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The Benefits of Red Light Therapy: A Comprehensive Guide
red light therapy
Physical Health

The Benefits of Red Light Therapy: A Comprehensive Guide

With RLT, basking in the right rays can make all the difference.

When you’re feeling glum, sluggish, depressed, or unmotivated, what’s one of the best things you can do? Climb under the covers and call it a day? Reach for a tub of ice cream and the remote? Or get outside in the sunshine and go for a long, brisk walk, hike ride, or a jog?

There are plenty of times when a nap or some couch and treat time is the right call, but getting exercise on a sunny day is hard to beat in the feeling better department. 


That’s because exercise and sunshine share a surprising trait: they can both lead to more energy. Specifically, they can lead to a more plentiful supply of a natural molecule called adenosine triphosphate (or ATP) that is produced by each cell’s mitochondria organelles and is literally what powers you through life. ATP is biological energy: it’s the fuel your body’s machinery depends upon to do everything from run to think to digest to lift weights to lean back and relax.

And as you know, the more fuel a machine has, the more it can get done. In the case of that human machine, more ATP your cells are making, the better you’ll feel, too.

Exercise can lead to increased mitochondrial production of ATP by putting cells under tolerable stress levels. The cells get used to a certain elevated level of demand and respond by producing more potential energy. When not used up by said exercise, that ATP is still on hand for all the other aspects of your life. Stepping out into the sunshine allows both red and, even more effectively, infrared light to reach your skin, and these wavelengths of light can penetrate deeply into the skin, reaching cells and stimulating more mitochondrial activity. So, in a manner of thinking, your body is a walking, talking solar panel and battery system. 

That feeling you get after a jog or a few minutes spent basking in the sun – the one that leaves you feeling refreshed and relaxed and, dare we say, recharged? That’s not a psychosomatic sensation, it’s real.

How to Stimulate ATP Production When Exercise or Sunbathing Aren’t Options

red light therapy
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In a perfect world, you’d have the time and wherewithal to get a decent amount of exercise outside in the sunshine each and every day. Of course, that would also mean a world in which the weather never really changed, your schedule was monotonous, and where you never gave yourself a break for a day. So instead of hypothesizing about a perfect world, let’s live in this one we have and make some improvements there. In terms of exercise, that’s on you to find the time for, but in terms of the benefits of red light on the body, those you can achieve on a daily basis with minimal effort devoted.

Red light therapy, or RLT, and often known as low level light therapy (LLLT) or more frequently as photobimodulation (PBM) these days, uses specialized bulbs and/or diodes that produce light in the red and infrared parts of the spectrum. By placing these lights close to their skin, a person can allow these light waves to penetrate down into their bodies, reaching cells well below the outer layers of dermis. 

The biochemical effect red light (and infrared light) has on cells is to increase mitochondrial activity which leads to more ATP production. The benefits of RLT can include better wound healing, scar and wrinkle reduction, and reduced acne. In some people, red light therapy can stimulate hair growth. In others it reduces pain, stiffness, and inflammation. And many people who practice RLT report a better overall mood and sense of wellness.

How to Use Red Light Therapy at Home

red light therapy
(Getty)

When it comes to all medical matters, when in doubt, talk to a doctor. And don’t consider DIY photobimodulation as a surefire way to treat any maladies or ameliorate any conditions, necessarily. For the potential benefits RLT can offer, give yourself the best chances for success and ensure ideal safety during sessions with purpose-built red light therapy devices.

There are wraps inset with red light diodes that are made for feet, knees and elbows, and these are great for treating specific areas while limiting exposure to other parts of the body. There are also larger flat panels of red light LEDs better for use of RLT as a treatment for, say, acne or wrinkles of the face.

And in between these two are hand-held red light therapy devices that concentrate infrared and red light on a limited area. This type of tool is ideal for applications on specific regions, like over a scar or an area of your body that’s often stiff or sore.

Is Red Light Therapy Effective? And Is PBM Safe?

red light therapy
(Getty)

The proverbial jury is still out on all of the benefits of red light therapy. Some medical experts swear by the practice as a treatment for everything from pain and inflammation reduction, some skincare professionals recommend it for scar and acne mitigation and increased hair growth. Others even recommend it for treating depression or to increase the heartiness of the human immune system.

These latter claims are less well-supported, whereas the benefits of red light therapy on a more surface level, such as its help with skin conditions, wound repair, and better muscle and joint function are better accepted. But while the medical community is far from a universal endorsement of RLT – which is in its infancy in the greater context of medicine, this therapeutic treatment only having emerged in the last 50 years – it’s generally accepted that red light therapy is safe for most people.

Prolonged exposure to infrared light may pose some risk of damage to the eyes, so protective eyewear is a good idea when you are doing red light therapy (and keep in mind that infrared light is invisible to the human eye, so you might not think of it as potentially damaging). And in limited cases, people have reported blistering and mild burns from intense RLT, often in cases where they accidentally fell asleep and left the light units shining on them for far longer than expected.

Overall, RLT is safe and is likely an effective addition to your larger health and wellness efforts. One final thought, though: it’s still a good idea to get out there into the sunlight for at least 15 or 20 minutes daily, as it’s the sun's ultraviolet B (UVB) rays that interact with the 7-DHC protein in the skin, converting it into vitamin D3. UV light can also stimulate hormone production and improved immune response. Plus, natural light and time outdoors will just make you feel better.

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