In the recent past, interest in the field of biohacking is peaking, and a new era of experimentation has begun.
What really fascinates biohackers is that by “stacking” multiple methods and techniques, personal effects can be multiplied and biohacking goals can be reached in a fraction of the time usually needed.
One exciting playing field that is yet to be fully discovered is the interlink of light and temperature. Latest scientific discoveries have led to the assumption that by combining photobiomodulation (using specific wavelengths of light to upregulate Mitochondria) with temperature regulation of one’s body, effects may be multiplied.
In this article, three renowned experts from both fields give an outlook on the situation and propose an experimental approach to combining these two biohacking methods to supercharge your results.
Keep on reading if you are curious about how to combine light and temperature to explore your full genetic potential.
- Introduction to the experts
- What is Photobiomodulation
- The science behind PBM
- Optimizing the treatment
- The correlation of Photobiomodulation and Heat
- Why temperature impacts treatments
- What is cold exposure?
- The science behind cold exposure
- Optimize the treatment
- Experimental regimen to combining Cold Exposure and PBM
- What about breath? Bonus chapter for you
Introduction to the experts
For this article, three renowned experts in the field came together to lay the testing ground for further experimentation within the topic of photobiomodulation (PBM) and cold exposure. They give an overview of scientific research and the current application of the methods and propose an experimental regimen to combine Cold Exposure and PBM to help you multiply effects.
Rolf Duda is an Entrepreneur and Biohacker. Coming from a corporate consulting background, Rolf had to cope with high levels of stress and the modern-day lifestyle of sitting too much and constant jetlag. Biohacking started for Rolf as a means to help himself but turned into something that he now breathes and loves – sharing his expertise with others around the globe. Rolf is a certified “Wim Hof-Instructor” and member of the “Swiss Cold Training association. He is one of the most sought after experts in Switzerland and the whole DACH region when it comes to cold exposure and breathing techniques.
Barbara Sekulovska is a Ph.D. student in psychology and education with a focus on burnout and happiness. Within her work, she co-founded one of the top biohacking brands at the moment, Luminousred, where she wants to enable humans to live a longer and more fulfilling life by using cutting-edge non-invasive biohacking techniques.
Thomas Lechner is a Ph.D. student in light and sensual perception, focusing on optimizing our surroundings and what we humans take in to be able to have peak performance and revolutionize longevity research. He is the second co-founder of the biohacking company Luminousred, where he spearheads research, development, and innovation.
What is Photobiomodulation
First, we explore the realms of light photons and our bodily reactions to them. When we look at the entire light spectrum that is, e.g., derived from sunlight, the majority of wavelengths, including UV light, are immediately absorbed by the outer layers of our skin, where we can feel them as heat or see the effects of the ultraviolet forms of light.
When looking at the spectrum of sunlight closely, a narrow band of light wavelengths can penetrate human tissue in a very efficient way, without being absorbed too early or converted to heat immediately.
The use of light as a therapeutic medium dates back over 10,000 years. Common understanding taught people that exposure to the sun each day might benefit their health and wellbeing. Heliotherapy was first coined by the ancient Egyptians and then used frequently by the Greeks – that exposed depressed people to the sun.
This methodology was first developed by NASA and researched extensively within the last couple of decades. Within this work, scientists found a particular combination of red and near-infrared wavelengths of light in the 600 to 900 nanometer (nm) range that showed very beneficial effects. 1
In the past three decades, scientists discovered that these wavelengths of light possess a unique ability to alter cellular function and help the mitochondria in our cells to produce energy in the form of ATP in a much more efficient and effective way.
An easy way to think of this function is to think of these particular light photons entering our cells and helping them “charge their cellular batteries.”
The treatment with red and near-infrared light is called Photobiomodulation (PBM) or low-level laser therapy (LLLT) in science. Today over 4,000 studies on the topic have been published, and recent scientific interest is soaring. The advent of LED technology helped the technology go mainstream and to be used outside clinical settings. Therapeutic effects range from skin and hormonal health to improved circulation, immunity, and pain and inflammation reduction. 2
The science behind PBM
The concrete science behind Photobiomodulation was only discovered in the early 1990s, where researchers found that red and near-infrared light can improve photosynthesis and growth in plants. This finding led to the discovery of a similar process in human skin cells.
With the advent of mitochondrial research, scientists then discovered that these particular wavelengths directly help the “energy generators” of our cells, the mitochondria, convert energy from food better to chemical energy used within our bodies, called ATP.
Photobiomodulation directly targets this energy conversion process by activating the mitochondrial enzyme cytochrome c oxidase and improving the cellular respiration and oxygen consumption during the Krebs cycle.
