Does Red Light Therapy Really Work?

Red light therapy is often promoted for anti-aging or to treat various skin diseases. Although more research is needed, red light therapy has the potential to help manage other conditions, from pain and inflammation to brain function and athletic performance.

Key takeaways:
  • arrow-right
    Red light therapy is an emerging treatment option for a variety of skin conditions, pain, and inflammation, boosting brain health, and improving sleep.
  • arrow-right
    Red light therapy activates the mitochondria, which are the powerhouse of the cells, and makes the body's cells more resilient.
  • arrow-right
    For optimal benefits, red light therapy should be provided by a healthcare provider or a device that has been evaluated by the FDA.

Also known as low-level laser light therapy. (LLLT), soft laser therapy or photo biomodulation (BPM), red light therapy involves exposure to light with specific wavelengths. The treatment is done in a medical office or in the comfort of your home.

How does red light therapy work

The electromagnetic spectrum is divided into infrared light (visible light that includes red and the rest of the colors of the rainbow), and ultraviolet light. Red light therapy devices include only infrared and red light from the visible spectrum.

Similarly to food that provides essential nutrients to the body, light rays support cellular health. Red light and infrared light in particular are considered “bioactive” types of light. When exposed to these light rays, a biochemical reaction within mitochondria takes place, leading to the formation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP generates energy for all living cells.

Red light therapy also works through another process called hormesis or “positive stress.” Just like exercise temporarily stresses the muscle to grow bigger and stronger, red light creates a stress response that makes the cells more resilient. Red light penetrates superficially and works best for skin conditions by decreasing inflammation and producing collagen. Infrared light reaches deeper tissue, increasing blood flow. Improved blood flow means more oxygen and nutrients are delivered to cells in the body.

The health benefits of red light therapy

Improved skin health

Light therapy is best known for its use for skin conditions like age-related wrinkles and lines, reduced firmness, sunburns, eczema, psoriasis, and acne.

Reduce pain and inflammation

An estimated 50 million Americans are affected by chronic pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Pain is associated with many chronic illnesses and is a health concern on its own. A variety of drugs are available to manage pain and inflammation, yet researchers are constantly looking for safe and effective solutions. Although more research is needed, red light therapy is showing promising results. Multiple studies found that individuals with chronic low back pain noted significant, and sometimes long-lasting, effects in pain levels compared with those who did not receive red light therapy. Other clinical trials suggest that low-intensity light therapy may benefit those with osteoarthritis.

Boost athletic performance

Muscle cells are particularly sensitive to red light therapy. These cells contain more mitochondria than most other cells, as movement requires energy. Red and infrared light therapy could benefit athletes in several ways. Research shows this therapy can increase muscle mass gained after training while decreasing inflammation and fatigue. Using red light therapy before and after exercise may help improve muscle performance, increase endurance, and speed up recovery. Some scientists believe the benefits are so remarkable that high-level sports should consider regulating red light therapy as a performance enhancer.

Better sleep

Millions of Americans are affected by sleeping problems, and shift workers in particular are at high risk. While blue light is known to interfere with restful sleep, red light seems to have the opposite effect. One study looked at the benefits of red light therapy for sleep inertia, that groggy feeling upon waking up in the morning. Most of the participants using this treatment experienced better, more restful sleep, woke up more alert, and had improved performance on cognitive tests.

Boost brain health

Light therapy is a proven treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and it may work for other types of depression. Studies show that one single session of red light therapy can result in immediate improvement in depressed mood, although more tests are needed to evaluate the benefits of red and infrared light.

Unlike standard light lamps used for SAD, red light therapy is not as bright and does not contain blue light, and therefore can be used before bedtime. There is also growing evidence that red light and infrared light may help manage Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. A review of multiple studies suggests that red light therapy can improve memory, cognition, sleep, and quality of life while decreasing anxiety, wandering, and angry outbursts in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.

Does red light therapy really work?

Red light therapy is an emerging treatment option and shows promise in managing skin conditions, reducing pain and inflammation, boosting brain health, and improving sleep. Many researchers are optimistic and believe it holds a lot of potential, but more clinical trials are needed to fully confirm its effectiveness. Red light is well tolerated and has an excellent safety profile. Side effects such as temporary redness of the skin or some eye strain (as may happen with any type of light) have been reported.

It is important to note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not tested or approved most of the red light devices on the market. Some of them have been evaluated and are registered with the FDA as class II medical devices. It is best to choose a product that is cleared by the FDA. Another great option is to receive treatment in a medical office from a healthcare professional with expertise in light therapy.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked