Martin Schmiedl and photobiomodulation
Martin Schmiedl works as a trainer at Fitness Club Řepy and has been involved in fitness since he was 15 years old. He is a specialist in the removal of pain in the neck, back, hips, scoliosis or, for example, herniated intervertebral discs. Thanks to the combination of several methods that he learned during his many years of practice and education, Martin achieves excellent results. We now bring you an article about red light from this specialist: Red and infrared light to support sports performance and regeneration.
To be honest, when I first saw the red and infrared therapy panels for muscle support, I was more than skeptical about them. Similar “biohacking” techniques have literally exploded in recent years, but while there is no shortage of hypotheses about their miraculous effects, support in the form of quality scientific studies is often lacking.
However, I was pleasantly surprised by the infrared panels. This is a big topic not only among the community of athletes and enthusiasts of alternative methods, but also among experts and scientists.
How do infrared panels actually work?
Infrared and red light emitting panels use electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths between 630-950 nm. The source of red light in the range of 630-660 nm is most often used, on the contrary, the source of infrared radiation is most often wavelengths in the range from 800 to 950 nm. To date, scientific studies do not fully agree on which of these two intervals has a greater effect and why, but state that their combination leads to better results than using only one type of radiation (Vanin et al., 2017). Scientists also sum it up sympathetically in a review from 2016 – “get the best of both worlds” (“get the best of both worlds”) (Ferraresi et al., 2016).
The principle is ultimately very easy, you expose the relevant muscle group to red and infrared radiation and let it penetrate your tissues. Red light penetrates the skin only slightly, but infrared radiation can penetrate up to the muscles. And what good is it anyway?
Photons are absorbed on the chromophores of the mitochondria, namely cytochrome c oxidase. This enzyme is one of the oldest in our body and plays a vital role in the process of cellular respiration, i.e. in the generation of energy in the form of ATP. The promotion of ATP formation is one of the supposed mechanisms by which emitters work (Ferraresi et al., 2012). In addition, there is often talk about reducing oxidative stress, for example, in one study, a higher activity of another enzyme, superoxide dismutase, which is a natural antioxidant in our body, was found (Liu et al., 2008).
I would like to add one small note to the mentioned mechanisms. I almost got the impression from some promoters of red and infrared light emitters that without this radiation the cells have no energy and ATP is not formed. Of course that’s not true, we’re not plants, so in principle we don’t need any light at all to make ATP in our cells. However, studies suggest that exposure to red and infrared radiation can slightly promote ATP production in mitochondria.
Mitochondrial support and increased physical performance
The use of red and infrared radiation to support mitochondria and physical performance is a relatively young technique. The first experiments with red lasers on animal subjects were performed in 2006, the first randomized controlled trial with the same laser on humans was performed two years later, and by 2019 there were already more than 50 (Lopes-Martins et al., 2006, Leal-Junior et al., 2008 and 2019).
Although the parameters and specific methods of use often differ dramatically from study to study, most studies suggest that the use of infrared panels can indeed boost performance in a variety of ways. Among the most frequently studied parameters are the reduction of muscle soreness after sports performance (DOMS = Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), the reduction of muscle fatigue during physical exertion or the support of strength performance.
One of the key parameters monitored in the studies is the total amount of energy that is delivered to the muscle part using the radiator. For small muscle groups (e.g. elbow flexors or extensors), a 2017 meta-analysis showed that the optimal amount of delivered energy should be between 20-60 J, for large muscle groups (e.g. knee extensors) the recommended amount of energy is 60- 300 J (Vanin et al., 2017). A more recent review from 2019 recommends increasing the lower limit for large muscle groups, seeing the optimal interval as 120-300 J (Leal Junior et al., 2019).
Thus, experts explain some of the failures of scientific studies by the inappropriately used total dose of energy that was chosen for the experiment. For example, in a 2009 study by the pioneer of photobiomodulation therapy, Leal-Junior Pinta, probably too little energy (only 12 J) was delivered to see positive effects on athletic performance. These were not even observed in Thomas Beltrame’s 2018 study, where the researchers, on the contrary, delivered up to 3x more energy (180 J) than what is currently considered optimal for small muscle groups, in this case the calf muscles (Beltrame et al., 2018).