By increasing exposure to red and near-infrared light, our mitochondria increase ATP synthesis by producing more efficient and effective chemical energy, leading to increased cellular activity.3,4
This energy can then be used within our body as an energy source for cellular activities such as wound healing, rejuvenation, and recovery processes in general.
Optimizing the treatment
Recent scientific discoveries found that more light is not always better, explaining it in the form of a “therapeutic window” that allows you to gain optimal benefits through cellular activation.
The good thing here is that scientists suggest that overdosing (if not largely overdosed) in most cases leads to the same results as underdosing, no effect, and may also be an explanation of the few failed clinical trials on photobiomodulation. 5
In other studies, outcomes (or non-effects) of overdosing have also been explored and documented extensively. 6
This effect is called the biphasic dose-response or therapeutic window. Its mechanism is still not known in detail but might be related to the formation of reactive oxygen species. 6
The therapeutic window not a single hit or miss spot but rather a bandwidth of a hormesis-like response that has a peak at the optimal dose, with lower effectiveness if overdosing or underdosing happens. 7
As this technology is still in an experimental stage and because of its various ways of application, we always suggest looking at the extensive research database at luminousred.com/research/ to find out the exact parameters used in scientific research on each use-case and try to replicate the conditions with your photobiomodulation device as a starter. This way, you already have a rough outline of starting your sessions and going from there.
We also always suggest getting hydrated and potentially get a bit of energy for your cells in the form of easily usable MCT oil before starting each session. This way, your body can optimally use the wavelengths reaching the mitochondria in the cells and pump out an elevated level of cellular energy in the form of ATP.
The correlation of Photobiomodulation and Heat
In recent years, photobiomodulation has often been compared to saunas, especially to infrared saunas, as the proposed working method seems similar. Both devices use wavelengths of light to irradiate the body.
But the method of action is inherently different in infrared saunas than in photobiomodulation devices that use red and near-infrared light. As initially discussed, the particular wavelengths of light used in photobiomodulation do not immediately convert to heat when hitting the body but travel through layers of skin and even as deep as the mitochondria in our tissue and blood.
There they help your body to produce more cellular energy by optimizing the cellular respiration process. 8, 9
On the contrary, infrared saunas radiate far-infrared light that also enters your body and then gets converted to heat. So instead, with infrared saunas, the working mechanism is heat that has several benefits like upping your metabolism, helping your cardiovascular system, and help to clear out toxins. This is an important distinction. 10, 11
Photobiomodulation can be used in conjunction with infrared saunas, as it promotes different effects. It is yet to be determined how an ideal usage of these two methods is to be executed. Within this article, we want to highlight some of the primary relations of using photobiomodulation combined with temperature and show that to gain optimal benefits, heat and photobiomodulation should not be combined simultaneously.
For more, see our specific blog on the difference between Photobiomodulation and an Infrared sauna here.
Why temperature impacts treatments
Earlier in this article, we explored the effects of various wavelengths of light on our bodies and discussed the similarities and differences of the therapeutically viable wavelengths of red, near-infrared, and far-infrared light.
The main difference is the method of action, in that far infrared light warms up tissues and promotes sweating. Red and near-infrared light enters our tissue and cells without being converted to heat immediately and works by influencing cellular energy production.
When looking at scientific research in the recent past, a few exciting findings regarding photobiomodulation and temperature came to fruition. Based on the scientific discoveries, it becomes imminent that heat might harm photobiomodulation effectiveness as it alters/blocks its working mechanism.
On the contrary, a few research papers explore the exciting intersection of photobiomodulation and cold exposure.
This research area is relatively new, and a lot of experiments still have to be conducted. Yet, a pioneering study was done in 2017 that already explored the adjunctive therapies of photobiomodulation in the form of low-level laser therapy and cryotherapy. In this case, they wanted the single-use and combined use effect on tendon inflammation.
Immediately after trauma, the scientists performed various combinations of these treatments and assessed histological and biomechanical properties 24h post-trauma.
In all combinations and uses of photobiomodulation and/or cryotherapy, inflammatory markers shifted towards an anti-inflammatory direction, compared to a nontreated group.
The biggest surprise was that the only treatment combination that significantly improved biomechanical parameters and corresponded with the best histological scores of all treatment groups was cryotherapy, followed by photobiomodulation.
This was described as an anti-inflammatory “add-on” effect created by the particular order of cryotherapy followed by photobiomodulation, which the scientists described as essential.12
One possible explanation or hypothesis might be that your body’s ability to adapt to the cold, your blood vessels’ vasoconstriction protects your main organs such as the heart and lungs. The body is trying to retain the warm blood in the core. This mechanism ensures survival by cutting off the blood supply to external areas such as the arms and legs. Now, when these exterior areas are compressed, most of your blood with all the good stuff like blood cells, minerals, and other by-products comes back to your core. As soon as the danger of the cold is over and the brain feels safe again, this compression is released, and the blood is rushed throughout your body with an increased blood flow and blood circulation and reaches even the tiniest blood vessels of your skin. You can see this by your skin getting red.
