Near-Infrared Light Therapy and UV: Harness the Power of Light

Posted on May 9, 2024

Woman using infrared Light Therapy

More research than ever shows that light is a fundamental element for life and health. From sophisticated near-infrared light therapy devices to good ol' sunshine, light functions as a disinfectant, regulates the nervous system, and even initiates cellular regeneration.

Seeing light in this way is a simple mindset shift that opens the door to a flood of innovative health strategies. From getting outside more in the day to infrared light bulbs or finding an "infrared sauna near me," health communities are awash in novel applications of one of the most primordial elements for life on Earth.

The Science of Near-Infrared Light Therapy 

Near-infrared light therapy has captured the most attention among health and fitness enthusiasts. Also known as photobiomodulation (PBM), infrared LED clusters and low-level laser therapy (LLLT) emit deeply penetrating, longer-wavelength light between 630 and 850 nm—the "therapeutic window" of red light.

Numerous studies now show that infrared light therapy (including near-, mid-, and far-infrared light) is useful to human health in a number of capacities:

  • Wound healing

  • Pain relief

  • Reduce stiffness

  • Rheumatoid arthritis and spondyloarthritis

  • Eye dysfunction

  • Psychiatric disorders

  • Neurological disease

  • Improved sleep

Perhaps even more promising is the capacity of near-infrared light therapy to stimulate stem cells, highlighting the role light plays in cellular generation at a fundamental level. Of course, it all raises the question: how does light affect the body to such profound lengths?

The Mechanisms Behind Near-Infrared Light Therapy

Near-infrared light therapy works by stimulating endogenous (self-produced) chromophores (aka "photoacceptors"), molecules in the skin that absorb specific wavelengths and emit color.

When activated by light, chromophores undergo photophysical and photochemical events, initiating a cascade of biological processes with known therapeutic benefits:

  • Intracellular water dynamics

  • Mitochondria function

  • Cell signaling pathways and electrical capacitance

  • ATP cellular energy processes

  • Reactive oxygen species (ROS) production

  • Metabolic processes

  • Cell generation and differentiation

  • Bodily homeostasis

The way these photoreactive processes play out in the human body is not perfectly understood, but many experts believe that infrared light therapy energizes mitochondria, the cells' "power generators." If this is the (or one of the) primary drivers of infrared light benefits, it's not hard to see why it's so effective at regenerating cells.

Also, near-infrared light therapy, in particular, has proven most effective at upregulating these and other beneficial photoreactions. That's because mitochondria contain a chromophore called "cytochrome C oxidase" that readily absorbs near-infrared light due to its copper and heme content.

How Near-Infrared Light Therapy Supports Health  

What exactly is the clinical efficacy of near-infrared light therapy?

For starters, a randomized clinical trial concluded that near-infrared light therapy (specifically, LLLT) is perfectly safe, even in patients suffering from significant traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). Researchers found LLLT increased neural myelin integrity and noted no adverse events for any patient.

Numerous other case studies show strong evidence for the significant benefits of infrared light therapy in humans and animals:

  • Improved blood flow and neovascularization (blood vessel generation) at the 830 nm wavelength.

  • Restoration of collagen to accelerate non-healing wounds.

  • Reduction of pain and inflammation.

  • Increased protein synthesis, cell proliferation, antioxidant enzymes, and other biochemical benefits due to ROS cell signaling with infrared light.

  • Improved muscular performance, protection from exercise-induced damage, and accelerated recovery via pre-workout phototherapy.

  • Increased bone cell proliferation and decreased cell death were observed even after just 200 seconds of exposure (using an LED device with a power density of 5 mW/cm²). Both 630 nm and 810 nm proved equally effective.

  • Increased muscle glycogen concentrations and decreased blood glucose levels, independent of exercise.

  • The effect of PBM on major depressive disorder (MDD) was found to be comparable to antidepressant medications.

Embracing the Morning Sun

At the other end of the spectrum, ultraviolet (UV) light also carries a host of health benefits. Nothing beats the morning sun in setting circadian rhythms, which in turn leads to innumerable mood and energy benefits. Keeping a biologically appropriate sleep-wake cycle is the keystone to an all-around healthy lifestyle (as the negative health impacts of shift/night work have been proven).

