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Red light therapy has become a popular alternative treatment option for various health conditions. Historically, NASA astronauts used red light therapy to help plants grow in space and for wound healing. Now, red light therapy has become a medically-accepted practice in some circumstances. Still, many people use it to treat other conditions that do not have scientific backing. Ahead, we look at how this treatment works and whether or not red light therapy is beneficial for thyroid health.
Red light therapy uses low wavelength red light to boost cellular activity. Sometimes, it is called low-level laser therapy. The theory behind this therapy is that the wavelengths emitted may penetrate through the skin and target the mitochondria, which is the powerhouse of each cell. Red light therapy may supercharge the mitochondria, so your cells run more efficiently.
The lights used in red light therapy are LEDs (light-emitting diodes). In using LEDs over more conventional light sources, the wavelengths may penetrate deeper into the skin. Studies show that LED therapy can increase adenosine triphosphate production (ATP), reduce intracellular oxidative stress, increase blood flow, and enhance DNA sequencing.
The wavelength of infrared light is longer than the wavelength of red light, which may allow infrared light to penetrate more deeply into the body regarding light therapy. This may be why infrared light therapy and red light therapy have different benefits.
- Red light is visible, occupying the "long end" of the visible spectrum with wavelengths of 630nm-700nm.
- Infrared light is invisible, sitting near red light on the electromagnetic spectrum at 800nm-1millimeter.
Infrared light therapy treatments may provide health benefits like pain relief, increased circulation and blood flow, weight loss, and relaxation or improved sleep. When infrared light enters the body, it breaks up fats and toxins trapped in water molecules, making us sweat to let them out.
Residing right next to near-infrared light, red light therapy is most commonly used to treat skin conditions. For example, you will often see it used in anti-aging procedures that aim to reduce the visibility of wrinkles and photodamage from the sun. This therapy is also medically approved as a treatment for specific skin conditions, including psoriasis, acne, scars, and warts. Additionally, some skin cancer treatments require photodynamic therapy to activate drugs that treat skin cancer.
Aside from its most common use in treating skin disorders and for cosmetic purposes, athletes often use this therapy for muscle recovery and injury repair. In addition, people with joint pain or inflammation from injury, overuse, or osteoarthritis use light therapy.
Because of its popularity, some people try red light therapy for weight loss, depression, seasonal affective disorder, and cellulite removal. However, research has not yet been able to confirm its effectiveness.
There still is much to learn when it comes to red light therapy. Indeed, we have yet to have a large randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial to confirm whether or not it has beneficial effects.
However, there are smaller studies that indicate it may be effective in:
- Improving skin health by increasing the effectiveness of fibroblasts (to stimulate collagen production)
- Increasing blood circulation to areas that receive the light therapy
- Decreasing inflammation
You may hear of red light therapy as a potential treatment for thyroid conditions like Hashimoto's or autoimmune hypothyroidism. In Hashimoto's disease, the immune system mistakenly attacks tissue in the thyroid gland, causing chronic inflammation and eventual failure of the organ. Over time, its ability to produce thyroid hormone wanes, resulting in hypothyroidism.
Because the thyroid is the metabolic powerhouse of the body, it is vital that it is healthy to keep cellular energy at an optimal level. When it cannot produce enough thyroid hormone, the whole body is affected, and people experience a slowing down of their body systems.
The primary way to treat hypothyroidism is to take medication that increases thyroid hormone levels in your body. However, because inflammation is at the root of autoimmune hypothyroidism, it would seem plausible that the potential anti-inflammatory effect of red light therapy may benefit this organ.
Yet, few studies examine how red light therapy affects the thyroid. One randomized control study of 43 women found that red light therapy may effectively treat chronic autoimmune hypothyroidism and subclinical hypothyroidism. The conclusions were made based on decreased levothyroxine dosage in patients with low-level laser therapy. However, antibody levels stayed the same across those with low-level laser therapy and those in the placebo group.
In another study of 30 women using at-home red light therapy to reduce wrinkling on the neck, the researchers found no changes to parathyroid and thyroid function after 16 weeks. The researchers made this conclusion based on laboratory testing showing no significant differences in TSH, T4, T3, free T4, thyroid peroxidase antibodies (TPO), and Tg antibodies.
More studies with a larger group of study participants are necessary before we can draw any significant conclusions on using red light therapy to improve thyroid function.
In general, red light therapy does not appear to be associated with any side effects when used correctly. However, it may cause eye damage if the eyes are not protected during treatment sessions. Additionally, we do not have any long-term studies looking at the safety of this therapy over time, so most practitioners use it for short-term medical treatment or cosmetic procedures.
You can find red light therapy in some medical offices and cosmetic centers. However, because of their popularity and potential use for various symptoms, they can also be found in gyms, medical spas, tanning salons, and wellness centers.
But more and more, you will run across at-home devices in varying sizes. These products are generally safe to use, but they usually have lower light wavelengths compared to machines in medical offices. So, you may find them less effective than using them in a medical-based facility. If you use an at-home device, follow the instructions carefully and use protective eyewear.
Before using red light therapy to treat a medical condition like hypothyroidism, it is best to consult your healthcare provider to ensure it is a safe and effective option for you and your health needs.