Red Light Therapy, also known as photobiomodulation or low-level light therapy, is a therapeutic modality that uses low-intensity, long-wave light for mental and physical healing.
Recent research sheds light (pun intended) on its effectiveness in cognitive optimization.1Gloria M. Reeves, MD, Gagan Virk Nijjar, MD, Patricia Langenberg, PhD, Mary A. Johnson, PhD, Baharak Khabazghazvini, MD, Aamar Sleemi, MD, Dipika Vaswani, MD, Manana Lapidus, MD, Partam Manalai, MD, Muhammad Tariq, MD, Monika Acharya, MD, Johanna Cabassa, MD,† Soren Snitker, MD, PhD, and Teodor T. Postolache, MD, Improvement in Depression Scores After 1 Hour of Light Therapy Treatment in Patients With Seasonal Affective Disorder, J Nerv Ment Dis. 2017
The following article discusses the cognitive benefits of red light therapy, including how it sharpens your mind, boosts your mood, and protects your brain from disease.
What Is Photobiomodulation Therapy
Photobiomodulation therapy uses non-ionizing forms of light sources to promote beneficial responses at the cellular level.2Shang-Ru Tsai, PhD and Michael R Hamblin, PhD, Biological effects and medical applications of infrared radiation, J Photochem Photobiol B. 2018 It relies on visible (red light) or infrared light for various physical and mental illnesses.3Tiina Karu, PhD, DrSci, Is It Time to Consider Photobiomodulation As a Drug Equivalent?, Photomed Laser Surg. 2013.
Photbiomodulation’s beneficial effects result from photostimulation of the mitochondria.4Farzad Salehpour, Javad Mahmoudi, Farzin Kamari, Saeed Sadigh-Eteghad, Seyed Hossein Rasta, and Michael R Hamblin, Brain Photobiomodulation Therapy: A Narrative Review, Mol Neurobiol. 2019
Many studies detail photobiomodulation’s therapeutic cognitive effects, including improvements in cerebral blood flow, energy metabolism, and decreases in oxidative stress.
Even more exciting is the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), useful in forming neurons and synapses for better mental and cognitive function.5Jin-Chul Heo, Ji-Ae Park, Dae-Kwang Kim, and Jong-Ha Lee, Photobiomodulation (660 nm) therapy reduces oxidative stress and induces BDNF expression in the hippocampus, Sci Rep. 2019
With this simple, all-natural modality, you get the 1-2 punch of neuroprotection and neurostimulation.
How To Do Photobiomodulation
Photobiomodulation most commonly comes in 2 different forms:
- Near-infrared light
- Red Light
Near-infrared light has gained notoriety as a therapeutic alternative to reduce inflammation.
Research demonstrates its ability to significantly decrease inflammatory markers in the brain, wounds, lungs, spine, and other parts of the body.6Michael R Hamblin, Mechanisms and applications of the anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation, AIMS Biophys. 2017
It uses 770-1200 nanometers (nm), alternating between long-wavelength (810nm) and short-wavelength light to obtain the best effect.
However, there is a catch as there seems to be a point of diminishing returns.
Anti-inflammatory benefits can decrease if the treatment duration exceeds the maximal levels.7Ying-Ying Huang , Sulbha K Sharma, James Carroll, Michael R Hamblin, Biphasic dose response in low level light therapy – an update, Dose Response. 2011
Red light therapy uses a lamp, device, or laser with a red light to stimulate mitochondrial activity.
It delivers low levels of heat and doesn’t cause skin damage from UV rays as the wavelength is much less inflammatory.
Near-Infrared vs. Far Infrared
Near-infrared and far-infrared describe two different sets of wavelengths on the electromagnetic radiation spectrum.
Near-infrared uses longer, 700-1400nm wavelengths of light, while far-infrared uses shorter wavelengths (3-100um).
Even though far-infrared penetrates deeper below the skin, near-infrared is highly targeted and effective.8Grzegorz M Dmochowski, Ahmed Duke Shereen, Destiny Berisha, Jacek P Dmochowski, Near-Infrared Light Increases Functional Connectivity with a Non-thermal Mechanism , Cerebral Cortex Communications. 2020
While both show therapeutic benefits, they induce different biological responses.