During this time, not only do you get the effects of each of the individual methods of cold thermogenesis and photobiomodulation, but your body seems to be more susceptible to the light by “turning inside out” and rushing blood to all parts of the body and upping circulation.
This could also lead to the possibility of red and near-infrared light during photobiomodulation to reach the free-flowing mitochondria within your blood more effortlessly and activate more pronounced systemic effects of photobiomodulation and adding that to the pool. 13
Although a conclusion might be early, it seems that cryotherapy and photobiomodulation might not only be a viable method to lower inflammation but might be an excellent combined treatment when used under the right circumstances.
What is cold exposure?
Nowadays, exposure to cold is no longer a secret cult, nor is it just a hidden therapy for sports professionals. The lovely and chilly dip in icy water is getting more and more popular, and an increasing number of scientific studies prove the positive effects. But there is a wide range of different techniques and methods out there. We are starting with the traditional Kneipp therapy, cryotherapy tanks, the new year cold water dip, or even the Tummo meditation of the Tibetan monks. To understand what cold exposure stands for could be a bit confusing and always need context. When we speak about the context of cold exposure in combination with photobiomodulation, we are talking about a full-body immersion in water below 10 degrees. 14
Sounds cool – right? To understand why we named this torture a Biohack, we have to understand what’s going on in our bodies. For me, even after five years of ice swimming and cold showering every time there is a doubt. A small voice in my mind is asking why I want to do this. We could start our day with a nice and warm shower like the rest of the world; nobody is watching.
The point is that the long list of potential health benefits for me has to be divided into two sections: The benefits for our bodies and minds.
Sure, our body’s benefits and what is going on within our body’s chemistry are more common and evident because of their presence in newspapers, television, and fitness blogs. They are also more objective, which means the difference between individuals isn’t as great. Benefits for our mind are more subjective and may vary a lot. 15
“For me, the mental benefits are the most important ones. Every time you hear these doubts and the voice in your head, you have to listen, and you have to make a decision. A decision about what your life should look like, do you want to spend your whole life inside a small area called your comfort zone, or do you accept the challenges of life with a smile and make a commitment to growth?
Every morning, I have this inner conversation, and nearly every morning, I find the courage to live my life on my own rules. Every morning I jump under the fucking cold shower, and every single morning I feel proud and happy as soon the water touches my body. Furthermore, if once learned, you can easily translate this attitude to other areas of your life.”Rolf Duda, Peakwolf
Even if there were no other benefit but this, it would still be worth it! But there is more, much more.
The science behind cold exposure
Most of the benefits are easy to understand, while others need further investigation.
Backed by science, and thanks to people like Wim Hof and his popular Method, we were gaining a better understanding all the time.
Fat burning 2.0
Regular exposure to cold helps the body to regain brown fat tissue (BAT). Brown fat is a fat-burning machine. It is packed full of the powerhouses of our cells, the mitochondria. The mitochondria burn the traditional white fat tissue (WAT) to produce heat. Researchers concluded that frequent cold exposures might be an acceptable and economically complementary approach to address the current obesity epidemic! 16, 17, 18
Reduced inflammation and oxidative stress
Cold therapy fights inflammation because it raises the protein adiponectin. Because adiponectin is also involved in blood glucose regulation, this has a supporting effect on the body’s blood sugar level regulation. People who have regular exposure to freezing temperatures, like cryotherapy, enhance their body’s ability to deal with oxidative stress. By putting your body into controlled stressful situations, it is forced to learn to be more efficient. In my mind, this is related to a regular confrontation with hard decisions. 19, 20
Speed up recovery
A 20 minutes cold bath at < 13-degree water can prevent sore muscles after exercise. It also has a positive effect on muscular enzymes linked to muscle damage. 21, 22
Optimize the treatment
For optimal treatment, there are some essential things to know and some more safety aspects to have in mind when it comes to execution.
First of all, cold is an extensive term. Most benefits like reduced inflammation or a speeded recovery are available at relatively “humane” temperatures. So there is no need to jump straight into a frozen lake and stay there for 20 minutes. You have to remember that the body is not a machine, and you should always be aware of the things you are doing. You can enhance nearly every benefit or experience in life when you are fully present, and you listen to your body’s natural response.
