There’s increasing discussion in the health world around red light therapy and whether it’s a legitimate therapeutic technique with benefits [efn_note] Herridge, L, (2012). LED Lights Used in Plant Growth Experiments for Deep Space Missions. NASA. 2012 Sept 11. [/efn_note].
On one side of the conversation, there appears to be a growing body of evidence that red and near-infrared light can be used to successfully treat a number of health conditions. On the other side of the debate, there’s natural skepticism about whether something as seemingly simple as light can really make such a significant impact across so many areas.
So, should you listen to the buzz?
Red light therapy is a new innovation. As such, it makes sense to cut through the hype, explore the science, and decide if the evidence can be trusted.
It’s useful to start investigating that evidence back at the very beginnings of red light therapy.
How Was Red Light Therapy Discovered?
It’s often claimed that NASA were the pioneers of red light therapy back in the 1990s. While it’s true that NASA’s work with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) brought the science into the mainstream, the treatment’s roots go back much further.
In this study into photobiomodulation [efn_note] Wunsch, A, & Matsuschka, K, (2014). A Controlled Trial to Determine the Efficacy of Red and Near-Infrared Light Treatment in Patient Satisfaction, Reduction of Fine Lines, Wrinkles, Skin Roughness, and Intradermal Collagen Density Increase. Photomed Laser Surg. 2014. [/efn_note] (another term for light therapy) it’s noted that the very first therapeutic light treatment was the result of a fortunate accident.
In 1967, a Hungarian physician named Endre Mester attempted to repeat an experiment initially pioneered by Paul McGuff. McGuff was an American doctor who made monumental steps forward in the use of lasers to attack cancer cells. As McGuff had done previously, Mester used specific wavelengths of light to target a tumor that had been implanted in a laboratory rat.
Unknown to Mester, the laser he was using operated at just a fraction of the power of McGuff’s. As a result, the tumor wasn’t affected – but instead, accelerated hair regrowth, tissue repair, and wound healing were evidenced where the tumour had been implanted.
Mester went on to publish a series of papers – and soon used the term “low level laser therapy” [efn_note] Bally, M, (2017) Risk of acute myocardial infarction with NSAIDs in real world use: bayesian meta-analysis of individual patient data. British Medical Journal, 2017. [/efn_note] (LLLT) to describe the approach he’d created.
Developments in Red Light Therapies
NASA’s experiments with red light therapy were focused on supporting the growth of plants for use in deep space exploration missions. Since space and power efficiency are crucial in these missions, they opted to use LEDs instead of lasers for their studies.
With lasers no longer required, the science became known as “low-level light therapy,” and its tissue and skin rejuvenation results were quickly noticed by dermatologists and physicians around the world.
The medical community was interested in the effect of light therapy on people, so a number of institutions began experimenting with different light wavelengths as well as recording apparent health benefits. Fast forward to the present day, and there have now been thousands of laboratory studies into red light photomedicine and its cosmetic and medical benefits. [efn_note] Bjrodal, JM, Lopes-Martin, RAB, & Iversen, VV, (2006) A randomised, placebo controlled trial of low level laser therapy for activated Achilles tendinitis with microdialysis measurement of peritendinous prostaglandin E2 concentrations Br J Sports Med. 2006. [/efn_note]
Red Light Therapy Today
Today, the term ‘red light therapy’ covers a range of treatments. The red light beds you see at salons are generally used to help with cosmetic issues, like the reduction of fine lines and stretch marks. When red light is used under medical supervision, it will often be to reduce joint pain, treat chronic skin conditions like Psoriasis, and even counter the negative side effects associated with cancer treatments like chemotherapy.
Depending on the study or publication you’re reading, you may see red light therapy referred to by one of many other names, including:
- photobiomodulation (PBM)
- low-level light therapy (LLLT)
- soft laser therapy
- cold laser therapy
- photonic stimulation
- low-power laser therapy (LPLT)
A further use of red light is in ‘photodynamic therapy.’ In some cases, medications require activation when they’re in the body. Red light is often used in these instances – although it will only act as a catalyst for the medicine.