Near-Infrared (NIR) is highly effective at boosting mitochondrial activity, which increases energy at various levels throughout the body.
- Lower depression and anxiety,
- Improved cognitive, executive, and emotional functions
- Reduced inflammation, as well as neuronal death.9Michael R Hamblin, Mechanisms and applications of the anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation, AIMS Biophys. 2017 10Daniel M. Johnstone1, Cécile Moro2, Jonathan Stone1, Alim-Louis Benabid2 and John Mitrofanis, Turning On Lights to Stop Neurodegeneration: The Potential of Near Infrared Light Therapy in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease, Front. Neurosci. 2016
Far-infrared is more for detox promotion.
It is a full-body shot of radiation energy that interacts with water molecules, causing a thermal reaction that raises your tissue temperature.
Ultimately blood vessels expand, increasing blood allowing more oxygenated blood to reach soft tissue, which stimulates the removal of accumulated toxins.11Ji Young Yoon, et al. The effect of postoperatively applied far-infrared radiation on pain and tendon-to-bone healing after arthroscopic rotator cuff repair: a clinical prospective randomized comparative study, Korean J Pain. 2020
The use of far-infrared effectively manages:
- Sleep quality
- Induces relaxation
- Improves hunger.12Joy Hussain and Marc Cohen, Clinical Effects of Regular Dry Sauna Bathing: A Systematic Review, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2018
The skin’s thermoreceptors can perceive Far-infrared as radiant heat, although 13Fatma Vatansever and Michael R. Hamblin, Far infrared radiation (FIR): its biological effects and medical applications, Photonics Lasers Med. 2012 it is always cool to touch; anything that claims to be FIR but heats up is not a pure FIR.
Photobiomodulation’s Cognitive Benefits
Photobiomodulation effectively increases cognition by boosting functional brain connectivity.14Grzegorz M Dmochowski, Ahmed Duke Shereen, Destiny Berisha, Jacek P Dmochowski, Near-Infrared Light Increases Functional Connectivity with a Non-thermal Mechanism, Cerebral Cortex Communications. 2020
More connections in the brain equal a higher performing network, which leads to better overall cognitive function.15Olaf Sporns, PhD, Structure and function of complex brain networks, Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2013
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Photobiomodulation’s most prominent benefit is its ability to alleviate symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD.
As the seasons change to fall and winter, sunlight becomes more sparse, affecting many people’s emotional stability.
Like plants using sunlight for photosynthesis, humans also need sunlight for thriving.
Red light therapy, along with bright light therapy, provides clinically proven anti-depressant effects by stimulating cellular activity at the mitochondrial level.
The enhanced mitochondrial activity results in lowered inflammation and mood boosts that help you feel good, even when the days are short.
Red light and infrared light therapy can modulate reactive oxygen species through its boosting of ATP production, allowing the brain to recover from neurodegeneration and activate crucial signaling pathways.16Shang-Ru Tsai, PhD and Michael R Hamblin, Biological effects and medical applications of infrared radiation, J Photochem Photobiol B. Author. 2018
Photobiomodulation also promotes neuroregeneration by boosting mitochondrial biogenesis resulting in better cognition and memory function.17Author(s), Photobiomodulation for Alzheimer’s Disease: Has the Light Dawned?, Michael R. Hamblin
Anxiety and Depression
There is the potential of using near-infrared light as a therapy for major depression and anxiety.18Fredric Schiffer, Andrea L Johnston, Caitlin Ravichandran, Ann Polcari, Martin H Teicher, Robert H Webb, and Michael R Hamblin, Psychological benefits 2 and 4 weeks after a single treatment with near-infrared light to the forehead: a pilot study of 10 patients with major depression and anxiety, Behav Brain Funct. 2009
Research demonstrates remission rates in both depression and anxiety is more than 50% in both cases with red light use.
