Do you ever have those days where it feels like you just can’t get your brain to turn on? Maybe you’ve noticed that you’re having a harder time remembering the little things these days or struggling to pay attention during meetings. While there are a number of factors that can lead to these experiences, one thing most of them have in common is a reduction in the amount of blood flowing through your brain.
if your brain cells aren’t being supplied with the oxygen and glucose carried by your blood, they stop working and when your brain cells stop working, so do you.
As you might imagine, if your brain cells aren’t being supplied with the oxygen and glucose carried by your blood, they stop working and when your brain cells stop working, so do you. Luckily, red light therapy is perfectly suited for the task of getting your blood moving and getting you back to your bright, clear-headed self. Let’s look at how it works.
The key player here is a gaseous molecule called Nitric Oxide (NO). Nitric oxide is critical for vasodilation, or the relaxing of your blood vessels. When blood vessels relax, they become wider, which lets more blood flow through them. Although this molecule is an important part of a healthy body, it can also be harmful through its effects on cellular respiration- the cell’s energy production process.
Nitric oxide is critical for vasodilation, or the relaxing of your blood vessels.
For details you can check out our post Cellular teamwork makes the dream work, but the short story is that NO can block cellular respiration by taking oxygen’s spot on cytochrome c oxidase (CCO)- the special enzyme that turns oxygen into energy. With NO in the way, oxygen is left out in the cold and CCO has nothing to convert into energy, so cellular respiration stops, and the cell starts to die.
the short story is that NO can block cellular respiration by taking oxygen’s spot on cytochrome c oxidase (CCO)- the special enzyme that turns oxygen into energy.
The energy from red light is able to dislodge NO from its position on CCO, which allows oxygen to bind and cellular respiration to resume. Importantly, once NO is removed it’s free to do useful things again, like increasing blood flow. This is one of the ways red light helps improve your mood and cognitive ability (Hamblin, 2016). When red light is applied to the forehead, the light energy is absorbed by your brain cells and NO is ejected from CCO. The additional NO that has just been released is free to dilate the blood vessels in your brain, which leads to an increase in blood flow through your brain (Huang et al., 2012; Stephan et al., 2012).
Our brains require a substantial amount of energy to operate. In fact, just keeping our brain active while we sit and think about nothing consumes about 20% of all the energy our bodies produce! Such an energy hungry organ requires a lot of oxygen and glucose to function well. This is why blood flow in our brain is so important for mood and cognition. If our brain cells aren’t sufficiently supplied with the oxygen and glucose carried by our blood, they can’t create the energy they need to do their jobs. More specifically, they won’t have enough energy to talk to each other. Communication between brain cells is critical for all the thinking we do, so when they stop talking to each other, thinking clearly becomes nearly impossible.
Red light has been shown to increase blood flow in the brain and improve mood and cognition
Red light has been shown to increase blood flow in the brain and improve mood and cognition (Carniero et al., 2019; Schiffer et al., 2009). For example, a study conducted with individuals struggling with depression showed that a single treatment with red light increased blood flow and improved their psychological state (Schiffer et al., 2009). Another study demonstrated that individuals who received red light treatment to their foreheads showed improvements on measures of attention, memory and mood two weeks after treatment (Barrett & Gonzalez-Lima, 2013).
The entirety of our human experience depends on our brains, so when our brains aren’t operating well, it affects every part of our lives.
Good blood flow is essential for a high-functioning brain.
Good blood flow is essential for a high-functioning brain. Without it, we struggle to focus, become forgetful, and often our psychological well-being suffers too. One of the ways red light helps improve our mood and cognitive ability is through its effect on nitric oxide (NO).
Red light removes NO from its unhelpful position in the machinery of cellular respiration, which makes it available to promote the widening of the blood vessels in our brains.
Red light removes NO from its unhelpful position in the machinery of cellular respiration, which makes it available to promote the widening of the blood vessels in our brains. This allows more blood to flow more freely through our brains, providing them with the nourishment they need to do all the hard work needed so that we can get back to being our best selves. You could say red light therapy is a “NO”-brainer.
- Barrett, D. W., & Gonzalez-Lima, F. (2013). Transcranial infrared laser stimulation produces beneficial cognitive and emotional effects in humans. Neuroscience, 230, 13–23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2012.11.016
- Carniero, A. M., Poiani, G., Zaninnoto, A., Osorio, R., Oliveira, M., Paiva, W., & Zangaro, R. (2019). Transcranial photobiomodulation therapy in the cognitive rehabilitation of patients with cranioencephalic trauma. Photobiomodulation, Photomedicine, and Laser Surgery, 37(10), 657–666.
- Hamblin, M. R. (2016). Shining light on the head: Photobiomodulation for brain disorders. BBA Clinical, 6, 113–124. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbacli.2016.09.002
- Huang, Y.-Y., Gupta, A., Vecchio, D., Bil de Arce, V., Huang, S.-F., Xuan, W., & Hamblin, M. R. (2012). Transcranial low level laser (light) therapy for traumatic brain injury. Journal of Biophotonics, 5(11–12), 827–837. doi:10.1002/jbio.201200077
- Schiffer, F., Johnston, A. L., Ravichandran, C., Polcari, A., Teicher, M. H., Webb, R. H., & Hamblin, M. R. (2009). Psychological benefits 2 and 4 weeks after a single treatment with near infrared light to the forehead: a pilot study of 10 patients with major depression and anxiety. Behavioral and Brain Functions, 5(1), 46. https://doi.org/10.1186/1744-9081-5-46
- Stephan, W., Banas, L., Bennett, M., & Tunceroglu, H. (2012). Efficacy of super-pulsed 905 nm Low Level Laser Therapy (LLLT) in the management of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): A case study. World Journal of Neuroscience, 2(1), 231–233. http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/wjns.2012.24035