Red Light Therapy: What It Is & How It Works

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Years ago, humans spent most of their time outdoors in the sun, or the shade with indirect light exposure. In today’s modern world, however, the average American spends a whopping 87% of their time indoors and an additional 6% in an enclosed vehicle! This is a HUGE change in light exposure. 

Humans need light and light therapy has been around for a long time. Hippocrates used “heliotherapy”—also called sun therapy—to help people overcome tuberculosis. Sunlight is very important to our overall health and plays a major role in disease prevention

You can think of sunlight as a nutrient that your body needs to function properly. For example, when UV light hits your skin during some months of the year, vitamin D is produced and many studies show adequate vitamin D levels are positively implicated in helping to prevent everything from autoimmune diseases to cardiovascular disease.

But vitamin D production is only one healing component of sunlight–red and near-infrared light also play major roles.

What Is Red and Near-Infrared Light?

If you think back to high school biology, you might recall the “electromagnetic spectrum,” which is made up of a range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation with their respective wavelengths. At one end of the spectrum are gamma rays with very small wavelengths and at the other end are radio waves with longer wavelengths.

In the middle of the spectrum are wavelengths we can visually see. Remember that acronym for the colors of the rainbow ROYGBIV? This stands for red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet—with red light having a longer wavelength than violet light. Near-infrared light is next to red light on the electromagnetic spectrum but cannot be seen by our eyes–it’s invisible.   

How Does Red & Near-Infrared Light Therapy Work? 

Without going into too much detail, exposure to red and near-infrared light helps support mitochondrial function by increasing the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), your body’s fuel.

Your mitochondria (the “energy factories” inside your cells) have photoreceptors in them. So, when sunlight (or red or near-infrared light from a LED light panel) hits your skin the photoreceptors are activated, which allows the mitochondria to take in more oxygen to generate more ATP. Pretty neat, right? 

Another mechanism responsible for the health benefits of red and near-infrared light is a concept called hormesis. It’s defined as a low dose metabolic stressor that can lead to increased tolerance and resistance to stress. 

Exercise is a perfect example of hormesis. When you exercise, your muscle cells get damaged and reactive oxygen species (ROS) are generated. Your body then produces its own antioxidants to neutralize the ROS generated from exercise, and this response is what strengthens your muscles. So, a small amount of exercise can reduce the risk of illness and mortality, but too much exercise (overtraining) can increase risk. 

The same is true for red and near-infrared light exposure. Short bursts of exposure can cause the release of ROS, and the body responds by producing more antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. This low-dose metabolic stress is a good thing because it leads to greater resiliency and tolerance to future stressors. 

Benefits of Red and Near-Infrared Light Therapy 

Since red and near-infrared light exposure improves your mitochondrial function and tolerance to stress, there are a host of conditions that light therapy is beneficial for. There are thousands of studies looking at the beneficial effects and uses of red and near-infrared light therapy on the body and brain.

Red light therapy benefits include:

  • Increase in blood flow
  • Pain reduction (e.g. arthritis, tendonitis)
  • Cellulite reduction
  • Fat burning
  • Hair growth
  • Thyroid support
  • Wound healing
  • Mood improvement (anxiety/depression)
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Infertility
  • Enhancement of muscle strength and recovery
  • Immune system support
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Chemotherapy side effects (e.g. oral mucositis)
  • Reduce wrinkles and scarring of the skin

How to Use Red and Near-Infrared Light Therapy

Now that we’ve gone over how red light therapy works, let’s talk about how to use this therapy at home, or in a local clinic or spa. First off, from my reading and research into red light therapy, you need to use a powerful device to reap the benefits. 

For example, turning on a red lightbulb in a standard light socket will not generate beneficial effects as the power output of the red and near-infrared light is not high enough. You need to have a powerful panel like one from Platinum LED, Red Light Therapy Co, or Joove that show power output measurements on their websites. I purchased a Platinum LED 900 Biomax panel and, so far, I’m impressed with the high-quality build. 

Once you have access to one of these relatively affordable devices, you will want to stand or sit 6-12 inches away from the lights for roughly 10 minutes a day, five days a week depending on what area of your body you are treating and how big the device is. Clothing will greatly diminish the light’s effectiveness, so make sure the area you are treating is free of clothing. 

What to Expect After Using Red Lights

Plan to use the lights for eight weeks-plus and then decide if they are working for you. In the clinic I work at I’ve heard the following responses from patients even after a couple of treatments.

  • “My sleep that night after a session was incredible! Very deep with minimal waking.”
  • “Pain in my body decreased significantly, and my joints were less tender.”
  • “My energy improved substantially, and my tolerance for stress increased.”

My mom recently had hip surgery and her pain was a 9-10 in intensity for over 10 days straight while on pain meds. She was miserable, to say the least. I immediately bought and shipped her a red-light panel and told her to use it for 10 minutes a day. She said her pain level went down immediately after using the lights, and eight weeks later she barely had any scar formation. Both of us were very impressed with the results. 

How I Learned About Red Light Therapy

Truth be told when I first learned about red light therapy (Photobiomodulation-PBM) I was a skeptic.

I saw these fancy red light beds, panels, pads, and other devices at conferences, and listened to many podcasts where biohackers proclaimed that red lights could boost testosterone production, reduce wrinkles, and reduce fatigue. I thought to myself, “How could something as simple as light help with so many health conditions?” 

Then, one of my chronically ill patients, Tim, handed me a book on red light therapy and shared his positive experience using a Novothor red light bed—a machine that we now use regularly in our clinic.

Tim had suffered for decades with a disease called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which is a nasty connective tissue disorder that not only affects the joints, but also the skin, gastrointestinal tract, cardiovascular system, and other organ systems. Over the years, we tried practically every treatment you could imagine, but his pelvic and neck pain persisted. 

After a series of Novothor treatments, which is full-body red and near-infrared light exposure for 10-20 minutes, Tim remarked that his muscles “didn’t feel like beef jerky anymore,” and I could physically feel the difference in muscle tone when I palpated his forearm. 

His energy had improved, as well as his pelvic and neck pain. Tim had finally found a therapy that provided relief. With each successive treatment, he could now see and feel his body getting stronger and more resilient. Tim now comes in three times per week for Novothor treatments and says red light therapy has radically changed his life! 

The Bottom Line

Red and near-infrared light therapy is a well-researched, simple, cost-effective, and “no-pill required” therapy that can help reduce pain and inflammation, delay aging, improve sleep and mood, and increase energy levels.

In the short time that I’ve personally been using the red light panels, I’ve experienced greater energy and less joint pain. If you are looking for another way to support the health of your mitochondria, look no further than red and near-infrared light therapy. 

Dr. Drew Sinatra

Meet Dr. Drew Sinatra

Dr. Drew Sinatra is a board-certified naturopathic doctor and self-described “health detective” with a passion for promoting natural healing, wellness, and improving quality of life by addressing the root cause of illness in patients of all ages. His vibrant practice focuses on treating the whole person (mind, body, and spirit) and finding missed connections between symptoms and health issues that are often overlooked by conventional medicine.

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