The Right Chemistry: Red-light therapy might have some uses, but it’s no cure-all

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Some studies have shown possible benefits in pain relief, acne treatment, blood circulation and inflammatory conditions, among other things.

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As the story goes, back in 17th-century Amsterdam, ladies of the night carried red lanterns to signal sailors that they were available. Supposedly the red light had another effect. It camouflaged the skin imperfections these women often had. In light of subsequent research, maybe these lanterns did more than just hide scars and lesions, maybe they actually helped heal them!

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A wall engraving dating back some 3,000 years shows Queen Nefertiti and her children soaking up the rays of the sun, suggesting that the ancient Egyptians believed in the health benefits of exposure to sunlight. The Greeks and Romans were fond of solariums, and in preparation for the original Olympic Games, Greek athletes were encouraged to enhance their strength by exposure to sunlight for several months. However, it was not until the late 19th century that the spotlight of science began to shine on the therapeutic effects of light.

Dr. Nils Ryberg Finsen, born in the Faroe Islands and educated in Denmark, suffered from Niemann-Pick disease, a rare ailment in which harmful amounts of fat accumulate in internal organs and dark areas of pigmentation mar the skin. His belief that sunlight might help his condition set the stage for a research career focusing on the possible healing properties of light. Seeing that sunlight had no effect on his own condition, Finsen switched to exploring artificial light and began a collaboration with the Copenhagen Electric Light Works to produce an electrical carbon-arc lamp, a project that in 1895 led to a lucky accident. Niels Mogensen, an engineer with whom Finsen was working, suffered from lupus vulgaris, a skin infection characterized by terrible disfiguring lesions caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria. No treatment Mogensen had tried worked, but while working on the carbon-arc lamp he noticed the lesions improved. The engineer became . Finsen’s first patient, and after only a few days of treatment with the “Finsen light” his condition resolved.

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The doctor then went on to try his lamp on patients with smallpox scars with highly satisfactory results. While his lamp produced full spectrum light, Finsen proposed that it was the red end of the spectrum that had the healing effect. When presented with this theory, the chief physician at a Copenhagen hospital rejected it out of hand. Finsen retorted, “you might at least try not to laugh at me.” The laughter stopped when doctors in Norway reported newly diagnosed smallpox patients sequestered in “red rooms” recovered without ever developing scars. There was now enough evidence to convince the mayor of Copenhagen, with backing from a number of donors, to establish the Medical Light Institute, with Finsen as its director. The results of treatment with Finsen light were impressive. Of patients afflicted with lupus vulgaris, 83 per cent were cured! Within a few years, 40 Finsen Institutes were established in Europe and America. Treatment of lupus vulgaris with Finsen lamps continued until antibiotics were introduced half a century later.

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In 1903, Finsen received the ultimate recognition, the Nobel Prize in Medicine for launching the field of “phototherapy.” Unfortunately, by this time he was confined to a wheelchair and was unable to travel to Stockholm to receive the prize, and died just a year later.

Now let’s skip ahead to 1967 when Hungarian physician Endre Mester tried to repeat an experiment by American Paul McGuff who had used a red laser beam to destroy a cancerous tumour implanted into a laboratory rat. Unbeknownst to Mester, his laser was much weaker, and had no effect on the tumour, but to his surprise caused rapid healing of the wound where the tumour had been implanted! Furthermore, the light stimulated the regrowth of hair at the site. Mester coined the term “photobiostimulation” for this low-level red-light therapy.

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Since then numerous researchers have explored the potential of red-light therapy. That includes NASA scientists who found that red light boosts plant growth on the Space Station and allows astronaut injuries to heal more quickly. Other studies have shown possible benefits in pain relief, acne treatment, blood circulation, asthma, inflammatory conditions, stroke, and even hair growth. Light emitting diodes implanted in special helmets, or attached directly to the forehead, have shown some tantalizing benefits in depression, Parkinson’s Disease and cognitive enhancement. Finally, the effect of light on COVID has been studied. The violet/blue end of the spectrum has been shown to inactivate bacteria and some viruses, and at least in experimental animals, red and near infrared light reduce respiratory disorders similar to complications associated with coronavirus infection.

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The mechanism of action of red light has been explored, with the prevailing theory being that damaged cells produce nitric oxide that binds to and inactivates cytochrome oxidase, an enzyme that is required to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule that releases energy to fuel cellular processes. Light in the red (600-700 nm wavelength) and near-infrared (760-940 nm) regions of the spectrum liberates nitric oxide from the enzyme allowing more ATP to be produced, normalizing cell function. Furthermore, the nitric oxide released is a messenger molecule that has beneficial effects on the immune system, on blood vessel dilation, and on blood clotting.

As is often the case, inventive marketers and pseudo experts are prone to hyping research results beyond what the data actually shows. According to some promoters, red light therapy is a cure for whatever ails you. Such claims should raise the red flag of alarm.

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These days, lanterns in red light districts have been replaced with red neon signs. But that is not the place to go for red light therapy. A better bet would be the commercially available red LED arrays that are at least supported by some, albeit not overwhelming, evidence.

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Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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