Transcranial photobiomodulation improves depression and anxiety symptoms by increasing serotonin levels and decreasing cortisol and nitric oxide in the brain.19Emad Eshaghi , Saeed Sadigh-Eteghad , Gisou Mohaddes, Seyed Hossein Rasta, Transcranial photobiomodulation prevents anxiety and depression via changing serotonin and nitric oxide levels in brain of depression model mice: A study of three different doses of 810 nm laser, Lasers Surg Med. 2019
Brain injury patients benefit from red light and near-infrared light therapy.
Patients show significant improvement in the mental, motor, and cognitive functions after transcranial treatment.20Margaret A. Naeser, Ross Zafonte, Maxine H. Krengel, Paula I. Martin, Judith Frazier, Michael R. Hamblin, Jeffrey A. Knight, William P. Meehan, III, and Errol H. Baker, Significant Improvements in Cognitive Performance Post-Transcranial, Red/Near-Infrared Light-Emitting Diode Treatments in Chronic, Mild Traumatic Brain Injury: Open-Protocol Study, J Neurotrauma. 2014
Several studies document increased cerebral blood flow with targeted near-infrared therapy to animal models.
The increased blood flow helps in reducing neuronal cell deaths, allowing the brain to heal.21Yoichi Uozumi , Hiroshi Nawashiro, Shunichi Sato, Satoko Kawauchi, Katsuji Shima, Makoto Kikuchi, Targeted increase in cerebral blood flow by transcranial near-infrared laser irradiation, Lasers Surg Med. 2010 22Theodore A. Henderson, M.D., Ph.D., Multi-watt near-infrared light therapy as a neuroregenerative treatment for traumatic brain injury, Neural Regen Res. 2016
Red to infrared light therapy (600-1070nm) stops neuronal death common in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.23Daniel M Johnstone, Cécile Moro, Jonathan Stone, Alim-Louis Benabid, John Mitrofanis, Turning On Lights to Stop Neurodegeneration: The Potential of Near Infrared Light Therapy in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease, Front Neurosci. 2016
It is also safe and effective in treating hypoxic tissues following a stroke, toxic insult from brain injury, and mitochondrial dysfunction from metabolic and neurodegenerative diseases.
Overall Cognitive Enhancement
Infrared and red light therapy also improves cognitive function, verbal memory, and executive function in patients.
Increased ATP levels and cerebral blood flow following treatment helps supply energy to the brain cells for enhanced functioning.24Margaret A. Naeser,corresponding author, Ross Zafonte, Maxine H. Krengel, Paula I. Martin, Judith Frazier, Michael R. Hamblin, Jeffrey A. Knight, William P. Meehan, III, and Errol H. Baker, Significant Improvements in Cognitive Performance Post-Transcranial, Red/Near-Infrared Light-Emitting Diode Treatments in Chronic, Mild Traumatic Brain Injury: Open-Protocol Study, J Neurotrauma. 2014
One of the most exciting benefits of photobiomodulation and red light therapy is its promotion of BDNF, which helps grow new neurons and synapses in the brain.25Jin-Chul Heo, Ji-Ae Park, Dae-Kwang Kim & Jong-Ha Lee, Photobiomodulation (660 nm) therapy reduces oxidative stress and induces BDNF expression in the hippocampus, Scientific Reports. 2019
It does this by inducing retrograde mitochondrial signaling, which ultimately leads to neurogenesis.26Luodan Yang, Donovan Tucker, Yan Dong, Chongyun Wu, Yujiao Lu, Yong Li, Juan Zhang, Timon Cheng-Yi Liu, and Quanguang Zhang, Photobiomodulation therapy promotes neurogenesis by improving post-stroke local microenvironment and stimulating neuroprogenitor cells, Exp Neurol. 2019
Photobiomodulation also increases cerebral blood flow, therefore increasing cerebral oxygenation.
