In recent years, a growing body of research has demonstrated profound health and wellness benefits from the therapeutic use of red and near-infrared light. But how exactly do these wavelengths affect the body? Here’s an in-depth look at the science behind infrared and red light therapy.

What is Photobiomodulation?

Infrared and red light therapy belongs to a category of treatments known as photobiomodulation or low-level light therapy (LLLT). This involves delivering red or near-infrared light to the body through lasers or LED devices.

Wavelengths in the 600-950nm range have specific properties that allow them to penetrate several centimeters below the skin. Cellular mitochondria in the tissue absorb these light photons and convert them into beneficial cellular changes.

Photobiomodulation with red/near-infrared light produces a wide range of positive effects in the body through modulating numerous biological processes. But what does the research say about how it works?

red light therapy evidence

Increasing Cellular ATP

One of the core effects of photobiomodulation is the increasing production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) inside cells. ATP is the prime energy source used by your cells.

Red and infrared light absorbed by mitochondria boosts ATP synthesis. This was demonstrated in a 2012 study exposing cultured neurons to infrared light, resulting in elevated ATP levels.

By increasing cellular energy, infrared/red light enhances tissue repair, reduces pain and inflammation, boosts metabolism, and optimizes overall cell and organ performance.

Reducing Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is at the root of most diseases. Red and infrared light have scientifically demonstrated powerful anti-inflammatory effects.

For example, a 2014 study showed how light therapy reduced inflammatory cytokines in muscles after strenuous exercise.

Researchers in this study concluded light therapy “consistently demonstrates anti-inflammatory effects across a diverse range of injuries and diseases.”

Light exposure reduces inflammation by lowering oxidative stress, stimulating healing factors, and modulating the immune response. This helps treat pain, autoimmune conditions, respiratory diseases, and more.

Accelerating Tissue Healing

Dozens of studies show red and infrared light can significantly accelerate the healing of skin, connective tissue, bones, nerves, and muscles.

For example, a 2014 study found photobiomodulation cut exercise-induced muscle damage and post-workout soreness in half. Another study showed light therapy increased collagen production in the skin by 146% compared to controls.

Light exposure speeds healing by reducing inflammation, stimulating fibroblasts and macrophages, increasing blood flow, and boosting tissue regeneration and growth factors.

Improving Mitochondrial Function

As the primary sites in cells for light absorption and ATP production, mitochondria play a central role in infrared/red light bioeffects.

Research shows photobiomodulation not only increases ATP short term but also enhances mitochondrial function and biogenesis long term.

This study demonstrated red light improved mitochondrial movement along neurons’ axons. Enhanced mitochondrial motility promotes better distribution of energy production.

Another study found infrared light therapy protected mitochondria from antibiotic drug toxicity. Photobiomodulation improves the health and performance of the cellular powerhouses.

Increasing Blood Flow and Angiogenesis

Red light significantly enhances blood flow and circulation. Within minutes of red light exposure, vessels dilate as nitric oxide, growth factors, and other beneficial messengers are released.

One study showed 650nm red light stimulated angiogenesis, the formation of new capillaries in damaged muscle tissue. Another study demonstrated near-infrared light doubles cutaneous blood flow.

Better circulation provides more oxygen and nutrients for healing and optimal cell metabolism.

Regulating Stress Response and Hormones

Research shows red and infrared light influences the hypothalamic-pituitary axis and sympathetic nervous system. This modulates stress hormones like cortisol as well as reproductive hormones.

Studies on red light therapy have shown normalization of hormones including testosterone, estrogen, thyroid, and melatonin. Infrared therapy has also demonstrated stress-lowering effects.

Stimulating Tissue Repair Stem Cells

Stem cells are key to repairing damaged tissues. Red light exposure triggers a cascade that activates stem cells.

Photobiomodulation stimulates macrophages to secrete cytokines that induce mobilization and migration of stem cells to injury sites as shown in this study.

Once activated, stem cells then differentiate into whatever cell types are needed to regenerate and repair tissue.

The Future of Photobiomodulation Research

While studies clearly demonstrate red and infrared light modulate numerous biological processes, there is still much to discover.

Ongoing research continues to further refine optimal wavelengths, dosages, and treatment protocols for different applications. But the fundamental ability of photobiomodulation to improve cellular energy function remains proven and safe.

Advancements in LED technology will lead to more affordable, accessible infrared/red light therapy devices for managing pain, optimizing health, and slowing aging. The future is bright for this revolutionary modality!

Widespread Applications

Given these scientifically validated mechanisms of red and infrared light, it’s understandable how photobiomodulation therapy can benefit a diverse assortment of conditions:

  • Muscle recovery after exercise
  • Joint pain and arthritis
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Skin conditions like rosacea
  • Hair regrowth
  • Wound healing
  • Neurological diseases
  • Respiratory infections
  • Mental clarity and mood disorders

From elite athletes to the geriatric population, infrared and red light can enhance health and performance in people of all ages. Serious side effects are essentially non-existent.

how does red light therapy work

Red Light Therapy Evidence

Red light therapy is the name given to a large range of therapies that use certain wavelengths of light to promote healing, improve skin tone, and enhance circulation. Red light therapy is said to be effective for pain management, acne treatment, and the healing of certain sports injuries, among other applications.

The following is a true review from the user:

“I have used it for several days, great for me. When I use it, l always wear the glasses, then let the red light irradiate on my face and body, normally, 10- 15 mins every session.

My face and back have small acne now and I feel a difference in my skin, my inflammation has decreased. And I sleep better than before. My family doctor says red light will also do help for hair growth and pain relief, I will try it longer in the coming winter and will update my review afterward.”

red light therapy studies

“I bought this Red Light Therapy Panel about a month ago, hoping to use it to alleviate my back pain. It came with the panel and all the needed accessories: a power cord, hanging cords and a goggle (shown in picture). To some, it is smaller than shown, but to me, the size is just about right. It would not be as easy to hang if it is too large.

Putting it up was pretty easy (I put it up in the bathroom), but you do need to select a place where you can hang it to the right height (so you could shine the red light on your body area of choice), and is close to an electric outlet. Once turned on, the panel is quite bright (see picture). So, it is better to put on the goggle before turning it on.

As I am new to this, I took it slow and followed the instructions closely. I stayed with my back about 10 inches away from the panel, kept the sessions for 10 minutes, and 2 times per week. So far, I feel it is working as well as expected. After each session, my back pain feels much alleviated, and over a few weeks time, it does feel progressively better. Hopeful this panel will make a real lasting difference in my back health.”

infrared light therapy studies

Conclusion on the Science of Light Therapy

Infrared and red light therapy is backed by thousands of clinical trials and over 50 years of scientific research. Studies have revealed photobiomodulation produces widespread benefits in the body by:

  • Increasing ATP energy production
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Accelerating tissue repair
  • Improving mitochondrial function
  • Stimulating stem cell activation

From skin to muscles and brain, red and infrared light can optimize cellular performance. Daily use provides anti-aging effects and enhanced well-being.

Talk to your doctor about adding infrared or red light therapy to your wellness regimen. Consistent home use can promote whole-body health. The supporting science is clear on the efficacy of harnessing red and near-infrared wavelengths for therapeutic benefit.

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