Health Benefits of Red Light Therapy: Legit or Hype?

This post has been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Tim Jackson, DPT and functional medicine practitioner.

Did you know that light is actually a nutrient, and your longevity and health depend on it?

You’ll want to read this post, since many in the modern world, for the first time in history, are rarely exposed to the healing rays of the sun!

A fantastic new book by my friend and colleague, Ari Whitten, covers the over 3,000 published studies about red and near infrared light, and the benefits to human health.

Luckily, even if you live in a place, and under circumstances, where you cannot be in the sunshine every day like hominids have for millienia, you can replace these deficits in your nutrition (yes, nutrition!) and potentially correct health problems–with simple means.

In this article:

The History of Light as a Healing Modality

Phototherapy (the use of light for therapeutic purposes) has been a recognized healing treatment since at least 1400 BCE in India, when people with patchy depigmentation of the skin, thought to be a form of leprosy, were given plant extracts to eat before being exposed to the sun.

In the more recent past, 18th century doctors reported treating various diseases with sunlight, including destroying tumors and accelerating the healing of wounds by applying sunlight concentrated through a lens.¹

From there, the list of diseases treated with light expanded, from physicians treating lupus and smallpox to NASA using it to help astronauts in space maintain bone and muscle mass, and even to treat chronic wounds.

Photograph of sunlight streaming through autumn leaves, from "Red Light Therapy: Legit or Hype?" at Green Smoothie Girl.

Red light therapy is just one of many healing modalities that utilize the power of light.

Since the 1980s, the most commonly-recognized use for light therapy is for depression and sleep disorders. This treatment is so well accepted that home-use “light boxes” are in millions of households, combating symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder with sunlight-mimicking rays.

It’s clear that most of our ancestors rose with the sun and, though avoiding strong, direct exposure when they could, spent much of their day in and out of the sun’s rays.

In today’s modern world, we, on the other hand, live under the fluorescent lights found in offices, restaurants, a myriad of businesses, and our homes.

Light Deficiency and Longevity

Sunlight is so essential to health that modern research shows even our lifespan can depend on it.

A Swedish study conducted over two decades on 30,000 women revealed that those who spent more time in the sun over the span of 20 years lived longer and had less heart disease. In fact, women with the lowest sun exposure had a two-fold higher death rate than those with the most sun exposure!²

Another study compared the lifespan of scientists that worked indoors to those that worked outside. The data revealed that the average age that scientists die is “appreciably higher” for those scientists who work outdoors

Photograph of a scientist working in a forest, from "The Health Benefits of Red Light Therapy: Legit or Hype?" at Green Smoothie Girl.

Working outdoors in sunlight exposure is correlated with longer lifespan.

Unfortunately, the world we live in today does not offer everyone the opportunity to work outdoors. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American spends 93 percent of their life indoors!4

So, how do we obtain the benefits of the sun while we live under artificial lights? Enter the phenomenon known as red light and near-infrared light therapy. Before we take a look at its many healing attributes, let’s look at what makes it so special compared to other light sources.

Why Red Light Therapy?

As with any other living creature, our cells need light to survive. To be more specific, we require red and near-infrared (NIR) light waves (which lie next to each other on the light spectrum) in order to function optimally. When you spend time in the sun or sitting around a fire at day’s end, you are soaking up this segment of the light spectrum.

These two wavelengths are able to penetrate deep into our tissues—in some instances, as deep as two inches, where they find their way into our cells, tissues, bones, brain and blood. And there, the healing begins.

How Does Red Light Therapy Work?

When red and NIR light penetrate our cells, they activate the mitochondria. These organelles float freely within our cells and are known as the cell’s powerhouse. Mitochondria produce adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP)—the universal energy supplier that keeps our cells functioning. When you breathe, eat, walk, and even sleep, your cells are using ATP.

In cells that require massive energy, such as those found in your muscles, there can be thousands of mitochondria in just one cell.

Photograph of a young woman receiving red light therapy and wearing protective goggles, from "The Health Benefits of Red Light Therapy: Legit or Hype?"

Red light therapy assists individual cells and helps fight inflammation.

In addition to stimulating ATP production in the mitochondria, red light is involved in a phenomenon known as hormesis. It creates a temporary, low-dose metabolic stress by promoting a low-level inflammatory response and an increase in free radicals. This stress causes the body to activate its defense system, which will attack the free radicals and resolve the inflammation.