Today in 2022, the number of randomized controlled trials on the topic of photobiomodulation therapy in sports has increased severalfold compared to 2018. We can therefore look forward to new summary articles and meta-analyses that carefully analyze the studies carried out. This is more than desirable, as many of the studies included in the 2018 meta-analysis are burdened with significant limitations, and so the authors of the meta-analysis rate them as studies of low to moderate quality.
Before or after training, and for how long?
Since photobiomodulation therapy has only recently seen the light of day in the sports world, there is currently no consensus on a standardized procedure for use before sports performance. Even studies do not agree on how long before sports activity red and infrared therapy should take place.
And so, while some experimental procedures use glowing panels just before the start of sports activity, other works include them several tens of minutes or even hours before physical activity. Advocates of these procedures argue that the highest stimulation of ATP formation in mitochondria is achieved only with a longer time interval from red and infrared light therapy (Ferraresi et al., 2015).
Regarding the length of radiation, it is recommended to expose the relevant muscle part to radiation for a minimum of 30 seconds (Leal-Junior et al., 2019). The total time of therapy can be up to 5-10 minutes, while the delivery of the optimal amount of energy (ie 20-60 J for a small muscle part and 120-300 J for a large muscle part) should be the guiding principle. You can thus orientate yourself according to the power of a specific radiator and the length of irradiation of a given muscle part, as these two variables have an effect on the total amount of delivered energy.
Red and infrared light therapy can also be included immediately after completing the training unit. Some studies conclude that this procedure is beneficial for muscle regeneration and better adaptation to the training just completed (Dos Reis et al., 2014). For example, this year’s meta-analysis comparing photobiomodulation therapy with post-workout cryotherapy concluded that post-workout muscle exposure to red and infrared radiation significantly reduced post-workout muscle soreness and the concentration of muscle damage markers compared to the popular cryotherapy (Ferlito et al., 2022).
Does red and infrared matter in other cases?
We hear about the benefits of red and infrared light emitters most often in connection with sports performance, support for regeneration and adaptation to sports training. Some comprehensive studies even assume that WADA or the International Olympic Committee will also deal with photobiomodulation therapy, which in itself attributes considerable importance to this alternative technique (Ferraresi et al., 2016).
Athletes and non-athletes alike can benefit from the effects of red and infrared radiation on the skin and surrounding tissue. Some studies even show that red light therapy has a positive effect on increasing the density of collagen fibers, which leads to an increase in skin elasticity and firmness (Wunsch et al., 2014). In this context, red light therapy is also being tested for skin rejuvenation and reduction of wrinkles.
However, in addition to athletes, red and infrared light therapy is also used for many other health benefits. For example, the effect on the production of testosterone and the increase in sperm mobility is being studied (Ahn et al., 2013, Salman et al., 2014). Red light is also being studied for circadian rhythm optimization and sleep promotion (Zhao et al., 2012). Patients with neurodegenerative diseases can benefit from infrared radiation, which according to some studies can lead to an improvement in the condition of the given diseases (chronic migraines and headaches, multiple sclerosis, etc.) (Loeb et al., 2018). Last but not least, it is appropriate to mention the possible effect of photobiomodulation therapy on the composition of the human microbiota, which is currently a big phenomenon in itself (Liebert et al., 2019).
What to take away from this?
Photobiomodulation therapy is a relatively new method based on exposing the body to red and infrared radiation in the wavelength range from 630 to 950 nm. Compared to the visible spectrum, electromagnetic waves in this range of wavelengths can penetrate deeper under the skin and induce changes at the mitochondrial level.
Photons are absorbed by cytochrome c oxidase on the inner membrane of the mitochondria, thus directly involved in cellular respiration. It is expected that red and infrared light therapy can induce the generation of ATP (cellular energy) and reduce oxidative stress.
In connection with sports performance, photobiomodulation therapy is most often practiced about 30-60 minutes before sports performance. The process itself usually takes between 5-10 minutes, while the aim is to deliver about 20-60 J (small muscle parts) or 120-300 J (large muscle parts) to the muscle parts. To support regeneration and adaptation to muscle load, it is possible to include photobiomodulation therapy immediately after the training unit.
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