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Red Light Therapy vs Other Wellness Modalities

Posted on March 22, 2020

What are the differences between red light therapy and other treatments, like blue light, bright light, heat lamps, saunas, tanning, cryotherapy, and diets like paleo and keto.

What is Red Light Therapy?

Red light therapy is a simple, non-invasive treatment that delivers concentrated natural light to your skin and cells. Treatments are quick and easy: all you have to do is sit or stand in the light for 5 to 15 minutes, ideally every day.

A high-quality home device uses medical-grade LEDs to shine natural red and near infrared light on your body. Just like the wavelengths of light your body needs from natural sunlight, but without the heat or UV rays that cause sun damage, and without the need for sunny weather.

Backed by clinical research: Red light therapy is backed by thousands of peer-reviewed medical studies and clinical trials, which have shown overwhelmingly positive results, and an almost total lack of side effects or health risks.

Other names for red light therapy include RLT, photobiomodulation (PBM), phototherapy, LED therapy, LED light therapy, infrared therapy, low-level laser therapy or low level light therapy (LLLT).

How to Do a Red Light Therapy Treatment

Consistency and proper use is key for effective red light therapy.

For optimal results with a high-quality, LED-based device, follow these basics for general wellness benefits:

  • Position yourself about 6 inches from the device

  • Expose your skin for best results

  • Approximately 4-6 minute treatment times per coverage area

  • Daily use is ideal

  • Any time of day

Where Did Red/NIR Light Therapy Come From?

Red light therapy has become a popular natural health intervention in professional settings, and with home devices like WellFit Recovery Zone.

Light therapy technology has been used in medicine for decades, and NASA experimented with red light therapy use in space in the 1980s and 1990s. [1] In the last 10-20 years, red light therapy has become more widely used thanks to breakthroughs in LED lighting technology that made affordable home devices possible. Major advances in clinical light therapy research, and increased public interest in natural health technologies, have also contributed to the growing use and popularity of red light therapy.

How Does Red Light Therapy Work?

Our cells need natural light to function, just like they need water and nutrients from food. Unfortunately, most people don’t get as much natural light as they need for optimal health (the average American spends over 90% of their time indoors). [2] Red light therapy allows you to supplement the light you get from your environment with concentrated wavelengths of red and near infrared light at home.

Red light therapy works by enhancing your energy production at a cellular level. Healthy, natural light stimulates the mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell, and enhances the cellular respiration process that makes ATP (adenosine triphosphate) energy. Humans make ATP every day, and it fuels everything we do. The more energy our cells can make, the better our bodies look, heal, feel, and perform.

Red light therapy reduces oxidative stress and nitric oxide, for a more efficient cellular environment. Red light therapy has also been found to enhance blood circulation, reduce the body’s inflammation, and encourage antioxidant production. [3]

Red Light Therapy Versus Other Health Modalities

As a term, “red light therapy” refers to treatments from LEDs or cold lasers that deliver wavelengths of natural red and near infrared light. These are the same therapeutic wavelengths that come from natural sunlight, but without the UV rays or heat.

In the following sections, we compare and contrast red light therapy with other modalities like heat lamps and saunas.

What isn’t red light therapy? The term “red light therapy” does not include white light, blue light or blue LED masks, and it is not the same as full spectrum light. Red light therapy does not rely on heat, a major difference between natural light treatments and heat-based modalities like an infrared sauna, traditional sauna, or other type of heat therapy.

Red Light Therapy Versus Blue Light

Today, people are overloaded with bright, artificial blue light from our screens and overhead lighting. When we take in all that bright blue light from laptops, TVs, and phones—especially before we go to bed—our bodies get the signal that it's time to be awake, even if we're tired. That’s why excess blue light exposure can cause headaches and make it harder to get restful sleep. [4]

Red light therapy is natural light. It’s much less bright than blue light, with a lower color temperature than daytime sun, as the image above shows. [5]

Red light for sleep: Light plays a major role in your sleep cycle. The body’s circadian clock interprets light as a sign of when to sleep and when to be awake. [6] Artificial blue light from phones, computers, and other screens is extremely bright and can knock your circadian rhythm out of whack.

Red light has the opposite effect: it’s ideal for evenings because it has a low color temperature—far lower than blue light and much closer to the natural sunset. [5] And red light therapy is showing great clinical results for people with insomnia and sleep disorders.

