavy metals; cigarette smoke (including second-hand smoke); chronic physiological stress (finances, politics, health, safety, and relationships); circadian rhythm disruption (blue light exposure from tech devices); infections (gingivitis, hepatitis C, pneumonia); physical inactivity, and iron overload.
Dietary considerations can also play a role in excess free radicals. Diets high in fat, sugar, and alcohol can increase free radical production.
How Can We Prevent Oxidative Damage?
There are many dietary and lifestyle strategies we can implement to help prevent oxidative damage. For instance a diet high in antioxidants may prevent some damage caused by free radicals by neutralizing them. Plant foods are rich sources of antioxidants. Most abundantly found in fruits and vegetables, as well as other foods including nuts, wholegrains and some meats. Increasing physical activity and implementing stress relieving techniques such as meditation may also aid in the prevention of damage.
Protecting ourselves is as simple as protecting our cells by providing what the body needs and avoiding what it doesn’t need. Knowing that we are all exposed to stress, toxins, and potentially infections, and choosing ways to regularly reduce stress and increase antioxidants will help you to live a longer, healthier life.
Another beneficial strategy to aid in the fight against oxidative stress is red and near-infrared light therapy. The current research indicates that photobiomodulation therapy can be an effective approach to reduce oxidative stress markers (e.g. thiobarbituric acid-reactive) and to increase antioxidant substances (e.g. catalase, glutathione peroxidase, superoxide dismutase).
There is an ever increasing list of conditions that can benefit from photobiomodulation. Red light therapy can be applied as a complementary strategy used both at home and in clinical practice to provide greater overall health and wellness. Want to learn more about the endless benefits of red and near-infrared light therapy and how it can aid you, take a look here.
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