What is Red Light Therapy?

Red light therapy is also known as low-level laser therapy (LLLT). It uses low-energy light emitting diodes (LEDs) or lasers as an alternative therapy.

How Does Red Light Therapy Work?

All living things need to make a certain kind of cellular energy called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. Some people even refer to ATP as the “energy currency of life.” ATP is a small molecule with a huge job: to provide usable energy for our cells. ATP is produced through cellular respiration, which includes the following 4 steps:

  • Glycolysis
  • Pyruvate oxidation
  • Citric acid cycle (aka Kreb’s cycle)
  • Oxidative phosphorylation
Most of this activity occurs within the mitochondria, the “powerhouse” of the cell. For the sake of this article, we’ll focus on the last step, oxidative phosphorylation. That’s where light therapy is believed to help the most. This fourth step of cellular respiration involves an electron transport chain. As electrons move down this chain, energy is released and used to pump protons out of a matrix, forming a gradient. Protons flow back into the matrix through an enzyme called ATP synthase, which creates ATP. So where does ATP synthase come from? Well, a certain enzyme called cytochrome c oxidase (CCO) helps oxygen bind with nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) + hydrogen (H)—NADH—to form the necessary hydrogen ions that produce ATP synthase.[8] If you remember anything, make sure it’s this fact: oxygen plus NADH is a good thing when it comes to healthy cellular function. Whew! That’s some pretty meaty information. Before we go on, make sure you understand how a healthy cell is supposed to function. Take another look at the paragraphs above if you have to. And remember, oxygen plus NADH is good! What Happens When Our Cells Aren’t Healthy? When we get sick, injured, stressed, etc., mitochondria in our cells can produce excess nitric oxide (NO). To understand the ramification of this, let’s go back to that little enzyme, cytochrome c oxidase. During the creation of ATP synthase, nitric oxide competes with oxygen and binds to CCO. This, in turn, stops the eventual production of ATP and thereby increases oxidative stress, which can lead to cellular death. So in summary, stressed cells produce nitric oxide, which binds to cytochrome c oxidase and halts the production of ATP synthase. So How Does Red Light Therapy Restore Cellular Health? Remember, nitric oxide competes with oxygen and binds with cytochrome c oxidase, which stops the eventual production of ATP. Well, it might be best to consider red and near infrared light to be heroes when it comes to nitric oxide. You see, red and near infrared light (with the right wavelengths and intensity) breaks the bond between nitric oxide and cytochrome c oxidase. This allows oxygen to bind to NADH, which restores the normal pathway for hydrogen ions to produce ATP synthase.[8] So in summary, red and near infrared light frees up cytochrome c oxidase to allow for the eventual production of ATP. By breaking that bond and restoring the production of ATP, normal cellular metabolism can resume. And once our cells are healthy again.

How Does It Increase Testosterone?

encourages increased cellular chemical energy transportation—otherwise known as adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Just as improved function can be observed throughout various bodily processes, some studies suggest that red and near infrared light wavelengths encourage the production of ATP in the Leydig cells that produce testosterone, enhancing their energy production and helping increase amounts of the hormone. Moreover, that light wavelengths stimulate photoreceptive proteins in the testes, resulting in higher testosterone production. In addition, researchers in the aforementioned 2016 University of Siena study suggested that the light therapy used could have blocked the brain’s pineal gland, which resulted in the creation of more testosterone. In a 2013 study in the Nepal Medical College Journal, researchers observed that the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH), which are connected to the production of testosterone, were elevated in rats subjected to light for 70 days. The researchers suggested that these increased hormones may have encouraged elevated testosterone production.

Why Collagen is so Important for Enhanced Health?

Collagen is a long-chain amino acid and the most abundant protein in the body. It’s responsible for giving skin elasticity, hair its strength, and connective tissue its ability to hold everything in place. In fact, the collagen protein makes up 30% of the total protein in the body, and 70% of the protein in the skin! While collagen is beneficial to the entire body, it's most noticeably beneficial to the skin. This is because as a person ages, the epidermis (outer layer of skin) becomes thinner and loses elasticity through a process called elastosis. As this happens, a person tends to show more signs of aging and acquires more wrinkles. But don’t fear. Red light therapy restores healthy cellular function, stimulating the production of collagen—which is why so many people have reported about the rejuvenating benefits of light therapy!

How does it reduce joint stiffness?