Increased blood flow in the cerebrum improves cerebral function, positively affecting all cognitive functions, including mood, memory, and focus.27Ana Maria Costa Carneiro, PhD, Guilherme Cruz Poiani, MS, Ana Luiza Zaninnoto, PhD, Rodrigo Lazo Osorio, PhD, Marcelo de Lima Oliveira, MD, Wellingson Silva Paiva, MD, PhD, and Renato Amaro Zângaro, PhD, Postdoc, Transcranial Photobiomodulation Therapy in the Cognitive Rehabilitation of Patients with Cranioencephalic Trauma, Photobiomodul Photomed Laser Surg. 2019
Increased cerebral blood flow and improved oxygenation also improve motor functions, especially in patients recovering from traumatic brain injury.28Ekramul M. Gofur; Bruno Bordoni, Anatomy, Head and Neck, Cerebral Blood Flow, Treasure Island . 2020
Photobiomodulation lowers inflammatory markers that play a role in neurodegenerative diseases.29Michael R Hamblin, Mechanisms and applications of the anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation, AIMS Biophys. 2017
Studies show that low-level laser therapy and red light reduces the number of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which results in reduced inflammation and healing enhancements.30Lucas Freitas de Freitas, and Michael R Hamblin, Proposed Mechanisms of Photobiomodulation or Low-Level Light Therapy, IEEE J Sel Top Quantum Electron. 2017
Photobiomodulation stimulates neural tissues and brainwaves.
Brainwaves predict memory functions, and improved theta and gamma activity of the brain predicts better memory.31Reza Zomorrodi, Genane Loheswaran, Abhiram Pushparaj & Lew Lim , Pulsed Near Infrared Transcranial and Intranasal Photobiomodulation Significantly Modulates Neural Oscillations: a pilot exploratory study, Scientific Reports. 2019
Improved cerebral blood flow from light therapy boosts the expression of enzymes and neurotransmitters necessary for improving brain function.32Julio C Rojas,Aleksandra K Bruchey,F. Gonzalez-Lima Low-Level Light Therapy Improves Cortical Metabolic Capacity and Memory Retention, Journal of Alzheimer’s disease: JAD. 2012
Administering photobiomodulation to patients with brain problems helps improve their executive function, working memory, and sleep.33Michael R Hamblin, Photobiomodulation for Traumatic Brain Injury and Stroke, J Neurosci Res. Author manuscript. 2018
Photobiomodulation effectively slows and heals progressive brain damage by upregulating mitochondrial activity, reducing reactive oxygen species, and enhancing ATP levels.
Full Body Health Benefits That Help Mental Health
Red light therapy is a powerful solution for physical healing, which ultimately results in improved cognitive function.
Studies show photobiomodulation’s ability to lower blood pressure, 34J C Oishi , T F De Moraes , T C Buzinari , E C Cárnio , N A Parizotto , G J Rodrigues, Hypotensive acute effect of photobiomodulation therapy on hypertensive rats, Life Sci. 2017 showing potential as a non-invasive therapy for this common problem.35Paolo Cassano , Marco Antonio Caldieraro, Richard Norton , David Mischoulon , Nhi-Ha Trinh , Maren Nyer , Christina Dording , Michael R Hamblin 3, Benjamin Campbell 1, Dan V Iosifescu , Reported Side Effects, Weight and Blood Pressure, After Repeated Sessions of Transcranial Photobiomodulation, Photobiomodul Photomed Laser Surg. 2019
Hypertension has a bidirectional effect on a person; it increases the risk of developing mental health disorders and exacerbates pre-existing mental conditions.36Irene A Kretchy, Frances T Owusu-Daaku, and Samuel A Danquah, Mental health in hypertension: assessing symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress on anti-hypertensive medication adherence, Int J Ment Health Syst. 2014 37Sylvia S Rozario, Saba W Masho, The Associations Between Mental Health Status, Hypertension, and Hospital Inpatient Visits in Women in the United States, American Journal of Hypertension. 2018
Photobiomodulation induces wound healing, including diabetic ulcers that take time to heal, sometimes even leading to gangrene.
Studies also suggest that different wound types require different wavelength illumination for faster healing.38Damien P Kuffler, Photobiomodulation in promoting wound healing: a review, Regen Med. 2016 39Rodrigo Crespo Mosca , Adrian A Ong, Omar Albasha, Kathryn Bass, Praveen Arany, Photobiomodulation Therapy for Wound Care: A Potent, Noninvasive, Photoceutical Approach, Adv Skin Wound Care. 2019
Wounds from dental and surgical procedures also benefit from photobiomodulation.40Imran Khan and Praveen Arany, Biophysical Approaches for Oral Wound Healing: Emphasis on Photobiomodulation, Adv Wound Care (New Rochelle). 2015
Stress affects wound healing.
