Light is more than meets the eye. Bad puns aside, the effects of light (and light therapy) on the human system is greater than I ever expected. When I first set out to achieve peak mental performance, the thought that light could be a key tool in my arsenal wasn’t a reality.
Light therapy, especially in the right wavelengths, could be one of the most well-researched and effective performance enhancers currently available.
Different wavelengths will affect performance in different ways. By optimizing the type and duration of light we receive, it’s possible to vastly improve sleep quality (and the cognitive markers associated with that), reduce inflammation, slow aging, and provide more energy.
Below I’ll share a basic overview of how to utilize various light wavelengths, a specific biohacking light regimen, and a recommendation for the most scientifically proven photobiomodulation devices (with a coupon code at the end) that get the job done.
What is Light Therapy?
In short, light therapy is using devices (such as light box therapy or red light therapy) to expose ourselves to therapeutic effects of light. In my definition, light therapy is simply using light to create physiological changes in our system.
The simplest way to use light to impact our performance is by hacking our internal circadian rhythm. Getting blue light (walk outside if it is sunny) can stimulate secretion of wakefulness hormones, which is why doing so in the morning is great and avoiding it in the evening is imperative.
Because there are so many technology devices that emit blue light, it’s a good idea to utilize things like F.lux or Night Shift on the iPhone to avoid this light spectrum late at night.
Living in sunny Texas makes it easy to get enough blue light, but what happens for most people in the western world who live above the 37th parallel (northern climates)?
An easy start is to use varying wavelength light bulbs in different parts of the house (for those with a home office). Lighting Science has bulbs for sleep (in the bedroom) and bulbs to be alert and awake (home office).
In more challenging cases, this is also where bright light therapy and light box therapy can become useful.
Light Therapy for Low Mood
Seasonal low mood affects up to 10% of the population in some northern areas of the world . Using bright light therapy for mood imbalances had a significant effect on symptoms of seasonal low mood according to a 2005 meta-analysis in the American Journal of Psychiatry .
For many people who live in a northern climate, something as simple as light box therapy could be a great step towards recovery. This isn’t without risks, though. Some evidence suggests blue light could cause macular degeneration so don’t overdo it.
While recovering from disease or using light therapy to get back to “normal” health is great, it’s even more interesting to see how light can enhance performance as well.
Let’s Get Geeky: Red and Near Infrared Light Therapy
The red and near infrared light therapy is where I become excited.
Not all light is created equal and this is especially true when it comes to the human body. Blue light is great for entering our eyes and helping program our master clock, but red and near infrared light are effective for optimizing our performance beyond the norm.
The red and near infrared light spectrum are important because they are scientifically proven to be the best in activating cytochrome C oxidase (CCO) in the mitochondria .
This increases ATP production (energy) by the mitochondria, which gives our cells more energy. While the mechanisms are slightly different, these light wavelengths provide mitochondrial support similar to creatine monohydrate, CoQ10 and PQQ.
These are some of my favorite nootropic supplements and simple light therapy can provide the same (if not greater) advantages.
Here is a graph showing the spikes in CCO activation specifically in the mid-600 nm to low-to-mid-800 nm range (red and near infrared).
Light helps stimulate the formation of ATP (energy). It’s like our own human version of photosynthesis!
Benefits of Photobiomodulation
By increasing CCO and mitochondrial energy production, there are a number of downstream effects. Almost, if not all, benefits of photobiomodulation revolve around this major advantage.
Cognitive Enhancement – while less studied than some of the other photobiomodulation benefits, there is ample evidence to suggest substantial cognitive enhancement through light therapy. A 2017 study in Photomedicine and Laser Surgery showed that near infrared light therapy could increase reaction time with no adverse side effects .
We do know that cytochrome oxidase has a key role in neuronal physiology. This mechanism is the same as methylene blue, which increases memory formation, learning, and neuroprotection.
Reduced Inflammation – inflammation is one of the scourges of physical and mental performance. It contributes to pain, brain fog, and a host of other chronic diseases. The most insidious aspect of inflammation is that we can “survive”, but we’re definitely not thriving.
Although applying direct red and infrared light to an inflamed area (i.e: injury) can be extra helpful, simple application to the body changes inflammatory markers in the blood. One study showed reduced numbers of pro-inflammatory cytokines (like TNF-a) in the blood after only 30 minutes .
On average the inflammatory markers fell by 34, 12, and 1.5 times the normal amount. The red and near infrared therapy seems to really move the needle in terms of inflammation (these aren’t trivial amounts).
Slow Effects of Aging – time takes a toll on us all, but red and near infrared light therapy can significantly reverse some signs of aging. This is most clearly seen with the skin.
