Light therapy and female fertility
Light therapy uses either red light, near infrared light, or a combination of both. The ideal type of light for a specific purpose varies based on the part of the body.
When looking at female fertility specifically, the primary targets are the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes and general hormonal systems (thyroid, brain, etc.). All of these tissues are inside the body (unlike male reproductive parts), and so the type of light with the best penetration is necessary, as only a small percentage of the light hitting the skin will penetrate down into tissues like ovaries. Even with the wavelength that gives the optimal penetration, the amount that penetrates is still very small, and so a very high intensity of light is required as well.
Near infrared light at wavelengths between 720nm and 840nm have the best penetration into biological tissue. This range of light is known as the ‘Near Infrared Window (into biological tissue)” because of the unique properties of passing deep into the body. Researchers looking at improving female infertility with light have overwhelmingly selected the 830nm near infrared wavelength for study(1-6). This 830nm wavelength not only penetrates well, but also has potent effects on our cells, improving their function.
Implantation rates of the fertilized egg (critical for both IVF and regular pregnancy) are thought to be related to mitochondrial function(8).
Lower performing mitochondria hinder the functioning of the egg cell. The mitochondria found in egg cells are inherited from the mother, and can have DNA mutations in certain women, especially as age advances.
Red and near infrared light therapy work directly on the mitochondria, improving the function and reducing issues like DNA mutations. This explains why a study from Denmark showed that two-thirds of women who previously had failed IVF cycles achieved a successful pregnancy (even natural pregnancies) with light therapy. There was even a case of a 50 year old woman getting pregnant.
Using light therapy directly on the abdomen (to target the ovaries, uterus, fallopian tubes, egg cells, etc.) is thought to work in 2 ways. Firstly is optimises the environment of the reproductive system, ensuring egg cells are released during ovulation, can travel down the fallopian tubes, and can implant into a healthy uterus wall with good blood flow, a healthy placenta can form, etc(23). The other mechanism involves improving the health of the egg cell directly. Oocyte cells, or egg cells, require huge amounts of energy compared to other cells for the processes related to cell division and growth. This energy is provided by mitochondria – the part of a cell affected by light therapy. Declining mitochondrial function can be seen as the key cellular cause of infertility(8).
This may be the key explanation for most cases of ‘unexplained’ fertility and why fertility declines with advancing age – the egg cells just can’t make enough energy. Evidence that they require and use so much more energy is found by the fact that there are 200 times more mitochondria in egg cells when compared to other regular cells. That’s 200 times more potential for effects and benefits from light therapy relative to other cells in the body. Of every cell in the entire human body, male or female, the egg cell may be the type that receives the most drastic enhancements from red and near infrared light therapy. The only problem is getting the light to penetrate down to the ovaries (more on that below).
Both of these light therapy or ‘photobiomodulation’ effects together create a healthy and youthful environment, suitable to support a growing embryo.
Light therapy (a.k.a. photobiomodulation) involves the application of visible red, or non-visible near infrared, light to the body and is very well studied for sperm health.
So which type of light is best and which specific wavelength? Red, or near infrared?
Red light at 670nm is currently the most well researched and effective range for improving male reproductive health and sperm quality.
Studies show that even after just a single session of red light therapy, sperm motility (swim speed) improves significantly.
Sperm speed with light therapy sperm
motility/speed is improved significantly with just one light therapy session – Preece et al. 2017 (14)
Motility or speed of the sperm cells is of critical importance for fertility, as without sufficient speed, the sperm will never make the journey to reach the female’s egg cell and fertilise it. With strong, clear evidence that light therapy improves motility(9-16, 18-22), using an appropriate light therapy device seems essential for any infertile couple. The improved motility from light therapy can even overcome the issue the low sperm counts, because the low concentration of sperm will still be able to reach and (one of them) fertilise the egg cell.
Red light therapy directly affects the mitochondria in sperm cells, giving them a measurable boost to speed and motility.
Light therapy doesn’t just improve motility, various studies show how it can also improve sperm counts/concentration, giving not just faster sperm, but more of them(7,13,15).
Almost every cell in our body has mitochondria – the target of red light therapy – including Sertoli Cells. These are the sperm producing cells of the testes – the place where sperm is manufactured. Proper functioning of these cells is essential for all aspects of male fertility, including sperm counts.
Studies point to light therapy improving the quantity of Sertoli Cells in the male testicles, their performance (and so the amount of sperm cells/count that they produce), and also decreasing the production of abnormal sperm cells. Overall sperm counts have been shown to improve by 2-5 times in males with previously low counts. In one study from Denmark(7), sperms counts increased from 2 million per ml to over 40 million per ml with only one treatment to the testicles.
Higher sperm counts, faster sperm motility, and less abnormal sperm are some of the key reasons why light therapy is an essential part of improving any male fertility issue.
To properly understand why red/IR light helps with both male and female fertility, we need to know how it works on a cellular level.
The effects of red and near infrared light therapy are thought to come from the interaction with our cells’ mitochondria. This ‘photobiomodulation’ happens when the appropriate wavelengths of light, between 600nm and 850nm, are absorbed by a mitochondrion, and ultimately lead to better energy production and less inflammation in the cell.
One of the key targets of light therapy is an enzyme called Cytochrome C Oxidase – part of the electron transport chain process of energy metabolism. It is understood that there are several other parts of the mitochondria that are also affected. These mitochondria are extremely prevalent in egg and sperm cells.
Shortly after a light therapy session, it is possible to see the release of a molecule called Nitric Oxide from cells. This NO molecule actively inhibits respiration, blocking energy production and oxygen consumption. So, removing it from the cell restores the normal healthy function. Red and near infrared light are thought to dissociate this stress molecule from the Cytochrome C Oxidase enzyme, restoring the healthy level of oxygen utilization and energy production.
Red light therapy improves our natural process of making cellular energy
Light therapy also has an effect on the water inside our cells, structuring it with more space between each molecule. This changes the chemical and physical properties of the cell, meaning that nutrients and resources can enter more readily, toxins can be expelled with less resistance, enzymes and proteins work more efficiently. This effect on cellular water applies not just directly inside the cells, but also outside it, in the extracellular space and tissues like blood.
This is just a quick summary of 2 potential mechanisms of action. There are possibly more, not fully understood, beneficial effects that happen on a cellular level to explain the results from light therapy.
All of life interacts with light – plants need light for food, humans need ultraviolet light for vitamin D, and as all the studies show, red and near infrared light are essential to humans and various animals for a healthy metabolism and even reproduction.
The effects of light therapy are not just seen in the target area of the session, but also systemically. For example, a session of light therapy on your hand can provide benefits to the heart. A session of light therapy on the neck can provide benefits to the brain, which can in turn improve hormone production/status and lead to dramatic whole body health improvements. Light therapy is essential for removing cellular stress and enabling your cells to function normally again and the cells of the reproductive system are no different.
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