Simultaneously, the time it takes to heal significant wounds from surgery or trauma also causes stress.41Author(s), The Impact of Psychological Stress on Wound Healing: Methods and Mechanisms, Immunol Allergy Clin North Am. 2012 42Lisa M. Christian, Jennifer E. Graham,f David A. Padgett, Ronald Glaser, and Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, Stress and Wound Healing, Neuroimmunomodulation. 2009
Post/Pre Workout Performance Enhancement
Photobiomodulation helps athletes recover from rigorous training and improves performance.43Cleber Ferraresi, Ying-Ying Huang, and Michael R. Hamblin, Photobiomodulation in human muscle tissue: an advantage in sports performance?, J Biophotonics. 2017
Studies demonstrate photobiomodulation’s ability to improve aerobic performance, with subjects showing less perceived exertion, fatigue, or shortness of breath.44Paulo Roberto Vicente de Paiva, PE, MSc, Heliodora Leão Casalechi, PT, PhD, Shaiane Silva Tomazoni, PT, PhD, Caroline dos Santos Monteiro Machado, PT, MSc, Eduardo Foschini Miranda, PT, PhD, Neide Firmo Ribeiro, PT, Amanda Lima Pereira, PT, Amanda Sampaio da Costa, BSc, Luana Barbosa Dias, BSc, Bianca Cristina Gomes Souza, BSc, Matheus Marinho Aguiar Lino, BSc, Paulo de Tarso Camillo de Carvalho, PT, PhD, and Ernesto Cesar Pinto Leal-Junior, PT, PhD, Effects of photobiomodulation therapy in aerobic endurance training and detraining in humans,Medicine (Baltimore). 2019 45Eduardo Foschini Miranda, PhD, PT, Adriane Aver Vanin, MSc, PT, Shaiane Silva Tomazoni, PhD, PT, Vanessa dos Santos Grandinetti, MSc, PT, Paulo Roberto Vicente de Paiva, MSc, PE,Caroline dos Santos Monteiro Machado, PT, Kadma Karênina Damasceno Soares Monteiro, MSc, PT, Heliodora Leão Casalechi, PhD, PT,*‡ Paulo de Tarso, Camillo de Carvalho, PhD, PT, and Ernesto Cesar Pinto Leal-Junior, PhD, PT, Using Pre-Exercise Photobiomodulation Therapy Combining Super-Pulsed Lasers and Light-Emitting Diodes to Improve Performance in Progressive Cardiopulmonary Exercise Tests, J Athl Train. 2016 Post-exercise, it hastens recovery from fatigue and improves muscular performance.46Adriane Aver Vanin , Evert Verhagen , Saulo Delfino Barboza , Leonardo Oliveira Pena Costa , Ernesto Cesar Pinto Leal-Junior, Photobiomodulation therapy for the improvement of muscular performance and reduction of muscular fatigue associated with exercise in healthy people: a systematic review and meta-analysis, Lasers Med Sci. 2018
Moreover, the relationship between regular exercise and mental health cannot be overstressed, with multiple studies showing its benefits in improving mental disorders.
There is a close relationship between heart health and mental health.
Studies show that coronary heart disease and mental disorders share the same behavioral, biological, and psychological aspects.47Marc De Hert, MD, PhD, Johan Detraux, M Psy, and Davy Vancampfort, PhD, The intriguing relationship between coronary heart disease and mental disorders, Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2018
Photobiomodulation demonstrates therapeutic effects for myocardial ischemia-reperfusion by reorganizing cytoskeleton modulation, which increases cardioprotection.
It also improves cardiopulmonary performance.48Ann Liebert, Andrew Krause, Neil Goonetilleke, Brian Bicknell, and Hosen Kiat, A Role for Photobiomodulation in the Prevention of Myocardial Ischemic Reperfusion Injury: A Systematic Review and Potential Molecular Mechanisms, Sci Rep. 2017
Photobiomodulation shows the ability to help improve ocular health.