Clinical studies indicate that we’re at the very tip of the iceberg with red light. From anti-aging properties to mental health benefits and cancer treatments, [efn_note] Sene-Fiorese M, Duarte FO, et al. The potential of phototherapy to reduce body fat, insulin resistance and “metabolic inflexibility” related to obesity in women undergoing weight loss treatment. Lasers Surg Med. 2015 [/efn_note] the future of LED treatments looks very promising.
We’ll delve into the scientific studies soon, but it’s useful to get an overview of how people are using red light therapies.
Improving skin tone
Talk to someone who’s used a red light device to improve their skin, and you’re likely to hear about reduced wrinkles, a more even complexion, reduction of blemishes [efn_note] da Silveria Compos, RM, et al. The effects of exercise training associated with low-level laser therapy on biomarkers of adipose tissue transdifferentiation in obese women. Lasers Med Sci. 2018. [/efn_note], reduced skin roughness, and even improvements around conditions like dermatitis.
Red light is often used to help patients who are experiencing pain – often that associated with arthritis, joint pain, and muscular issues [efn_note] Duarte, FO, et al. Can low-level laser therapy (LLLT) associated with an aerobic plus resistance training change the cardiometabolic risk in obese women? A placebo-controlled clinical trial. J Photochem Photobiol B. 2015. [/efn_note] like a sore lower back, neck problems, and tight muscles.
While inflammation [efn_note] Jiexiu Zhao, et al. Red Light and the Sleep Quality and Endurance Performance of Chinese Female Basketball Players. J Athl Train. 2012. [/efn_note] is the body’s natural response to injury or infection, there are a significant number of conditions that can cause inflammation unnecessarily – leading to pain, muscular issues, and even debilitating posture problems. [efn_note] Douris, P, et al. Effect of phototherapy on delayed onset muscle soreness. Photomed Laser Surg. 2006. [/efn_note] Red light is used to ease this inflammation, allowing the body to operate unhindered.
Red light is showing promising results in aiding weight loss. Those who use LED treatments talk about accelerated fat reduction when compared to just exercise alone. As a result, red light also helps to ease the symptoms of conditions that are a direct result of additional weight – such as Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
If you could use a couple of extra hours in bed, you might be pleased to discover that red light can help. People who use a red light device before bed report better quality sleep [efn_note] Paolillo, FR, et al. Phototherapy during treadmill training improves quadriceps performance in postmenopausal women. Climacetric. 2014. [/efn_note]. A more restful night, in turn, leads to a host of additional benefits while awake – including improved focus, increased safety, better productivity, and more even moods.
Increased physical performance
Whether improved physical performance means you’re quicker over 100m sprint or you simply have a better and easier range of motion, red light can help. As well as increasing muscle recovery rates, red light is used to increase strength, stamina, and reduce the instances of injury.
The Hype Around Red Light Therapies
A celebrity endorsement from Kim Kardashian [efn_note] Pinto, HD, et al. Photobiomodulation Therapy Improves Performance and Accelerates Recovery of High-Level Rugby Players in Field Test: A Randomized, Crossover, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Clinical Study. J Strength Cond Res. 2016. [/efn_note] might not hold the academic weight of a peer-reviewed study into red light therapy – but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored.
Between the Kardashian sisters, Chrissy Teigen, Emily Ratajkowski and a host of other A-listers, there’s a lot of love for red light devices. This kind of attention inevitably boosts demand – and that helps to fund further product development and academic research in the field.
It’s no secret that celebrities are routinely paid to promote products. As such, you perhaps shouldn’t base any red light purchase purely on what they say. However, if it catches your attention and helps you track down legitimate medical studies, then a little hype is no bad thing.