Red light for skin: Red light therapy is a popular skincare technique with Hollywood celebrities and leading estheticians. This is not the same as blue LED light treatments for skin (like blue LED masks), which use bright, artificial blue light, and pose a number of health risks if not used correctly.

Red Light Therapy Versus Bright Light Treatments

Bright light treatments like “SAD lamps” or “happylight” are lamps that shine bright, artificial blue light to mimic the sun. Red light therapy treatments deliver natural light, the same red and near infrared (NIR) wavelengths you get from the real sun. But without the UV rays or heat that makes too much sunlight dangerous.

In short, bright light devices are really just lamps shining artificial light. Red light therapy is a more clinical intervention that delivers healthy, natural light. And now emerging clinical research is showing major potential for red light therapy as a natural depression treatment.

How does red light therapy work for mental health? For mental health treatment, NIR wavelengths may be most effective in treating depression, because they can reach deeper into body tissues than red light. [7] When NIR light from a clinical light therapy device is shined on a person’s head, those wavelengths are actually able to go beyond the surface of the skin, and reach the brain and affect brain cells directly. More natural light for your brain cells has been found to improve the metabolic capacity of your neurons, increase oxygen consumption, and boost cells’ ATP energy production. [8]

Red Light Therapy Versus Heat Lamps

The big difference between red light therapy and heat lamps is right in the name: heat. Heat lamps are designed to induce heat stress on a user. By contrast, high-quality LED light therapy devices give off very little heat, and have been found safe, effective, and free of side effects in numerous clinical trials. [9]

Beyond the heat dangers, heat lamps simply don’t offer the clinically-proven wavelengths or medical-grade power output of a high-quality LED device. Heat lamps deliver mostly ineffective wavelengths of light that don’t have any real effect on human health. They also don’t offer medical-grade power like a high quality LED light therapy device. You can read more about measuring red light therapy power here.

When you break down the scientific research on power and wavelengths, it’s easy to see that heat lamps really don’t compare to a full-body red light therapy device. They simply can’t deliver the clinical benefits, and come with too many risks.

Red Light Therapy Versus Saunas

Saunas and red light therapy are two clinically-proven treatments that offer a range of natural health benefits. They work well as complementary therapies, but rely on very different biological mechanisms of action. Saunas rely on heat to produce biological effects, whereas red light therapy devices produce almost no heat at all.

In simplest terms, a sauna makes you hot while a Red/NIR Light feeds your body energizing natural light.

Red Light Therapy and Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy, also known as “cryo” and cold therapy, is a treatment that relies on cold temperatures and freezing to produce a biological effect. Red light therapy devices deliver natural light to the body, rather than using heat or cold to induce a physiological reaction.

Cryo and red light therapy can be used together.

Red Light Therapy and Keto

The human body needs food, water, and natural light to function and make energy. A red light therapy device delivers natural light, and can be used in conjunction with any type of diet. But just like some people eat diets full of processed foods that don’t give their body enough nutrients, most people get an overload of junky, artificial light and don’t get nearly enough natural light for optimal physical function.

Keto is one of the most popular approaches to health and fitness today, and it’s a powerful and complementary health intervention with daily red light therapy. Keto and red light therapy both produce positive health results by targeting and optimizing our existing biological functions, starting in the mitochondria of our cells.

Mighty mitochondria: Both keto and red light therapy have a big effect on your mitochondria, the so-called “powerhouses of the cell.” With keto, you force those powerhouses to burn fatty acids and ketones instead of glucose. Like red light therapy, this reduces the oxidative stress that slows down our energy systems.

Research on keto and hormone regulation: Initial results from a trial on red light therapy and the ketogenic diet have shown impressive testosterone gains for men and gains in sex hormones for women, like progesterone, estradiol and DHEA.

Red Light Therapy and Paleo

Red light therapy is a powerful complement to the Paleo diet and lifestyle too, and it’s become popular with the broader Paleo community for its proven health and fitness results.

There’s a major difference between you and your ancestors: they were outdoors most of the time, by necessity, and their bodies thrived on an abundance of natural light. Red light therapy allows you to get the same natural light, in your home, no matter the weather.

Dr. Sarah Ballantyne (aka The Paleo Mom) created the award-winning site The Paleo Mom and is a New York Times bestselling author of four health books. Dr. Sarah tried Red/NIR Light Therapy a few years back and says it helped her recover from her Crossfit workouts. But she says her biggest red light therapy benefit is joint pain relief.