Transcranial photobiomodulation therapy improves age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, retinitis pigmentosa, and other eye disorders.49Eduardo Foschini Miranda, PhD, PT, Adriane Aver Vanin, MSc, PT, Shaiane Silva Tomazoni, PhD, PT,§ Vanessa dos Santos Grandinetti, MSc, PT, Paulo Roberto Vicente de Paiva, MSc, PE, Caroline dos Santos Monteiro Machado, PT, Kadma Karênina Damasceno Soares Monteiro, MSc, PT, Heliodora Leão Casalechi, PhD, PT, Paulo de Tarso, Camillo de Carvalho, PhD, PT, and Ernesto Cesar Pinto Leal-Junior, PhD, PT, Using Pre-Exercise Photobiomodulation Therapy Combining Super-Pulsed Lasers and Light-Emitting Diodes to Improve Performance in Progressive Cardiopulmonary Exercise Tests, J Athl Train. 2016 50Julio C Rojas and F Gonzalez-Lima, Low-level light therapy of the eye and brain, Eye Brain. 2011
These benefits spill over into cognitive benefits as well as helping mood and overall brain function.51 Welp A, Woodbury RB, McCoy MA, et al, Making Eye Health a Population Health Imperative: Vision for Tomorrow., National Academies Press (US). 2016
Stem cell therapy has gained popularity in recent years because of its regenerative capacity to repair tissue.
Photobiomodulation helps enhance the stem cell’s regenerative function by inducing the mitochondria to initiate cellular signaling.52Khatereh Khorsandi , Reza Hosseinzadeh , Heidi Abrahamse , Reza Fekrazad, Biological Responses of Stem Cells to Photobiomodulation Therapy, Curr Stem Cell Res Ther. 2020
Modulation of stem cells as a therapeutic alternative for mental disorders helps in enhancing targeted cell populations, neuroregeneration, and dendrite activity.53Yongbo Zhang, Yingying Zhao, Xiaopeng Song, Hua Luo, Jinmei Sun, Chunyu Han, Xiaohuan Gu, Jun Li6, Guilan Cai1, Yanbing Zhu, Zhandong Liu, Ling Wei, and Zheng Zachory Wei, Modulation of Stem Cells as Therapeutics for Severe Mental Disorders and Cognitive Impairments, Front. Psychiatry. 2020 54Krishna C. Vadodaria, Debha N. Amatya, Maria C. Marchetto, and Fred H. Gage, Modeling psychiatric disorders using patient stem cell-derived neurons: a way forward, Genome Med. 2018
Depending on the method, researches suggest 20-30 minutes of exposure once a week.55Ivayla I. Geneva, Photobiomodulation for the treatment of retinal diseases: a review, Int J Ophthalmol. 2016 56Glynis Ablon, MD, FAAD, Phototherapy with Light Emitting Diodes, J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2018 It also works better by directly exposing the part that needs treatment to the light.
I’ve experienced benefits by doing 8-10 minutes 3-5 times per week.
I try to equally distribute the exposure to different parts of my body. This includes 2-3 minutes on the front, 2-3 minutes on the back, a minute under each arm, and directly to the top of my head.
Best Near Infrared Panels
For the best light therapy panels, try the RedRush high-powered red and near-infrared light therapy combo. These are industry-certified certifications. It comes in 2 different sizes for your specific needs.
The RedRush 360 has a treatment area of 24 inches by 60 inches, best for targeted therapy.
The RedRush 720 works best for whole-body therapy with its 24 inches by 84 inches treatment area.
You can also buy it as an ultimate combo for both the 360 and 720 variants for more significant savings.
Best Near Infrared Sauna
SaunaSpace offers the best near-infrared sauna equipment from full sets (Faraday and Luminati), bulbs, shields, stools, and enclosures.
Wrapping it up
Photobiomodulation therapy is an exciting method of biohacking all aspects of your health.
It’s non-invasive nature and clinically studied benefits make it a mostly safe, useful cellular healing tool.
Investing in a red light home unit can pay dividends down the road.
Having regular access to this powerful therapy will deliver the nootropic and physical benefits your mind/body connection craves.
It’s truly the easiest way to boost your mood, heal pre-existing conditions, and lower inflammation.