How Does It Work? The Science
To understand how red light affects the body [efn_note] Borges, LS, et al. Light-emitting diode phototherapy improves muscle recovery after a damaging exercise. Laser Med Sci. 2014. [/efn_note], you’ve got to adjust the way you think about light. Light is the only type of energy that’s visible to the human eye. On a very real and immediate level, light illuminates the world around us – but light is actually a photon wave that interacts with everything it touches.
The sunlight you see when you look out of the window is made up of infrared, visible and ultraviolet light. Each type of light has a different wavelength, and each of these wavelengths does something slightly different when it interacts with you. Natural red light is the type of energy wave that powers the cells that make up your body – and it’s this type of energy that a red light device creates.
Increased ATP energy
When you’re exposed to the right kind of red light, a chemical reaction occurs in the mitochondria [efn_note] Rossato, M, et al. Time Response of Photobiomodulation Therapy on Muscular Fatigue in Humans. J Strength Cond Res. 2018. [/efn_note]. The mitochondria are the microscopically small ‘engine’ that’s at the core of every cell in your body – it takes nutrients from your cells and transforms them into energy, allowing the cell to carry out its various functions.
The scientific term for the ‘energy’ that’s produced through the mitochondrial process of cellular respiration is adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is required by all living things to create energy that the body can use. When you increase the amount of red light the mitochondria receives, you effectively ‘turbo-charge’ its output, allowing the cell an increased amount of energy to more effectively carry out whichever job it’s doing.
As a result, you can now probably see why even the earliest experiments with red light boosted functions like hair growth and recovery in damaged parts of the body.
Improved cell signaling
Of course, we require more than just light to stay alive. As such, each cell has an ‘oxidative environment’ – the balance of chemicals inside the cell in which the ATP reaction takes place. Red light helps to ensure this environment is optimal, and this means cells can more efficiently and effectively communicate with one another to perform tasks within the body.
When you understand this cellular reaction, it becomes obvious why red light therapy has quite so many benefits. Rather than simply aid one task within your body, the red light actually helps to support the cells that perform an almost incalculable number of tasks around your body. From the production of collagen to the correct shared response to inflammation – there’s a virtually never-ending series of processes going on in your body right now, and red light can optimize each of the billions of cells performing those tasks.
Does Red Light Therapy Work?
A lot of the skepticism around LED light therapy comes because there’s such a broad range of reported health benefits. While the claims are bold, there are thousands of peer-reviewed clinical trials to back them up. In fact, it’s difficult to track down a study that doesn’t show overwhelmingly positive results for skin health, collagen production, reduced hair-loss, improved physical performance, better sleep, reduced joint pain – and many, many more benefits.
That said, in the interest of being completely objective, it’s useful to investigate each area on its own merits:
Skincare and anti-aging benefits
Red light treatments for the skin can be either medical or cosmetic. In some cases, LED treatments are used to ease the symptoms of acne and rosacea [efn_note] de Paiva, PR, et al. Photobiomodulation therapy (PBMT) and/or cryotherapy in skeletal muscle restitution, what is better? A randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Lasers Med Sci. 2016. [/efn_note]; in others, slightly different wavelengths are used to boost collagen production, helping to smooth wrinkles and lines.
Although it’s popular in the cosmetics industry, collagen is a vital part of many medical procedures. In fact, increasing collagen density is one of the most effective methods to help minimize scarring when a patient has been burned.
If LED light therapy is to be considered a legitimate dermatology treatment, it would need to show indisputable positive effectiveness in carefully run trails. In 2014, it did exactly that.
During the study, volunteers were treated with red-light-only light sources across controlled but varying wavelengths, dependant on the study group they were assigned to. After 30 sessions, all treated subjects “experienced significantly improved skin complexion and skin feeling, profilometrically assessed skin roughness, and ultrasonographically measured collagen density.” Overall, the study was deemed to have “demonstrated efficacy and safety for skin rejuvenation and intradermal collagen increase” using red light.2
Pain and inflammation management
Whether you’re a long-distance runner or someone who spends all day sitting in an office chair, it’s reasonable to say we use our bodies in ways that put them under stress. For if you’re active, conditions like tendinitis can be severely debilitating. If you’re less active, being stationary for long periods of time often leads to spinal disorders and back pain.
