For the past few years, I have been fascinated by light. It has become an essential part of my practice. I get so many questions about how to use light therapeutically, and what devices to invest in, that I decided to write this blog post. This post contains some affiliate links (EMR-Tek), and I receive commissions through those links. Many of the products I recommend are not affiliated with me in any way.

First, you need to know a few things about the therapeutic properties of different types of light. There are three broad categories – red and infrared light, visible light (red through violet), and ultraviolet light (divided into UV-A, UV-B, and UV-C).

Red and Infrared Light

The use of red and infrared light therapeutically is known as “photobiomodulation” or “low-level light therapy.” The healing properties of these wavelengths of light have been recognized since the dawn of time. Early humans used sweat lodges or saunas to keep warm in cold climates. They flocked to hot springs. They bask in the warmth of the sun, which is largely made up of red and infrared light.

Red and infrared light resonate with certain elements of our cells to trigger healing and increase energy generation. I use these frequencies locally (on a specific point of the body) to treat pain or injuries, and I treat the whole body (with saunas, light therapy beds, or light panels) to increase energy and improve sleep. This is a drastic over-simplification – red and infrared light can be used to treat practically any complaint, from dementia to Achilles tendinitis.

With any light therapy, more is not always better. With ultraviolet light, you can get badly burned. With visible light, you can induce chronic skin damage. With red and infrared light, you just lose effect. Sometimes, less is more. The dose you should use depends upon the effect you want – pain relief and tissue repair might have different doses, in different tissues, and that may even vary based on the time of day. This blog post cannot possibly encompass the dosing guidelines for the devices I will cover later – working out how much you should use any light therapy device is between you and your physician.

Mark Hamblin, PhD, has probably been the most prolific writer/researcher of red and infrared light in the last few decades. I base my statements here on my reading of his work in particular.

Visible Light

Visible light consists of all the wavelengths of light that are visible to the human eye. These wavelengths range from red to violet. They each have unique effects, but the main effects of visible light are to 1) time circadian rhythms and 2) trigger the production of hormones and neurotransmitters. We need bright visible light during the day to time circadian rhythms and trigger hormone and neurotransmitter production. This is why light is the treatment for seasonal affective disorder. I prefer to call this disorder, “sunlight deficiency syndrome.” Visible light is also being used to treat skin disorders like acne.

What most physicians do not appreciate about visible light is that it can trigger skin damage via many of the same pathways (lipid peroxidation) as ultraviolet light. Thus, much of the skin damage that is attributed to sun exposure may not be due to UV light at all, but visible light. This is why the data on sunscreen is mixed, and why sun exposure without sunscreen actually reduces all-cause mortality. I never use visible light alone because of my concerns about how damaging it can be to the skin.

The best visible light is and always will be the sun, but modern buildings are increasingly lit by artificial light alone. I either recommend the use of incandescent bulbs that have infrared and visible light together (Kelvin temperatures of 5,000 are similar to bright light during the day). In some cases, incandescent bulbs are not practical (or allowed), in which case I combine a bright light (like an Ott lite) with a infrared and red light. This is a sub-optimal solution, but it is better than living in the darkness of the modern window-less office. I universally advise patients of mine who work in an artificially lit space to find work that offers them sunlight.

Ultraviolet Light

Ultraviolet light can be divided based on its therapeutic properties in to A, B, and C. UV-A induces the skin changes we call “tanning.” This is far from just a cosmetic effect – the exposure of the skin to UV-A light has numerous therapeutic effects. UV-B light produces vitamin D in the skin. Together, the effects of UV-A and UV-B light explain why sun exposure prolongs life and reduces the incidence of disease. UV-C light is used in sanitation (for example, to decontaminate hospital rooms), but is emitted by cells in ultra-low doses as part of healthy cellular division. I am unaware of any therapeutic use for UV-C light. UV-C light is blocked by earth’s atmosphere.

That is the short version of how I use light therapeutically, in different ranges and for different complaints. I tailor this approach to each of my patients.

Do not use UV lights without the supervision of a clinician. They can burn you, and they do cause photoaging. The reason I use them is that despite this, UV light is also so strongly linked to longevity that I consider it bad medicine to go without it.