(You may have the idea that stress is always bad. While chronic, high-dose “eustress” is proven to be bad for the human organism, hormesis is achieved through exercise, muscle building activities, sauna use, and many other processes that are highly beneficial for the body.)

Because of these properties, red and NIR light have been found to possess amazing healing potential. My friend Ari Whitten, an energy and fatigue specialist, lists over 23 effects these types of lights have on the human body, as documented in recent scientific literature, in his book, The Ultimate Guide to Red Light Therapy.5

Top 11 Red Light Therapy Health Benefits

Here are what I consider the most remarkable health benefits of red and NIR light:

1.   Supports weight loss as well as fat and cellulite reduction.

Numerous studies have reported the loss of several inches from participant’s hips and waists through the use of red and NIR light therapy. Other studies support its reducing effects on cellulose.6,7

While the exact mechanism is unclear, it appears that this type of light stimulates blood circulation by triggering production of nitric oxide, a vasodilator, and causes fat cells to release their fatty acids back into the bloodstream where it can be burned for fuel.

Red and NIR light therapy has also been shown to stimulate the production of collagen and elastin, two major proteins found throughout the body that are responsible for the strength and elasticity of our skin and tissues. Cellulite is caused not only by excess fat, but also unhealthy collagen and elastin. Remarkably, when combined with massage, red light therapy resulted in a 71% reduction in cellulite!8

2.   Reduces the signs of aging such as wrinkles and skin discoloration.

While I believe that eating a healthy, mostly or all plant-based diet and including physical activity in our daily lives is the ultimate anti-aging plan, the years have a way of aging the look of our skin despite a healthy lifestyle. Reducing these signs of aging through red and NIR light therapy is so much better than the unhealthy alternatives of Botox and face lifts!

Red light’s ability to stimulate the production of collagen and reduce inflammation make this therapy a potent contender in helping us maintain youthful skin.

Photograph of a middle-aged woman looking in the mirror and touching her wrinkles, from "Health Benefits of Red Light Therapy: Legit or Hype?"

If you’re concerned about wrinkles and other signs of aging on the skin, red light therapy can help.

A study reported in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found a significant reduction in wrinkles around the eyes as well as an increase in skin moisture through the use of low-level light therapy.9

3.   Combats fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue.

The latest research in fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue suggest that these two conditions are caused, in part, by mitochondrial dysfunction and an increase in inflammation that occurs in both the body and brain. Because of red light’s anti-inflammatory effects as well as stimulating the production of ATP, it is a potent qualifier as a therapy that both increases energy and reduces pain.

One study on patients suffering from the effects of fibromyalgia found a remarkable reduction in pain, muscle spasms, morning stiffness, and the number of total tender points after treatments with low-level laser therapy.10

4.   Improves cognitive performance.

Our brains use more energy than any of our other organs—accounting for up to 20%. MRI scans prove that NIR light photons penetrate the skull, increasing the blood flow to the brain as well as spurring the mitochondria to produce more ATP.

The result is that we possess more clarity and sharper thinking skills.

Even patients with traumatic brain injuries and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) have benefited from light therapy. One study found patients with chronic brain injuries showed gains in verbal learning, memory, better sleep, and fewer PTSD symptoms following red and NIF light therapy11

5.   Reduces depression and anxiety.

Light therapy has been used for seasonal depression for decades. I know I certainly feel better after spending time in the sun’s warming rays (sunlight does contain red and NIR lightwaves). But can concentrated red light have an affect on those that suffer from year-round anxiety and depression?

A recent metastudy suggests so. When researchers reviewed all existing studies on the treatment of depression and anxiety with red and NIR light therapy, they found it to be a “promising” treatment for major depression, anxiety, and traumatic brain disorder12

Note: Red light therapy is a concentrated form meant to induce specific therapeutic reactions. It is not the same as a “light box” type sunlamp meant to replicate sunlight.

6.   Improves eye health.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the number one cause of vision loss in the U.S. It is a disease that affects more Americans than cataracts and glaucoma combined, and one that, ultimately, destroys the central vision. Currently, it is considered an incurable disease.

Photograph of a man rubbing his eyes and holding his glasses in the other hand, from "Health Benefits of Red Light Therapy: Legit or Hype?" from Green Smoothie Girl.

Red light therapy has been shown to benefit eye health.