The go-to solution for these kinds of musculoskeletal issues is generally non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). In cases where the pain is more severe, steroid injections are often used to ease the associated inflammation and discomfort.
The trouble is, these treatments come with a laundry list of possible side effects, including:
- Stomach pain and acid reflux
- Stomach ulcers
- Increased bleeding
- Headaches and dizziness
- Ringing in the ears and tinnitus
- Allergic reactions including rashes, throat swell, and wheezing
- Liver and kidney function problems
- Increased blood pressure
- Swelling of the legs
- Feeling bloated
- Excess stomach gases
- Nausea and vomiting
- Diarrhea and/or constipation
As if these issues aren’t off-putting enough, there’s also an increasing body of evidence to suggest a link between even short-term use of NSAIDs and a heightened risk of heart attacks.
So, does red light offer a viable alternative? Studies exploring its use treating patients with some of the world’s most common musculoskeletal conditions indicate that it does. LLLT, delivered at a specific dose to the affected regions, reduces pain and inflammation – and the authors of the study conclude that similar treatments may aid the management of other diseases with inflammatory components.
The list of medical issues associated with being overweight is nothing short of terrifying. From high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes to heart disease, strokes, and cancer – it’s now an accepted fact that being overweight is extremely detrimental to our health. Despite the stark warnings, the National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) report that more than 66% of US adults are considered to be either overweight or obese.
With no quick and easy fix to obesity issues, the prospect of red light therapy as a weight loss aid is enormously appealing, but is there proof to support the idea that red light treatments could help?
The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. In 2015, Brazilian researchers trailed light therapy on a group of obese women between the ages of 20 to 40. One group exercised – while the other group supplemented exercise with light therapy. Researchers didn’t just report a more effective weight loss result – but also noted increases in skeletal muscle mass – the factor that helps to achieve a more toned physique.5 Similar studies have shown comparable results in younger women6, and red light therapies have also been shown to control cardiometabolic risk factors in their trial groups too.7
Sleep plays a crucial role in maintaining good physical and mental health. In fact, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute cite on-going sleep deficiency as being linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.
In numerous clinical studies, red light therapy has been shown to promote a better level of sleep. In fact, one study even suggested red light “offered a nonpharmacologic and non-invasive therapy to prevent sleep disorders.”8
Since sleep deprivation is another factor closely linked to obesity, it’s reasonable to consider that any increase in sleep quality that’s achieved through the use of red light would also have a compounding positive effect on weight loss efforts too.
Enhanced physical performance and muscle recovery
If you’re familiar with any kind of elite sport, you’ll be aware that peak physical performance is achieved when a series of contributing factors come together. We’ve already touched on some of those factors when we’ve discussed inflammation management and sleep quality – but there are others.
A huge range of studies have explored the impact of red light on physical performance, and significant benefits have been proven around:
- The reduction of delayed onset muscle soreness9
- Reduced muscle soreness and fatigue in postmenopausal women10
- Decreased change in blood lactate levels and perceived fatigue11
- Quicker recovery times after demanding workouts12
- Reduced knee muscle fatigue
There’s even evidence to suggest that red light therapy is more effective than another proven physical performance-enhancing treatment; cryotherapy.
Why choose red light over traditional medical approaches?
Don’t misunderstand, red light and laser treatments aren’t the only options when it comes to dealing with the issues we’ve explored, but there are a series of reasons why light therapies are increasingly considered the best option.
Firstly, red light is non-invasive – which will come as a huge relief if you’ve ever experienced the discomfort of a cortisone or steroid injection. This is especially true when treatment has targeted a significant joint, such as your hip, shoulder, or knee. Even if you’ve got the grit to stand the injection, there’s almost always soreness to contend with afterwards.