Applying heat to a joint can reduce stiffness by as much as 20%, and effects of red light therapy are thought to be similar. This can have a cyclical pain-reduction result as less stiffness and associated pain can encourage you to use a joint more, which can reduce further stiffness.

How dies it relieve muscle spasms?

Muscle spasms can cause pain because they can restrict the blood flow to certain areas of the body, which can cause cells and tissues to be starved of oxygen. Applying red light can result in the muscles relaxing which will allow better circulation of the area. This means that conditions such as restless leg syndrome can be very responsive to red light therapy.

How does it improve blood flow?

Just like the body’s natural response to heat is to dilate blood vessels, it does the same when exposed to red light. This widening of blood vessels reduces resistance to the blood flow, therefore improving the rate at which it can move around the body. This is a great benefit because the restriction of blood flow can cause cells to be starved of oxygen. Lack of oxygen, which is called ischemia can permanently damage tissues, particularly in the muscles as it can kill cells, some of which cannot be replaced such as muscle cells.

How does it reduce inflammation?

The improved blood flow and lymphatic circulation aid the removal of waste products from the lymphatic system. This reduces and prevents the build-up of fluids which can cause edema, therefore reducing pain associated with swelling and can even enhance the healing mechanisms.

How does it aid pain relief?

The reduction in pain relief can come from a combination of the above effects on tissues. Joint stiffness, muscle spasms, restricted blood flow and inflammation can all cause and contribute to pain. By reducing those symptoms, red light therapy can, therefore, reduce pain.

How does it help with acne?

Red light therapy can soothe acne because it can improve circulation and inflammation through the heat transfer. This means that painful, swollen spots may be reduced in size and the lymphatic system can more efficiently clear away waste products, which could prevent the build-up of spot-causing products within the skin. It is also thought that it can shrink oil glands and therefore reduce the amount of oil which is produced. Red light can also be used in conjunction with blue light to treat acne. While the red light is reducing the visual effects of acne by decreasing swelling and pain, the blue light can kill certain types of spot-causing bacteria such as Propionibacterium acnes. When used together, the two types of light therapy can, therefore, reduce and prevent future breakouts. A key factor in treating acne with red light therapy facials is that lower doses are the most effective. It is not beneficial to dry your skin out, but a “little and often” treatment plan will give you the best results. While this may take you a while to see the benefits, it is worthwhile in the long run. A final consideration for treating acne with red light therapy is its effect on scars. You may find that superficial acne scars soften in appearance, becoming less noticeable. Using red light therapy to treat acne may also reduce the rate at which scars occur. This is thought to be partly due to the enhanced collagen and elastin production and partly due to the improved circulation which can promote good healing.

How does it help with weight loss?

Red light therapy can aid weight loss due to the way it increases the rate at which mitochondria produce energy, as well as the increase in circulation. The energy currency in the body which all cells require to be able to function is called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Organelles in the cells, called mitochondria, convert glucose by a complicated process into ATP which can be used to fuel cells. If the mitochondrial function is enhanced by the red light, more glucose will be converted, which could aid weight loss. The improved circulation can help with weight loss as it will increase the rate at which waste products are removed from the body. However, it is important to understand that red light therapy alone will not cause to you lose a great amount of weight. For best results, it should be combined with regular exercise and a healthy diet.

How does it help with frozen shoulder?

A review by Page et al. concluded that both LLLT alone and LLLT used in conjunction with exercise was more effective at easing symptoms of adhesive capsulitis, also known as frozen shoulder. This was a successful finding at frozen shoulders are notoriously difficult to treat.

How does it helo with leg restless symptom?

A study by Mitchel et al. in 2011 found that red light therapy using near-infrared light for the treatment of restless leg syndrome (RLS) saw significant improvements in symptoms. Out of a total of 34 volunteers, the study group has much greater improvement that the control group did, with results still significantly improved 4 weeks after the treatment period ended. This was a valuable breakthrough which could see patients with RSL being treated with red light therapy instead of dopamine-affecting drugs in the future.

How does it help with wound healing?

Many studies have shown that red light therapy is an effective therapy for the treatment of skin wounds, as discussed in a review in 2014. A reduction in inflammatory cells, increase in the formation of new blood vessels, known as angiogenesis and an increase in collagen productions are among the biological effects noted which are thought to enable to enhanced wound healing. This review also noted that there didn’t seem to be a difference between results from studies which used lasers for the delivery of the light or whether it was from LEDs.