When 203 patients with AMD were treated with low-level light therapy, 95 percent showed significant improvement in visual acuity. Their improved vision lasted anywhere from 3 months to 3 years following treatment.13

7.   Improves oral health.

Numerous studies have proven the positive impact that red and NIR light therapy have on the health of our teeth, gums, and surrounding tissues.14,15

A few of these benefits include the ability to fight infections, reduce pain, reduce thrush (an infection caused by an overgrowth of Candida yeast), and improve tooth sensitivity. It also speeds up healing following dental procedures!

8. Improves thyroid function.

An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease. What’s even more startling is that approximately 60% of these people do not know that they have thyroid issues yet, though they are struggling with symptoms.

And yet, our thyroid is a major player in our health–regulating our many body functions by continuously releasing a steady stream of thyroid hormones into the bloodstream. Thyroid imbalance creates symptoms such as fatigue, depression, memory loss, anxiety, insomnia, and weight gain.

Conventional treatments usually consist of lifelong prescribed medications that come with several side effects.

The good news? Clinical research is showing that NIR light therapy is a natural treatment for thyroid conditions. When patients with a hypothyroid caused by chronic autoimmune thyroiditis received NIR light therapy, 47% of them were able to stop taking their thyroid medication completely.16

Close-up photograph of a woman touching her neck and feeling her thyroid, from "Health Benefits of Red Light Therapy: Legit or Hype?" at Green Smoothie Girl.

Thyroid issues are common, but they can be reduced or resolved through red light therapy.

9. Slow hair loss and promote hair growth.

There are numerous causes of hair loss, from thyroid problems to medications and emotional stress. While people take hair loss in stride, others, particularly women, can find it wreaking havoc on their self image. It’s surprising to note that 40 percent of women over the age of 40 have visible hair loss.

Red and NIR light therapy have been shown to both regrow and thicken hair in several studies.17,18

10. Combats inflammation.

Chronic inflammation has been linked to nearly every disease, from cancer to heart disease, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, asthma, depression, and even obesity.

Inflammation can arise from an infection, an autoimmune disorder, or long-term exposure to chemicals and pollutants. Lifestyle choices play a strong part in contributing to this very common condition.

As we discussed, red and NIR light have an anti-inflammatory effect on the human body. Michael Hamblin, a Harvard researcher who is considered an expert in the field of red light therapy, has done extensive research on the many mechanisms by which this type of therapy reduces inflammation in several chronic conditions, including arthritis, inflammatory pain, and lung inflammation.19

Red light therapy may offer significant hope for many of today’s “modern” diseases and further studies are ongoing as red and NIF light therapy becomes mainstream.

11. Combats acne bacteria and inflammation.

Because of the ability of red light to reduce inflammation while increasing blood flow, this type of therapy is commonly used to treat acne. Hooman Khorasani, the Chief of the Division of Dermatological and Cosmetic Surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, suggests the use of both blue and red light therapy which destroy acne-causing bacteria while reducing the size of the sebaceous glands and thereby reducing oil.20

The bottom line: Our mitochondria provide 90 percent of the energy that fuels cellular activity and keeps us alive. When we boost our ATP production at this cellular level, we boost our energy at a physical level.

Photograph of a woman preparing to receive red light therapy, from "Health Benefits of Red Light Therapy: Legit or Hype?" at Green Smoothie Girl.

Red light therapy offers diverse health benefits and has received FDA approval.

Red Light Therapy & FDA Approval

The amazing aspect of all of this research is that more people aren’t shouting out the benefits of red light therapy! Even the FDA—the strict government regulator—has approved red and NIR light therapy for anti-aging, hair-loss reversal, pain relief, acne treatments, healing wounds, and fat loss.

How Long Should A Red Light Therapy Session Be? Can You Overdose?

As with many things in life, moderation is key. You can overdose on red light therapy; in fact, getting too much light can negate the benefits. Start slow, a few sessions per week, and work your way up to one session a day. The time (length of a session) and distance (light from your body) varies depending on the intent of the treatment and the manufacturer.

To Sum it Up

There are over 3,000 scientific studies demonstrating the health and anti-aging benefits of red and NIR light therapy.

These include the following:

  • Increases fat loss
  • Decreases pain
  • Speeds up healing of wounds and injuries
  • Increases energy
  • Combats fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue
  • Combats hair loss
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Has anti-aging effects
  • Supports healthy eyes, teeth and gums
  • Increases strength, endurance and muscle mass

Red light isn’t a “miracle cure,” but it’s one more tool you can put in your arsenal for health and wellness. It’s the nutrient that every cell needs and one that, in our modern times, we get very little of—light.