It’s also significant to note that red light is not a pharmaceutical approach – so you’re not introducing new medicines into your body. Health professionals suggest that over 1.7m Americans have issues relating to the use of opioid painkillers – a medical intervention that was deemed entirely safe as recently as 20 years ago. It’s, therefore, no surprise that so many people seek alternatives to pills.
Overall, a red light device offers a non-invasive, drug-free approach while also significantly reducing the possibility of side-effects. The result is a proven, effective therapy that’s extremely unlikely to negatively impact your health in other ways.
Red Light Therapy Devices
So, what do you do if you want to explore red light therapy in your own home? It’s clear you’ll need a device that delivers the right kind of light – but how much will that kind of light cost? And which manufacturers can you trust?
Fortunately, I’ve covered the topic in depth as part of the popular Ultimate Guide to Red Light Therapy and Near-Infrared Light Therapy blog post.
The short version is this:
As is often the case, you get what you pay for when you’re buying a specialist medical-grade device. You can find red light therapy devices which are a fraction of the cost of the ones recommended here – but they’re also almost certainly an inferior product. While a product like this will do you no harm, it will offer no benefit either – so you would be better not spending your money, rather than spending a smaller amount on a device that doesn’t work.
In no particular order, the following devices are the best all-purpose LED therapy devices on the market:
The devices listed here are so effective, they’re often the very same lights you’ll be using if you book an expensive therapy session at a salon, health club, or gym. In fact, you may find that your new lamp would actually have paid for itself after just 8-10 sessions at a treatment center – as it’s not uncommon to find session prices of $100 and upwards.
It’s good to be skeptical about seemingly impressive health claims. In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest that it should be your starting point with any new technology, supplement, or regime.
The thing is, when you look for proof to underpin the benefits of red light therapy, you don’t just find anecdotal evidence – you find clinical trials and academic studies from the most prestigious organizations and establishments around the world.
NASA set out to prove that red light technology could be used to create the perfect cell environment, even in deep space – and, from there, universities and laboratories around the globe have applied the same rationale to countless medical problems. Each time, LLLT has been a triumph. The results speak for themselves whether you’re looking at boosting the recovery time of elite combat sportspeople, or you’re simply trying to help older people ease the pain and inflammation that goes hand-in-hand with rheumatoid arthritis.
So, to answer the question; “Does red light therapy really work?” – Yes. In fact; it doesn’t just work, it often works just as effectively as the pharmaceutical alternative – but with none of the side effects.
Clearly there are still trials to be done, but for now, there’s enough solid evidence to confirm red light as having a positive impact if you’re hoping to:
- Increase your energy
- Make your skin healthier and get rid of cellulite
- Speed up fat loss
- Improve muscle recovery and athletic performance
- Improve mood and cognitive function
- Increase muscle size and strength
- Speed healing from injury
- Improve metabolic and hormonal health
Is Red Light Therapy Right for You?
If all the talk of adenosine triphosphate and mitochondrial processes is leaving you a little unsure about the topic, don’t panic. The science of red light therapy is reasonably complex – but the process of using a red light device couldn’t be simpler.
If you’re wondering whether or not red light therapy is for you, start by asking yourself a question:
Do any of the benefits you’ve read about here sound like they would add to your life?
Are you a professional sportsperson looking to boost recovery? Perhaps you’re a normal person like the rest of us looking to fight off the signs of aging, or free up a bit of movement in stiff or painful joints? Perhaps you’d like to wake up feeling a little more refreshed each morning – or maybe you’d like to know you’re giving your body the very best chance at fighting off age-related illnesses and conditions.
Whatever your reason for exploring the benefits of red light, you can be 100% confident that you’re buying a technology that’s proved itself over thousands of medical trials and peer-reviewed studies.
Now you appreciate quite how powerful red light can be, all that’s left is to find the right device for you – and to enjoy feeling great again.