Tripping the light fantastic: Is light therapy for you?

March 11, 2020

Many consumers are “going into the light” these days—not seeking “the rapture” or eternity, but instead pursuing its radiant, restorative properties. Indeed, devotees believe, light therapy—also known as photomedicine or photobiomodulation—promises a host of physical and psychological benefits.

According to New York Magazine’s popular feature, The Cut, the following is only a partial list of what one company promises that sitting under a small panel of red lights will improve: athletic performance and recovery (owing to faster muscle recovery and joint repair), sleep (thanks to increased melatonin production and a “healthy circadian rhythm”), and skin quality (as a result of reduced inflammation and increased collagen production).

The red lights, in this case made by Joovv, represent just one of dozens of at-home therapies based on the idea that light can change us on a cellular level.

This past summer, the journal, Frontiers in Medicine, published an issue dedicated to photomedicine, heralding improvements from exposure to the lights that could help minimize the effects of aging, skin cancer, and psoriasis; as well as autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes. There’s even some evidence that neurological problems, including Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injuries, can be improved with light therapy.

It does make intuitive sense that light could change the skin: For example, we know that a baby born with jaundice will often be treated with light. And many people claim they have seen their seasonal depression lift after using a SAD lamp.

Light-therapy devicesuse different kinds of light, from invisible, near-infrared light through the visible-light spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, and blue), stopping before the harmful ultraviolet rays.

So far, according to The Cut, the effects of red and near-infrared light are the most studied; red light is often used to treat skin conditions, whereas near infrared can penetrate much deeper, working its way through skin and bone and even into the brain. Blue light is thought to be especially good at treating infections and is often used for acne. The effects of green and yellow light are less understood, but green might improve hyperpigmentation, and yellow might reduce photoaging.

For red and near-infrared light, scientists speculate that the light interacts with something called cytochrome c oxidase, or CCO, a photosensitive enzyme found within the mitochondria. When CCO finds light, it converts it to energy and uses that energy to do whatever that cell is supposed to do—only more efficiently.

Sounds promising? Yes, says The Cut. Still, there are a few claims about light therapy we should know not to fall for

Any at-home device that makes confident promises about green or yellow light is to be met with skepticism; the evidence just isn’t there yet. Pulsing red light, a hypnotizing effect some devices offer, should be regarded with interest mixed with some suspicion. (Dr. Jared Jagdeo, director of the Center for Photomedicine at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, told The Cut of firmly of pulsing red light, “Nobody knows the function of that. Anyone who claims to know the function of it, they’re just hypothesizing.”)

Finally a few words to the wise from The Cut: Anything cheaper than a few hundred dollars is probably ineffective, and prescribing yourself light therapy for some ailment instead of visiting a doctor is inadvisable.

Research contact: @NYMag

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