Even throughout the day, sunlight continues to provide numerous health benefits, including:

  1. Improved brain functioning, including the prefrontal cortex (executive functioning), amygdala (mood regulation), hippocampus (memory), striatum (reward/motivation center), and suprachiasmatic nucleus (the "master clock")

  2. Neurotransmitter regulation, including serotonin (which increases calm and contentedness) and melatonin (which blue light regulates)

  3. Greater focus and cognitive functioning

  4. Better mood regulation and sleep

  5. Reduced brain inflammation and oxidative stress

  6. Vitamin D production

The latest research-backed neuroscience suggests that getting at least five minutes of direct sunlight within the first hour of waking is incredibly important to maintaining a strong, healthy rhythm. A similar effect in the evening, when the light spectrum changes, can also prime the mind for sleep. Heeding reasonable tolerance/comfort limits, it lends validation to the old hippie notion that "sungazing" at sunrise and sundown is extremely beneficial.

Note window glass actually filters certain higher UV wavelengths, so it is important to go directly outside.

Melanin: Nature's Sunscreen

We described how near-infrared light therapy works by initiating photoreactions in cells called chromophores. Melanin cells (aka melanocytes) are the most common chromophores in humans and react to UV light by easily changing their structure to accommodate changing energy levels through a process called conjugation.

Essentially, UV light "smears" the energy levels of electrons in the chromophore, raising or lowering individual electrons and evening out energy levels in the process. This enables melanin to absorb far higher levels of UV light safely.

Can Melanin Protect from UV Damage?

Yes, it can, and melanin may also reduce skin cancer (though there is conflicting research). Melanin truly is nature's sunscreen—and even something of an amplifier of the healthy reactions produced by chromophores when they absorb UV rays.

Is it Possible to Increase Melanin Production?

You can naturally boost melanin production through a variety of dietary and lifestyle choices. Still, the primary means is to get your tan on—albeit carefully, gradually, and without heavy sunscreens.

As for diet, some research suggests a number of dietary choices may support melanin production, including:

  • Antioxidants

  • Vitamin A

  • Vitamin C

  • Vitamin E

Vitamin D: The Sunshine Vitamin

Vitamin D has become a tricky subject. While foods rich in vitamin D are plentiful, vitamin D deficiency rates remain sky-high. Further, vitamin D comes in a variety of forms, and not all are created equal.

As you might have guessed, the ideal source of vitamin D is sunlight, as it directly converts into the most potent form of vitamin D—D3 or cholecalciferol. The next best sources include fatty fish and fish liver oils, which are also rich in D3.

The best way to determine whether you have sufficient vitamin D levels is to get your blood levels checked. There are simply too many variables at play to go entirely by the rules of thumb. It can also be hard to identify vitamin D deficiency symptoms, as many relate to general suboptimal health conditions or specific symptoms that overlap with a host of other conditions.

There are even quite weird symptoms of vitamin D deficiency, which cover an extremely broad range and can include any of the following:

  • Perpetual tiredness or malaise

  • Poor cognitive function

  • Acne or skin rashes

  • Irritable bowel or bloating

  • Body aches and muscle weakness

  • More frequent infection

  • Increased autoimmune activity

  • Dry eyes, allergies, or wheezing

  • Moodiness and irritability

  • Heart arrhythmia and/or high blood pressure

It clearly shows the immense role vitamin D and sunlight play in overall health and quality of life.


What Is the Connection Between Skin, Sunlight, and Vitamin D?

The relationship between sunlight and endogenous vitamin D is much like the chromophore process described for melanin. When exposed to UVB radiation, a molecule called 7-dehydrocholesteral converts UVB to a "previtamin" form of D3. Through a host of conversion processes, especially at the liver and kidneys, this previtamin form turns into D3 (cholecalciferol) proper.

What's even more interesting is that, as previtamins D3 and D3 also absorb UVB rays, they lead to further photoproduct conversions with beneficial effects on health. Vitamin D3 and its precursors and byproducts all play a significant role in a vast range of metabiological pathways related to all of:

  • Bone health

  • Immune function

  • Hormone production

  • Well-being and mood

  • Cell and organ functioning

  • Blood sugar regulation

  • Cardiovascular function

How Much Vitamin D Do You Get From the Sun?

That depends on various factors, including one's level of skin melanin, age, latitude, season, and how much skin is exposed. One study in Valencia, Spain—about the same latitude as Kansas City, Missouri—determined that 8–10 minutes of noontime sun exposure in the spring and summer produced the recommended amount of vitamin D.

The researchers found that achieving an equivalent amount of vitamin D in the winter required nearly two hours of midday sun exposure (assuming one exposes 10% of one's skin in the colder months and 25% in the warmer months). Of course, this study used data from Spanish populations with lighter but not altogether pale skin tones.

Those with more melanin will require much higher exposure to sunlight to increase their vitamin D intake—possibly upwards of 90 minutes, three times per week, compared to just 15 minutes (three times per week) for Caucasians. To be clear, these are just averages and estimates, and the right amount of sunlight for each individual depends on a multitude of personal and environmental factors.

