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Red Light Therapy

Updated: Sep 28, 2022

Today while working out at #PlanetFitness, not only did I learn they have terminated all their physical trainers and replaced them with a new app (WTH?!), but interestingly, they offer Red Light therapy as part of their suntanning options. Although red light therapy doesn't offer ultraviolet light; it is a low wavelength red light that is an emerging therapy for improving the skin's appearance. These are popping up in wellness clinics all over the place now, so having been given the opportunity, I was more than happy to disrobe for the cause of minimizing my #wrinkles, #scars, and #acne.


There is newer and quickly evolving research about the effectiveness of red light therapy for all types of health issues, although certainly, we still have much to learn and what we understand today is still probably in its infancy. Other names you may hear describe red light therapy are low-level laser light therapy, non-thermal LED light, soft laser therapy, cold laser therapy, biostimulation, photonic stimulation, photobiomodulation, and phototherapy.



NASA originally began experimenting with red light therapy on plant growth in space and then to help heal wounds in astronauts. From there, scientists began hypothesizing all sorts of potential uses. It is already widely used by clinicians in photodynamic therapy for activating a photosensitizer drug, creating a chemical reaction that destroys cells. This can treat skin cancer, psoriasis, acne, and #warts.


Now red light therapy is being investigated, and already used, for treating a wide array of health conditions, and not just at the level of the skin, but also for reducing joint pain and inflammation, enhancing muscle recovery, hair recovery, dental pain, bone health, neurological injury, Hashimoto hypothyroidism, and for supporting weight loss goals. Dermatologists are utilizing red light therapy for eczema treatment and athletes for its muscle recovery. What we can't quite say with confidence though is that this therapy is actually effective for the purposes that it is often promoted. Harmful though certainly doesn't seem to be a risk.


How Does Red Light Therapy Supposedly Work?


The current belief is that red light therapy acts on the mitochondria, the energy center of our cells. With more energy, other cells can then do their work more efficiently, such as repairing skin, boosting new cell growth and enhancing skin rejuvenation. More specifically, certain cells absorb light wavelengths and are better stimulated to work.


There is great hypothesis that red light therapy stimulate collagen production, which gives skin its structure, strength and elasticity. It is also thought to increase fibroblast production, which makes collagen, a component of connective tissue that builds skin, and that red light therapy increases blood circulation to our tissues and reduces inflammation in the cells.


Red light therapy is marketed to reduce stretch marks, wrinkles, fine lines, and age spots. It is also said to improve wound healing, facial texture, eczema, rosacea, psoriasis, scars, sun-damaged skin, acne, and even hair growth in people with androgenic alopecia. Others share that it is mood enhancing, and can improve depression and anxiety.


While we can't conclusively say that red light therapy is effective for the reasons it is marketed, the research does suggest great potential. Currently being investigated are its potential to reduce cancer chemotherapy side effects, such as oral mucositis, and to relieve pain and inflammation associated with ankle tendonitis, rheumatoid arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and osteoarthritis of the knee. Maybe the most exciting (at least for me) is the research evaluating its effectiveness for preventing cold sores from recurring - that's worth standing in the light chamber for 12 minutes after a weekly workout!


What I will share too though, is there doesn't seem to be any evidence to support its use in weight loss, for cancer, or for mental health benefits like depression or seasonal affective disorder, or even for cellulite but there is some promise. It is likely not covered by health insurance, but it is covered within the black card membership at Planet Fitness. This is not a one time cure all, so you will need ongoing exposure for most purposes.


Is Red Light Therapy Safe?


Red light therapy appears to be safe and has not yet been associated with any side effects, at least if used short-term and as directed. In the state of Indiana, while there are laws for tanning, limited to just once every twenty-four hours, there are no specific laws for red light therapy (which is more likely related to it being a newer modality). The FDA has given its approval for several red light therapy devices, noting its benefits.


Red light therapy is not thought to be toxic, invasive, and not even as harsh as many topical skin treatments. Unlike the cancer-causing ultraviolet light from the sun, or tanning booths, red light therapy doesn't utilize UV. Certainly if used too much, or if not covering one's eyes, damage from overuse can occur and long-term safety is not well understood.


Here's an interesting thought though, Leanne Venier, an engineer, scientist and expert in light frequencies and the healing effects of color therapy, shares that red light is naturally attention-getting, energizing, stimulating, and representative of joy, and passion, even survival because of how it engages our central nervous system. Consider then that if you are in a sympathetic dominant state and are working to relax your nervous system, this may, for some, create unwanted stimulation. If I had a client utilizing red light therapy who I felt was living in more of a "triage-mode," or far too often in a "fight-or-flight response," then potentially this may be an aggravating modality. For those with a better balanced nervous system, this stimulation would improve blood circulation, increase sweating and concentration and so forth, and not all stress is bad, but if this is chronic, for example in those with C-PTSD, then maybe red light therapy isn't the right treatment for you at the moment.

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