Health Benefits of Red Light Therapy

Red light therapy has been shown to produce a wide range of natural health benefits.

Pain and Inflammation Relief: Red light therapy has a natural anti-inflammatory effect, and WellFit Red/NIR devices are cleared by the FDA as Class-II medical devices for the treatment of pain and strain. Natural light treatments increase circulation and blood flow to damaged tissues and promote cellular regeneration. This aids the healing process, for less pain and quicker recovery times. [9]

Fitness, Performance, and Muscle Recovery: Elite pro athletes are using red light therapy to train and recover. Clinical studies have consistently shown that red light therapy improves strength, endurance, speed, and muscle growth, and speeds the muscle recovery process.

Sleep and Circadian Rhythm: Natural light exposure is a key ingredient to a healthy circadian rhythm and restful sleep. Red light therapy is used as a sleep aid and nighttime light source because it has a low color temperature, and has been shown in clinical studies to aid the body’s production of melatonin and improve sleep disorders like insomnia. [10,11]

Skin Rejuvenation: Red light therapy, or “LED light therapy,”, is a popular skin rejuvenation and natural beauty treatment. Leading estheticians and Hollywood celebrities have taken notice, using red LED light treatments to boost collagen and lessen signs of aging.

The initial research is also encouraging for brain and cognitive health, and for red light therapy and hormone health.

Who Uses Red Light Therapy?

In addition to the growing number of people using red light therapy devices in their home, red light therapy systems can be found in many professional and clinical settings:

Skincare professionals: Red light therapy is a popular skin treatment among Hollywood celebrities for anti-aging, and it’s used by leading skincare professionals like estheticians and dermatologists to treat skin conditions and promote collagen production.

Health practitioners: Red light therapy is an emerging subspecialty of medicine in a wide range of fields. From oncologists treating cancer side effects, to dentists reducing oral inflammation, to physicians treating mental health conditions, red light therapy is becoming more widespread in clinical practice.

Natural health experts: Leading voices in natural health and wellness like Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, Dave Asprey, and Ben Greenfield use red light therapy. So do Paleo and Keto health experts like Mark Sisson, Dr. Anthony Gustin, Luke Storey, and Robb Wolf.

Sports medicine pros: Red light therapy is used to heal sports injuries by sports medicine professionals across the globe. Including the top trainers and doctors on the PGA Tour, like Dr. Troy Van Biezen and Dr. Ara Suppiah.

Elite pro athletes: Red light therapy is a popular training tool across pro sports, from NFL stars like Patrick Peterson, to UFC champs like Anthony Pettis, to gold medal gymnast Sanne Wevers.

Fitness and training: World-class personal trainers like Lacey Stone and Jorge Cruise use red light therapy to both enhance performance and improve the muscle recovery process.

Supportive cancer care: The Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer (MASCC) recommends red light therapy for the treatment of oral mucositis (OM), a common and debilitating symptom of cancer treatment.

Side Effects and Risks of Red Light Therapy

Red light therapy has been tested and analyzed in thousands of peer-reviewed trials. The consensus among medical researchers and the clinical community is that natural light treatments are safe, well-tolerated, and produce little to no side effects. Research teams have concluded this in study after study.

Dermatology researchers from Harvard Medical School conducted a review of red light therapy in 2013 and praised its “noninvasive nature and almost complete absence of side effects.” [12]

Mental health and brain researchers analyzed red light therapy for depression treatment in a major 2018 controlled trial. Among their findings, they noted that red light therapy was well tolerated by patients, with no serious side effects or adverse reactions. [13]

Red light therapy is safe for eyes, and has actually been shown to have beneficial effects for vision. People with specific photosensitivity concerns should check with their healthcare provider.

Disclaimers and considerations: The information on this page is meant to educate readers about the science, research, and health benefits of red light therapy. Consult a trusted health professional for the diagnosis and treatment of specific medical conditions.

These Red/NIR light therapy products are registered with the FDA as a Class II medical devices for the treatment of pain, strain, and inflammation. Other health benefits mentioned in this article are for educational purposes only and not intended to support the safety or effectiveness of these devices, and not meant to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent a disease. The information presented is based on peer-reviewed clinical research, including information about emerging studies and scientific inquiries.

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