Negative and Positive Effects of UVB Exposure

While UVB carries a number of important health benefits, excess UVB exposure can have negative health effects, including:

  • Sunburn

  • Increased risk of skin cancer

  • Eye conditions, including cataracts and (possibly) macular degeneration

It's important to heed your body's signals and not overdo a good thing. Like exercise, you'll need to start slow and only gradually increase the load, mindful that too much sunlight can have a negative impact too.

Near-Infrared Light Therapy and Mental Health

Embracing Higher Frequencies!

Given the profound effects light can have on brain, neurotransmitter, and hormone functions, it's not surprising that many people believe light therapy holds tremendous promise for a host of mental health challenges. For starters, it's well known that the absence of full-spectrum sunlight during the winter months can cause a type of depression known as "seasonal affective disorder" (called, of course, SAD).

Some therapists even "prescribe" full-spectrum light boxes, aka "happy lights," which provide a range of benefits:

  • Enhanced mood

  • Better sleep at night

  • Higher focus

  • Improved energy levels

Near-Infrared Light Therapy—Simple and Sophisticated Solutions

What UV is to the daytime portion of our energy cycles, infrared light is to the quiet hours. Many people have been successful in deepening the restorative power of sleep by using red light closer to night. It's a heartening full circle back to more traditional lifestyles when people would more often gaze into open flames known to emit infrared radiation.

Along the same lines, it's also a good idea to reduce exposure to blue light after sundown and even to block out all light (e.g., surge protector buttons or computer monitors) right before you go to sleep.

Incorporating Light Therapy: Practical Applications and Tips

Treating light like a veritable nutrient may seem odd, but aided with modern technology and knowledge from the past, more people than ever are finding success in exploring light therapy through a variety of methods. Even building a routine based on getting enough and the right type of natural light can work wonders in establishing a healthier rhythm.

Tip #1: Increase Sunlight Gradually

It's best to take a sustained approach, gradually increasing your exposure to sunlight while heeding your burn tolerance. The lycopene found in tomatoes (and possibly other red fruits and vegetables) can help reduce the burning effect of UV light, helping support the skin more safely.

Note you need to make adjustments for the season and your location because UVB levels are reduced at northern latitudes. In the Northern Hemisphere, we receive less UVB-spectrum light during the winter and fall.

Tip #2: Use Light to Develop an Unstoppable Rhythm

A natural daily rhythm is incredibly important for homeostasis. Some teachings of Ayurveda (literally, "life sciences") advocate dividing the day into certain figurative "elements," beginning with a heavy, solid energy in the morning, a dynamic and fiery tone in the afternoon, and something akin to the wind as the day dies down—cycling back to the heavy "earth" energy at sundown.

For the purpose of light therapy, studying the Ayurvedic cycles of the day could prove illuminating for health seekers aware of the sun's central role in driving optimal daily rhythms. Much as our nervous system runs on pulsations (not just continuous electrical signals), there's something deeply mysterious about the power of rhythm in promoting greater homeostasis, just as with light.

Tip #3: Red Light at Night

As mentioned, red light therapy before bed has been associated with more restorative sleep. Consider reducing your exposure to blue light at sundown, such as with screen filters and/or blue light-blocking "sun" glasses. Ending screen use entirely in the hours before bed is also a very good idea.

You might also search for "infrared sauna near me" or look into portable infrared saunas that fold neatly out of the way after use. There are even non-externally powered forms of near-infrared light therapy, including IR-emitting materials and garments powered solely by body heat.

Note red light can be helpful at any time of day, especially for reducing inflammation and speeding tissue recovery.

Bask in the Light of Greater Health Outcomes!

For such a subtle element, light exerts powerful effects on the human body and our mental faculties. Applied judiciously, the small effects of daily light therapy quickly compound into a tidal wave of powerful health benefits, including increased immunity, strength, cognition, and much more.

Fully harnessing the benefits of UV and near-infrared light therapy also requires supporting your body nutritionally. That includes maintaining a consistent source of micronutrients—another mind-boggling example of subtle substances exerting profound effects on the entire organism.

Enhance your daily ritual at the lightest and most tangible levels of health. That's what we set our sights on when we developed Laird Superfood's suite of hyper-nutritious snacks, packs, powders, and other staples of a healthy lifestyle:



The Science of Light Therapy






Embracing the Morning Sun




Melanin: Nature's Sunscreen



Vitamin D: The Sunshine Vitamin








Light and Mental Health



Practical Applications and Tips




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