The Science of Red Light Therapy For Anxiety, Depression and Mental Health.

Girl meditating in front of a red light therapy device
A 2016 study of 20 patients with major depressive disorder found that red light therapy was able to significantly reduce symptoms of depression after just four weeks of treatment.

Introduction to Red Light for Anxiety & Depression​

Depression, anxiety and other mood disorders can be debilitating conditions that interfere with daily life. If you are struggling with one of these conditions, you may be interested in learning about red light therapy as a potential treatment option. Red light therapy is an emerging treatment that has been shown to be beneficial for individuals with mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, seasonal affective disorder and more. In this article we’ll look at some of these studies in more detail so you can better understand how RLT might benefit your mental health and explore some of the clinical science showing how red light therapy can help patients with depression.

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    What is Red Light Therapy?

    Red light therapy, also known as photobiomodulation or low level light therapy, involves exposing the skin or eyes to red and near-infrared light. This type of light has been found to have healing and regenerative properties for a variety of conditions, including depression and anxiety. It was first discovered by NASA in the 1980’s, and since then has been studied in over 2,000 clinical trials.

    So how does red light therapy work for mood disorders? The exact mechanism is not fully understood, but it may be related to changes in the production of melatonin and brain neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These changes can lead to improved sleep patterns, enhanced mood, reduced anxiety and decreased appetite.

    Research on the efficacy of red light therapy for depression and anxiety is still somewhat limited, but studies have shown promising results. Let’s take a look at some of the latest science. 

    How Red Light Therapy Works to Improve Mental Health

    The reason why red light therapy may help patients with mental health issues is because it has been shown to have an effect on mitochondria activity — specifically in the brain. Red light and near-infrared light has the unique ability to penetrate deeper into the skin than other kinds of light, and this deep penetration makes it easier for cells inside the body to absorb the light. 

    When the light is absorbed by cells, it leads to an increase in ATP production (ATP is a source of energy for cells) and improved function of mitochondria. This in turn can lead to a reduction in inflammation and changes in neurotransmitter levels, both of which have been linked to depression and other mood disorders.

    The mechanism by which light therapy works for depression is not fully understood, but it appears to be associated with changes in melatonin production, brain neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine), and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. These changes may contribute to improved sleep patterns, enhanced mood, reduced anxiety and decreased appetite. Researchers believe that by stimulating mitochondrial function with red light therapy, we may be able to improve our overall health and well-being because these cells are so vital for proper functioning of our bodies.

    More so, the effect of red light therapy on mental health may be due to its ability to improve mitochondrial health, increase blood flow to the brain, reduce inflammation and reactive oxygen species (ROS) levels, enhance neural growth factors and improve neuronal energy levels. 

    Why use light therapy?

    Some of the biggest protagonists in the chronic disease epidemic are blue light exposure (over stimulating) at night and lack of natural light in our daily life. We can see how this can lead to health problems such as sleep deprivation, inflammation, digestive issues and hormone imbalances which all contribute to chronic diseases like cancer and diabetes.

    When we don’t get adequate natural light, it affects every cell and process within our body. Humans were made to use sunlight for optimal health. Healthy light is essential to every cell’s function, and a lack of light can lead to chronic disease and illness. Lack of sunlight has been known to cause anxiety and depression because not enough sunshine depletes brain serotonin and dopamine levels, and those low levels can lead to disabling mood conditions. Our modern human lifestyles, consisting of a life spent indoors and behind screens, is not conducive of a natural light environment. This is where red light therapy comes into play. 

    Clinical Research on Red Light Therapy for Depression​​

    The use of red light therapy for depression and other mental health conditions has been rising in popularity, with many people using it to treat depression, anxiety and other disorders. In recent years, more and more studies have been conducted on the effects of red-light therapy for mental health with promising results. A recent review of all existing studies with red/near-infrared light therapy (RLT) on anxiety and depression disorders demonstrates that RLT offers a “promising treatment” for major depressive disorder, anxiety, suicidal ideation, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

    The authors concluded that “Although further large-scale randomized controlled trials are needed to confirm these results and expand their application to other psychiatric disorders, our findings indicate that RLT may be an effective noninvasive modality for treating mental disorders.”

    The authors of this review noted that there are several possible mechanisms by which light therapy could alleviate symptoms of depression. These include:

    • Reducing inflammation by modulating cytokines (proteins released by cells)
    • Increasing neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons)
    • Reducing oxidative stress via increased glutathione levels
    Guy using red light therapy while he works
    In a recent study, 74% of participations saw a remission in their depression or anxiety after 30-days of red light therapy treatment.

    The Clinical Science of Using Red Light for Depression and Anxiety​

    Red light therapy had a positive effect on mood. A 2009 study evaluated the effects of a single red light therapy treatment on 10 patients with depression. Participants showed significant improvement immediately after exposure to treatment, but not after exposure to placebo. More surprisingly. 6 out of 10 patients were in remission two weeks post-treatment. The authors concluded that this was the first controlled study demonstrating that red light had a positive effect on mood in patients with MDD.

