Red Light Therapy Benefits for Longevity
Red light therapy is just as it sounds: using light as treatment, specifically for skin and health conditions.
Over the past couple of decades, red light therapy has gained in popularity as consumer interest in natural health has increased. It's rise in popularity isn't surprising when you consider that red light therapy has very little risk, is available for at-home use, and is FDA approved.
But how could a simple red light improve your health? Is red light therapy a scam or some kind of snake oil treatment? Below, we dive into the science of this unique medical tool to find out what's really going on.
History of red light therapy
The first low-level laser therapy device was developed by Hungarian physician Endre Mester in 1967. It was initially tested on skin cancer and later on wound-healing processes. Although it took some time, the FDA approved its first red light therapy device in 2002.
Interestingly, in the 1990s, NASA discovered red light therapy’s ability to heal wounds and grow plants quicker. In fact, NASA found that red light therapy allowed Navy SEALs to heal wounds over 40% quicker than normal.
Although light therapy has been around for centuries, there’s been an increase in clinical research over the last couple decades, documenting its benefits with minimal side effects. This combined with the availability of affordable and clinically-effective therapy devices on the market has allowed red light therapy to thrive in recent years.
Red light therapy (RLT) can also be referred to as:
- Red LED light therapy
- Low-level laser therapy (LLLT)
- Photobiomodulation (PBM)
- Soft laser therapy
- Cold laser therapy
How does RLT work?
Red light therapy works through photobiomodulation, where our cells respond to different wavelengths of light. The light helps to increase proteins and factors that allow cells to communicate, which encourages your skin to work more effectively (e.g. collagen production). By activating mitochondria, the production of growth factors is stimulated and this can reduce oxidative stress in the skin.
Specifically, red light therapy exposes the skin to red and near-infrared light between wavelengths of 660 nm and 890 nm, and may be absorbed by the skin up to 10 millimeters. Depending on the type of device, such as a panel or face mask, your exposure time and distance should be closely monitored in order to achieve best results.
Red Light Therapy Benefits
Here are four main ways red light therapy is purported to help with longevity by increasing your healthspan and lifespan:
1. Enhance Cellular Function
To understand this benefit, it’s important to do a quick biology review so you can appreciate the importance of this point.
Remember in biology class when the teacher talked about cells, mitochondria, and adenosine triphosphate (ATP)? Us neither, but here’s the gist:
Mitochondria functions as batteries that produce more than 90% of the energy in your body’s cells. Mitochondria uses the fuel we consume to generate ATP, which is in turn used as the primary energy source for most processes in our bodies related to growth, movement, and homeostasis.
Studies show that red light therapy acts on the mitochondria of cells, which promotes the production of ATP (the primary energy source for cellular function) and ultimately improves our body’s natural processes. More effective biological processes contribute to our longevity.
2. Decrease Inflammation
Photobiomodulation can reduce oxidative stress, a factor which can lead to chronic inflammation. Studies show that when activated by photobiomodulation, cells showed decreased inflammatory markers. In fact, one of the most reliable effects of red light therapy is its ability to decrease inflammation.
How is chronic inflammation connected to longevity? Chronic inflammation is linked to various age-related diseases. Inflammation itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing and is actually helpful to fight off infections and injury.
However, inflammation can become chronic, which can lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes mellitus, chronic kidney disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders.
3. Stimulate Neurogenesis
There have been a number of studies that show that various brain disorders (traumatic events, degenerative diseases, and psychiatric disorders) can be improved by applying red light to the head.
Outside of brain disorders, even healthy people can benefit from RLT by enhancing their cognitive function. Additionally, red light therapy has been found to stimulate neurogenesis, or the formation of new brain cells, and can increase cerebral blood flow – both these benefits lead to improved memory, attention, and overall brain health.
A study was done in Israel in 2007 that analyzed the effects of red light therapy on patients who dealt with an ischemic stroke. It showed that the light protected neurons from damage and increased recovery overall. Ninety days after the patients’ stroke, 70 percent of the treatment group had a successful outcome, versus 51 percent of the control group.
Brain disorders are unfortunately linked to longevity because they are part of the leading age-related diseases we currently face.
4. Regulate Circadian Rhythms
As much as blue light negatively affects your sleep quality, red light can in fact positively impact your sleep by regulating your circadian rhythms. A 2012 study showed that red light, used for 30 minutes a day for 14 days on the study group, resulted in higher sleep quality, increased melatonin levels, and improved endurance performance.
Our circadian rhythm is what allows us to feel more tired earlier in the evening and feel refreshed when the sun rises. Red light therapy has been shown to regulate our natural circadian rhythms, which can alleviate sleep disorders or interruptions to sleep-wake patterns.
Poor sleep is closely associated with health problems, which can decrease your longevity. In fact, studies suggest that improving your sleep habits can add up to five years to your life.
Red light therapy risks
Unlike UV rays, red light wavelengths do not specifically damage the skin. That said, extreme over exposure to a red light emitting device can cause skin irritation. It's important to follow doctor and product recommended guidelines to ensure best practices. Those with existing skin conditions, sensitive skin, or skin cancer should consult a board-certified dermatologist before using any type of light therapy.
Where can I find a red light therapy device?
To get red light therapy, you can go to a clinic that offers it as a service. There are also other locations, such as your local gym or longevity clinic, that provide infrared saunas as a service. Although the wavelength of red light therapy and infrared light are slightly different, the benefits are similar.
Separately, you can also purchase a red light therapy device for you to use in the comfort of your own home. Red light therapy panels can be used for multiple purposes: anti-aging, wound healing, and pain relief, while a belt can be wrapped around your body to target back, shoulder, and waist muscle pain.
Although red light therapy certainly shows promise, and a lack of evident harmful effects, it is still evolving and more research is needed. The number and length of sessions you need in getting started with red light therapy will vary depending on your needs, so we recommend discussing this option with a dermatologist or doctor before trying it.
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