“If you are keen to start with cold therapy, this is my top tip, start with your mind and be present when leaving your comfort zone. Everyone’s comfort zone is unique, and it is absolutely fine to be wherever you are. Don’t make it a competition.”Rolf Duda, Peakwolf
The first thing you have to do is overcome your mind; as soon as this is done, the rest will follow naturally. Start with small immersions, like cold showers. If you prefer, you can have a “normal” warm shower, but it is essential that you end with the cold for cold therapy. Start gently with 20 seconds and then gradually built up to 2 minutes under the cold shower. Always listen to your body and follow your gut feeling. When you finish your cold session, don’t try to rush the warming up process. The benefits occur while your body is re-learning it’s natural ability to get warm without external help. If you interrupt this process with hot clothes, warm tea, or something like that, you are doing the homework for your body, and it will not pass the exam.
The second thing is to make sure that your shoulders are immersed in the cold as long as possible. That is where the brown fat accumulates in your body and activates it; it needs the unconscious as a stimulus.
To regain brown fat, colder temperatures are better. So if you feel ready, you can start with your first ice bath for a maximum of 2 minutes. There is no need to push it because nearly every positive effect is triggered in these short 2 minutes.
“Be aware that you are not alone. Many groups are willing to support you, take care of you, and guide you to the cold. You may even find an excellent tribe of like-minded people. Try and find groups of cold swimmers, Wim Hof Method practitioners, and the like. It is much easier to grow in a tribe than doing everything on your own.”Rolf Duda, Peakwolf
Experimental regimen to combining Cold Exposure and PBM
Many athletes and biohackers combine PBM’s benefits and the cold even though there is less scientific research available.
In this plenum of experts on the topic, we propose an optimized experimental regimen to combine these two techniques. As suggested in science, the first essential step is to embrace the cold and start your regimen off with cold thermogenesis.
“To fully benefit from this regimen, you should have already got accustomed to cold showers, as explained earlier in this article. Once you are able to get a cold shower of ideally 2 minutes, you are ready for the next step.”Rolf Duda, Peakwolf
During the cold shower, your body will adapt to the cold and cut off blood flow to the extremities. This compression of external areas rushes all the blood to your core. Once you finish your cold shower and your body begins to relax, the pressure is released, and blood rushes through all your blood vessels, and you see your skin getting red.
“This is the exact moment you want to get in front of your photobiomodulation device and get these excellent red and near-infrared wavelengths of light on as much of your skin as possible. Time is critical here, as you want to get most of the session while your skin is still red. “
This way, you target the mitochondria in not only your skin and tissue but also the free-flowing mitochondria in your bloodstream and give you cellular energy production the extra kick.
Exactly this is where the magic happens. Under normal circumstances, the red and near-infrared with its radiation must work its way layer by layer through the individual skin layers to take effect. However, if the body has such a healthy blood supply after the cold, the blood is much closer to the surface, and the light can easily reach every cell and the tissues around your blood vessels.
This combination of methods that are already effective on their own and already start an array of beneficial effects now work in tandem and kickstart regeneration and anti-inflammation processes throughout your body. Once you experience this powerful combination’s effects, you will feel noticeable leverage of the health benefits and don’t want to miss this hack in your portfolio.
To summarize this article, it seems like an insanely useful cocktail of goodness is created by combining cold thermogenesis with photobiomodulation.
Each method has been extensively researched individually, but science is only starting to catch up by experimentally combining the two and realizing their benefits.
This article combines the latest insights into scientific research with anecdotal findings in both biohacking techniques and proposes an experimental regimen to combine them and supercharge your benefits.
What about breath? Bonus chapter for you
This blog doesn’t end here. Because we loved collaborating with Rolf, we will join his podcast in the new year and conquer the topic of breathing in more depth. There is a further opportunity to enhance the prescribed technique. Through the power of your own breath, you are able to up-level the physical effects as well as the mental experience. The right breathwork creates a feeling of openness and connection, it reduced stress and it’s able to support the vasodilatation (the widening of your blood vessels) for better blood circulation. To dive into this mind-blowing topic check out the video and keep connected for more tips and information.
If you want to learn more about what Rolf does, visit his website here!
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4 Mechanisms and Mitochondrial Redox Signaling in Photobiomodulation. Oct 2017
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12 Low-Level Laser Therapy and Cryotherapy as Mono- and Adjunctive Therapies for Achilles Tendinopathy in Rats. Sep 2017
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14 Therapeutic hypothermia and controlled normothermia in the intensive care unit: practical considerations, side effects, and cooling methods. Mar 2009
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18 Cold acclimation recruits human brown fat and increases nonshivering thermogenesis. Aug 2013
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22 The use of ice in the treatment of acute soft-tissue injury: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Feb 2004