    Infrared light therapy showed depression improvement after 4 sessions. In a 2017 study, 39 participants suffering from depression received multi-watt near-infrared light therapy. 92% of patients showed a dramatic reduction in depression symptoms, with many showing significant improvement after only 4 sessions. Patients were mostly still in remission 2, 6, and 12 months post-treatment.

    Red light therapy showed improvements in depression, anxiety and insomnia. A 2015 study evaluated the effectiveness of red light therapy on traumatic brain injury (TBI) symptoms. A single patient received 20 near-infrared light treatments over 2 months. The patient showed significant improvements in depression, anxiety and insomnia, and cognition and quality of life were improved as well. A larger study is needed to confirm these results and determine possible radiation doses for efficacy.

    Red light therapy improves seasonal depression. A study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that red light therapy improves symptoms of depression. A total of 40 individuals with major depressive disorder were divided into two groups—one group received one hour per day of red light therapy for four weeks; the other group received a placebo treatment. After four weeks, those who received red light treatment showed significantly improved mood compared to those who received a placebo.

    Woman using a red light therapy device before going to sleep
    If you struggle to fall asleep at night, consider using red light therapy 1-2 hours before bedtime. Using red light therapy before bedtime helps reset your circadian rhythm – allowing you to bounce back in the morning

    The Depression-Sleep Connection​

    With more and more research showing how closely mood and sleep disorders are interconnected, it’s no surprise that insomnia is a common symptom of depression. For people with depression, getting quality sleep is a big issue. Red light therapy may also be beneficial for individuals with sleep problems related to depression. A study from 2018 found that red light therapy improved sleep quality in people with major depressive disorder, leading to improved overall symptoms of depression.

    In fact, parts of the brain that regulate sleep have also been found to closely affect mood. A 2013 review concluded that “nearly all people suffering from mood disorders have significant disruptions in circadian rhythms and the sleep/wake cycle.” Another study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that those with depression reported better sleep quality after one week of treatment with red light therapy compared to those who did not receive treatment.

    Sujay Kansagra, MD, the director of Duke University’s Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program said: “Natural light affects the circadian rhythm and helps regulate mood. This is why spending time outdoors can help prevent depression—and even treat it.”

    The expert goes on to explain that “light therapy has been shown to improve symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is characterized by sadness during winter months.” To learn more about red light therapy and sleep, click on this blog post.

    How can you incorporate red light therapy into your mental health treatment plan?​

    Some clinics offer red light therapy as part of their services, but you can also purchase a red light therapy device for personal use at home like the Vital Pro. It is important to consult with your healthcare provider before starting any new treatment, including red light therapy. 

    It is also important to note that red light therapy should not be used as a replacement for traditional mental health treatments, such as medication and therapy. Rather, it can be used as an adjunct treatment to support your overall mental wellness plan.

    Using red light therapy with an existing self-care routine such as meditation and breath-work can amplify the health benefits of both. Stacking these practices (meditation + red light therapy) allows you to make the most out of the quiet time you have.

    If you struggle to fall asleep at night, consider using red light therapy 1-2 hours before bedtime. Using red light therapy before bedtime helps reset your circadian rhythm – allowing you to bounce back in the morning.

    Working from home while using red light therapy
    Vital Red Light can also be used in combination with other wellness practices like yoga, meditation or exercise. You can even use Vital Red Light while you sleep!

    What is the best way to use red light therapy?

    Red light therapy is a great way to start your day because it helps you wake up more naturally and feel more energized. It’s also one of the best ways to boost your mood, which can make all the difference in how you feel throughout the day. Mornings are a typically the best time for our customers to use red light therapy. Before the emails start pouring in and distractions start piling up, mornings serve as a launching pad to build the foundation of a day. A great day begins with a great morning.

    However, using red light therapy in the evening hours can help your body naturally begin the process of getting ready for sleep. It helps relax your muscles and calm your mind so that you can fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. This is especially useful if you have trouble sleeping due to stress or anxiety.

    For those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), red light therapy can be used year-round as an alternative treatment. SAD is a type of depression that comes on during certain seasons, such as wintertime when there’s less sunlight than usual. Red light therapy can help boost serotonin levels in the brain, which may help alleviate symptoms of SAD like chronic fatigue, irritability and depression.

    Conclusion: Which Device is Best? ​

    Mental health disease such as depression anxiety and bipolar disorder are taking a toll on today’s society. Fortunately, red light therapy has extraordinary potential in mental health disorders. There are numerous natural ways to address symptoms of depression. 

    There are many ways you can bring red and near-infrared light therapy into your home, from small handheld devices to full-body panels. A medical-grade red light therapy device from Vital Red Light features a combination of red and near-infrared wavelengths have been shown to have beneficial effects on mental health diseases. 

    All Vital Red Light therapy devices are backed by clinical science, are 3rd party tested, have the lowest EMF output, and are guaranteed to be effective. Whether you are looking for younger skin, reduced pain & inflammation, better sleep, faster recovery, boosted mood & more energy, or a neutral de-stressor, Vital Red Light therapy devices are here to help. It is truly amazing what just 10-minutes of natural light can do for you.

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