If you're on social media, are an avid reader of health and wellness blogs, or a frequenter of wellness treatment centers, chances are you've crossed paths with Red Light Therapy (RLT) by now. You may have seen it in the form of portable handheld devices, healing pads, wrap belts, full-body beds, desk lamps, or face masks. The truth is, RLT is making its way into the mainstream, becoming a staple in both clinical settings and at-home wellness routines around the world.
But what exactly is RLT, and why is it soaring in popularity? Is it another fleeting wellness fad, or does it hold genuine promise? These are all valid questions, and we're here to dive deep and unveil the mysteries of RLT.
Unpacking RLT: Shedding Light on Its Mechanism
For centuries, medical practitioners have harnessed the power of light for healing. However, traditional sunlight therapies often came with a major downside: harmful UV radiation capable of damaging our skin. Red Light Therapy (RLT) takes the best part of light therapy—the healing aspects—while ditching the UV baggage.
But to grasp how RLT works, we need to start with the basics. Our body's cells are little powerhouses that require energy to carry out their various functions. Whether it's our muscle cells contracting, hair cells growing, or skin cells repairing and producing collagen, they all need energy to thrive. This energy is generated by our cellular factories, known as mitochondria, which convert the food we eat into a usable form of energy called ATP.
RLT targets these mitochondria. More specifically, it taps into our cellular batteries and recharges them, just like how we plug in our phones to recharge their batteries. This revitalizes our cells, allowing them to function at their peak.
Why Red Light? The Penetrating Power of Red and Near Infrared Light
Now, you might wonder why red light, of all the colors in the spectrum? Why not blue or green? The answer lies in penetration. Red and near-infrared light possess the unique ability to penetrate the skin more effectively than their counterparts.
This penetration reaches target tissues where our mitochondria reside. When activated by red and near-infrared light, these mitochondria ramp up their energy production, resulting in increased ATP levels.
In short, RLT acts as a cell battery booster, optimizing cellular function and overall well-being.
What Does the Science Say?
But you might think, "Sure, this all sounds great, but where's the science?" Over 2,000 studies have explored RLT's benefits, with numerous findings that demonstrate its effectiveness.
Skin Rejuvenation: RLT has shown a remarkable capacity to help rejuvenate the skin, reduce the appearance of wrinkles, and stimulate collagen production.
A study of 136 volunteers showed significant improvement in overall skin complexion, skin feeling, profilometrically assessed skin roughness, and increased collagen density measured using ultrasonography .
In another randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study on 76 patients treated with LED devices saw a reduction in wrinkles, improved elasticity, and also biochemical markers of increased fibroblast activity . As fibroblasts are involved in collagen production, increase in fibroblasts activity could contribute to higher collagen production, leading to more supple and youthful skin.
There also is growing evidence that RLT is capable of modulating key cellular characteristics associated with skin fibrosis (aka skin scarring) .
Finally, a systematic review and meta-analysis suggests that PBM therapy can stimulate skin renewal and reduce the incidence of radiation dermatitis of patients undergoing radiotherapy treatment .
Joints and Inflammation: For those dealing with joint discomfort, RLT could offer relief.
A meta-analysis concluded that low-level laser therapy (LLLT), a form of RLT, effectively reduces pain in adults with musculoskeletal disorders .
LLLT was also found to significantly relieve heel pain in patients with plantar fasciitis (tendinitis of the foot), with efficacy of treatment lasting for 3 months thereafter .
Similar results demonstrating pain relief was found in a systematic review of patients with temporomandibular disorder (pain and dysfunction of the jaw joints and muscles) .
Healing and Recovery: RLT isn't just about appearances; it could also promote healing and tissue repair.
For instance, a systematic review reported that LLLT when used in skin burns was associated with improved microcirculation and cellular proliferation, thereby contributing to an accelerated healing process .
Additionally, Laser and LED-based PBM have also been utilized in dentistry as part of orthodontic treatment to reduce pain after orthodontic appliance placement, and stimulation in oral medicine .
Muscle Functions: Muscles, being densely rich in mitochondria, seem to be particularly receptive to RLT.
Preclinical animal experiments and human clinical studies of LLLT on muscle fatigue and injury suggest the possible use of PBM for preconditioning to boost performance, as well as post workouts to prevent muscle fatigue, soreness, and injuries .
Pre-exercise PBM (laser) therapy applied on twenty-two high-level male soccer players in a randomized, triple-blind, placebo-controlled crossover trial found important antioxidant effect, decreased exercise-induced oxidative stress, and enhanced performance and post-exercise recovery .
And lastly, PBM was found to increase muscle mass gained after training, decrease inflammation and oxidative stress in muscle biopsies in a review of randomized controlled trials and case-control studies of both healthy trained and untrained participants, and elite athletes .
And these are just some of the well-researched benefits. Ongoing studies explore RLT's potential in various domains, from brain conditions  and depression to cellulite reduction, gut health , and more. Excitingly, new applications keep emerging, expanding the boundaries of RLT's healing potential.
Individualized Light Therapy
As we delve deeper into RLT research, one thing becomes evident: every individual responds to light differently. Just like with nutrition, where no one diet suits all, the optimal RLT "protocol" varies among individuals and devices. This diversity makes it challenging to establish standardized treatment protocols and measurements. Yet, at-home LED-based RLT remains generally safe, making it an exciting modality to discuss with your healthcare provider, provided you have no medical contraindications.
The Light of Tomorrow: Harnessing the Benefits of Light Exposure
Light energy is an essential yet underutilized tool in the realm of health and wellness. With the continuous advancement of RLT, we've discovered a potential means to unlock the benefits of light exposure without harmful side effects.
If, like 90% of Americans, you spend the majority of your time indoors and seek efficient ways to incorporate light's benefits into your life, RLT may be an option worth exploring with your healthcare provider. However, not all RLT devices are created equal. The lack of regulatory standards and poor quality control in the market makes it essential to discern and choose reliable devices carefully.
Download our free guide with pointers on how to select a trustworthy RLT device.
In a world where the healing potential of light is becoming increasingly evident, RLT stands as a beacon of hope. It's a tool that holds the promise of numerous benefits, a way to optimize our health and well-being while basking in the light.
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