One study showed using 20 minutes of 633 and 830 nm light (red and near infrared light therapy) could improve skin tone and reduce wrinkles in 91% of subjects . Another showed that red and near infrared light therapy stimulated collagen production to reduce aging skin . A final trial combined green tea with red light to find results that usually took 10 months were found in 30 days .
While most of the current evidence focuses on the skin (there are no epidemiological studies of people exposed purely to red and near infrared light), one can assume similar responses within other organs of the body.
May Increase Testosterone – if females enjoy the skin rejuvenating benefits of red light therapy, men will assuredly like increasing their testosterone. The light (especially when shined on the testis) stimulates Leydig cells, which increase testosterone production.
A study published in Biomedical Research showed that it only took 4 days to increase testosterone levels in animal models (30 min per day 670 nm wavelength) . In that study plus another, using the wavelength of 808 nm had no impact, which shows that the wavelength does matter (red light specifically) . So please don’t go perving around the neighborhood pool with your pants down…
Testosterone can increase muscle size and strength, but also has consequences for the brain. Low testosterone can reduce cognitive performance, mood, and accelerate signs of aging. Improving levels of testosterone can enhance mental performance.
Why Not Spend More Time in the Sun?
With all the talk of red and near infrared light, it’s easy to think more time in the sun is your best bet. While sunlight is invaluable for vitamin D production, there are a few things to consider.
For one, UV radiation can be harmful for the skin. Millions of people die from skin cancer annually and excessive UV light can be harmful .
Earlier I mentioned that red and near infrared light therapy can reduce inflammatory cytokines (markers of inflammation), but UV radiation can increase inflammation .
The idea is to be targeted with our light exposure as much as possible. I’m not implying anyone should avoid a trip to the beach, a walk through the park, or spending time outside. For emotional and mental health alone, being outside is an imperative.
What I am trying to say is that specific targeted use of light therapy, particularly in the red and near infrared wavelengths, can have more drastic benefits while reducing the risk of side effects.
Choosing a Red and Near Infrared Light Therapy Device
For those who are trying to find a therapeutic device it can be somewhat challenging, confusing, and making a mistake can be costly. We want to focus on three specific things:
- Clinically-proven wavelengths – this is within the mid-600 nm (red) to low-to-mid-800 nm (near infrared) range.
- Treatment area – the surface area of the device must be large enough to make a meaningful difference
- Medical-grade irradiance (intensity) – having the right wavelength is only useful if the intensity of your device is effective (as per scientific literature)
Almost all of the products on the market get the first thing right. Most relevant devices will use red and near infrared light.
In both intensity + treatment area, most of the brands are either lacking or exceedingly expensive. Many companies simply provide no intensity information whatsoever, which is usually a sign to avoid them. Similar to nootropics companies that use “proprietary blends”, they’re obviously hiding something.
With regard to treatment area, many companies produce units that are simply too small. Similar to nootropics companies that use a great cognitive enhancing compound, but too small a dosage.
We are left with only a few brands that pass muster:
- Nova Thor (LED bed) $140,000
- Light Stim $60,000
- Joovv $595 – 2695
Believe it or not, the Joovv Max light therapy unit is 2 x irradiance (intensity) of the Nova Thor bed that costs $140,000.
Given the cost disparity, the Joovv light is by far the best option for getting red and near infrared light therapy. The price range is reasonable given the comparisons and the fact that this is a fixed cost.
Compared to Qualia, which costs $150 per month and approximately $1800 per year, it’s actually quite affordable. I’m not suggesting a comparison between Qualia and the Joovv light in efficacy, but showing how nootropics add up over time because they are consumables versus light therapy that only costs money once.
Joovv Light: Cognitive Enhancement Protocol
Because the Joovv Light is the only plausible device to buy (compared to the behemoth expensive alternatives), I've been using this device for many days with great results. Two stand out the most: reduced muscle soreness post workout and less joint pain than usual. Both great, but both physical results.
For improving our cognitive performance, we want to focus on a couple of things:
- Memory enhancement – there is evidence cytochrome oxidase increases memory formation and learning ability. In theory, we should see some memory benefits as a result of enhanced mitochondrial function.
- Hormone optimization – by increasing testosterone levels, there will be downstream cognitive effects.
To achieve this, we are going to stand in front of the long red light for a certain period of time every day. My suggestion is to do so 7 days per week (at least 5-6) for 10 minutes per session. If it seems like a burden, consider this.
My unit hangs nicely from the door so it's out of the way, but doesn't require me to spend time “setting up”. Typically, when I spend 10 minutes I'm usually listening to a podcast or reading a book on my Kindle anyway. Complete physical and mental enhancement doesn't get much easier than that!
- Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan (2014). Abnormal Psychology (6th ed.). New York, New York: McGraw-Hill Education. p. 179.