The Sperti D Lamp

The Sperti D lamp contains mercury-based fluorescent bulbs that produce UV-B light. This produces vitamin D in the skin. Five minutes daily maintains a fairly high (perhaps even too high) vitamin D level, even without fish or dairy consumption (the other main sources of vitamin D). I use mine for five minutes three to four times per week, which maintains my vitamin D level where I want it.

The Sperti Fiji Lamp

The Sperti Fiji lamp produces UV-A light, and is an at-home tanning light. Just a few minutes a day will induce the therapeutic benefits of UV-A exposure, without producing an excessive change in skin tone. The problem with UV-A exposure in excess is that it does cause photo-aging. For many of my patients in northern climates, however, the risk of skin aging are far out-weighed by the relief they experience with UV-A exposure. Besides which, a few minutes of UV-A exposure a day is next to nothing compared to what they would get if they lived in a southerly climate. The cumulative effect over their lives is negligible. Obviously, this assumes a small dose of UV-A, and not excessive use. I do not recommend UV-A treatment without physician oversight. You can burn yourself and over-expose yourself to UV-A, and it is always balanced in nature by infrared, visible, and UV-B light. UV-A alone is why we see an increased risk of cancers from tanning bed use. I do not own a Sperti Fiji for this reason, and instead use the Sperti D lamp along with red and infrared light therapy.

Reptile Bulbs

Reptiles require light approximating the summer or tropical sun in order to survive indoors, and so special lightbulbs that even emit UV light have been engineered to maintain these pets indoors. These bulbs actually emit a balanced spectrum for humans as well, and do not emit enough UV light to cause any noticeable skin damage. If I have to pick a single bulb that combines the health benefits of infrared and red light, with those of visible light, it is the reptile bulb. However, they run very hot, which may make them impractical for some people. I recommend using them with special ceramic bases that can accommodate the heat they throw off. These bases are usually used for sauna lights or warming baby birds (usually chickens).

Photobiomodulation (PBM) Devices

These devices emit infrared and red light at precisely the right frequencies to stimulate healing. I use devices from EMR-Tek, because they were one of the first to bring products to market that were suitable to my patients. Thor Photobiomodulation is arguably the best known, researched, and engineered line of PBM equipment, but much of what they sell is to professionals only. Their light therapy bed – the NovoThor – is approximately $100,000.

EMR-Tek

EMR-Tek has three different PBM products. I own all three and use them every day. I prefer the Inferno, since it covers the greatest body surface area, but many patients do not have space for it. To them, I recommend the Firewave. I use the Inferno for up to 20 minutes daily. The more skin you expose, the greater the effects on the whole body (obviously, that isn’t true if you’re using it to treat an issue in a single anatomical location, like a burn or low back pain).

There are a lot of knock-offs out there. It seems like every time I look, someone else is launching a new line of lights, and every line looks uncannily the same. It’s almost as if unscrupulous people are shamelessly copying original designs.

EMR-Tek is what I use and what I can vouch for. I will post reviews of other PBM equipment as I purchase and test them. You may be able to get a PBM product for a better price than that of EMR-Tek, but I cannot vouch for the quality.

The Tend Lite

I have to thank my mentor, Dr. Anthony G. Beck, for bringing this device to my attention. I think everyone should own one of these lights, because they are so portable and effective. They are extremely useful for treating everything from superficial cuts, scrapes, and burns, to joint pain and even headaches. The Tend Lite fits in the palm of your hand, but that also means you won’t get much systemic benefit from it.

Light is the medicine of the future. I once knew nothing about light, and now it is an invaluable part of my practice. I see many of my patients getting wonderful results just from the purchase and use of one of the above devices, and the best part is, the devices last a long time (tens or hundreds of thousands of hours of operating time – that’s probably good for your whole life) and can be used by multiple people. I see a lot of people wasting their money on supplements and drugs that cannot do what light can do. Often, people are taking drugs and supplements because they lack the proper light in their lives. Light can set you free from many of the problems of modern life, if only you use it properly.

Light shapes life. How is it shaping yours?