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Many people face mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders. Significantly, these conditions have impacted one in five people’s overall health and daily activities. 

The National Comorbidity Survey revealed that 46% of men and 58% of women have suffered in their lifetime at least a two-week period in which they experienced a persistent depressed mood or anxiety disorder. 

Managing mental health is crucial, and innovative therapies are continually being explored to address this growing concern. 

One such therapy is Red Light Therapy (RLT), which has shown promise in supporting mental health. 

RLT involves exposing the body to low red or near-infrared light levels, which can penetrate the skin and stimulate cellular function. 

Research indicates that RLT may help reduce symptoms of psychiatric disorders. Read on to learn more about Red Light Therapy.

Connecting with therapists through platforms like BetterHelp can provide a multifaceted approach to mental health care. 

Connecting to any of its licensed therapists allows you to access a broader range of treatment options, including RLT. 

How RLT Can Improve Symptoms of Psychiatric Disorders?

Red light therapy (RLT), also known as photobiomodulation or low-level light therapy, is a non-invasive treatment that involves exposing the body or specific areas to low-intensity red and near-infrared light wavelengths. 

This therapy has shown promising potential in improving symptoms associated with various psychiatric disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and traumatic brain injury.

The working principle of RLT lies in the ability of specific light wavelengths to penetrate the skin and reach deeper tissues, including the brain. 

These wavelengths interact with photoreceptors present in cells, known as chromophores, which are key enzymes in the cellular respiratory chain. When exposed to red and near-infrared light, the chromophores absorb the photons. 

As a result, they lead to a cascade of biochemical reactions that promote cellular energy production, increase mitochondrial function, and reduce oxidative stress.

Moreover, RLT may alleviate psychiatric symptoms through its potential to enhance neurogenesis and promote neuronal survival and plasticity. Besides, it can increase the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). 

Not only that, RLT also has the potential to counteract the detrimental effects of stress and inflammation. 

Similarly, it may exert anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects by modulating various signaling pathways and reducing the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and reactive oxygen species. 

Furthermore, RLT may work for Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression that occurs cyclically, typically during the fall and winter months. 


What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in Individuals?

Several factors contribute to the development of SAD in individuals. These factors are biological, psychological, and environmental causes.

Biological Causes

1. Circadian Rhythm Disruption: The reduction in sunlight exposure during the winter can disrupt the body’s internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm. 

This disruption can lead to irregularities in the production and regulation of hormones. 

For example, it can affect melatonin and serotonin, crucial in regulating mood, sleep, and other physiological processes.

2. Neurotransmitter Imbalance: Individuals with SAD often have lower levels of serotonin. 

This imbalance in serotonin levels is believed to contribute to the development of depressive symptoms associated with SAD.

3. Vitamin D Deficiency: Sunlight exposure is essential for the body to produce vitamin D. which has been linked to mood regulation. 

During the winter months, when sunlight exposure is limited, individuals may experience a deficiency in vitamin D, potentially contributing to the development of SAD.

Psychological Causes:

1. Negative Thought Patterns: Some individuals may develop negative thought patterns or cognitive distortions during the winter months, which can exacerbate feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and low self-esteem. 

These negative thought patterns can perpetuate the symptoms of SAD.

2. Stress and Emotional Factors: Certain life events, such as holidays, family gatherings, or work-related stress, can coincide with the winter months and act as triggers for SAD in some individuals. 

The combination of seasonal changes and emotional stressors may increase the risk of developing SAD.

Environmental Causes:

1. Reduced Sunlight Exposure: The primary environmental factor contributing to SAD is the reduced amount of natural sunlight during winter, particularly in regions with higher latitudes. 

This lack of sunlight exposure can disrupt the body’s circadian rhythms and affect the production of hormones and neurotransmitters that regulate mood.

2. Weather Conditions: Prolonged periods of cloudy, overcast, or rainy weather can also limit sunlight exposure. In addition, it can contribute to the development of SAD symptoms.

3. Social Isolation: During winter, people tend to spend more time indoors and have fewer opportunities for social interaction. 

This gap can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and depression in some individuals.

Use of Red Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

One of the primary uses of RLT for SAD is to address the disruption in circadian rhythms and hormonal imbalances. 

RLT can influence the production and regulation of hormones like melatonin and serotonin. 

Exposing individuals to specific wavelengths of red and near-infrared light, RLT may help restore the natural circadian rhythms and promote a healthier balance of these hormones.

Another potential use of RLT for SAD is to counteract the effects of vitamin D deficiency due to limited sunlight exposure. 

While RLT does not directly provide vitamin D, it may enhance the body’s ability to utilize and metabolize the available vitamin D. 

On this basis, it potentially alleviates some mood-related symptoms associated with vitamin D deficiency in SAD.

RLT also can improve cognitive function and alleviate symptoms of fatigue and low energy levels. 

By enhancing cellular energy production and reducing oxidative stress, RLT may help improve brain function. 

Likewise, it improves the focus and overall energy levels of individuals struggling with the cognitive and physical effects of SAD.

Additionally, RLT may exhibit anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, indicating potential benefits for SAD. 

Undoubtedly, chronic inflammation and oxidative stress contribute to the pathogenesis of various psychiatric disorders. 

By reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, RLT may help alleviate some of the underlying physiological mechanisms contributing to the symptoms of SAD.

Scientific Research on The Effects of RLT on Mental Health

Red light therapy (RLT) has gained significant attention for its potential benefits in various areas beyond mental health. 

A 2021 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders investigated the effects of RLT on anxiety and depression symptoms. 

The randomized, double-masked, placebo-controlled trial involved 89 participants with anxiety or depression. 

The group receiving RLT showed significantly greater improvements in anxiety, depression, and quality of life scores compared to the placebo group after eight weeks of treatment. 

The researchers concluded that RLT could be an effective adjunctive treatment for anxiety and depression.

Another study found that 60% of people slept much better after using a red light therapy lamp for one hour a day for three weeks. 

This study indicates a potential therapeutic benefit of red light therapy in improving sleep quality. 

Participants reported falling asleep faster, experiencing fewer awakenings during the night, and feeling refreshed upon waking.

Furthermore, a 2017 pilot study in the journal Aging and Mental Health looked at RLT for treatment-resistant depression in older adults. 

After four weeks of RLT treatments, participants experienced a significant decrease in depression scores and improvements in cognitive function compared to baseline. 

The authors suggested that RLT may be a promising intervention for seniors with treatment-resistant depression.

Likewise, a 2020 systematic review in the Journal of Psychiatric Research analyzed 15 studies on RLT for various psychiatric and neurological conditions. 

The review found preliminary evidence that RLT could improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, traumatic brain injury, and neurocognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. 

However, the authors noted methodological limitations and called for more robust clinical trials.

A 2019 study in Photobiomodulation, Photomedicine, and Laser Surgery examined RLT for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans. 

After six weeks of treatments, participants receiving RLT showed significantly reduced PTSD symptoms compared to placebo. 

Brain imaging also revealed increased functional connectivity in areas associated with PTSD after RLT.

Other Benefits of Red Light Therapy That You Need to Know 


1. Skin Rejuvenation and Anti-Aging

RLT has been widely explored for its effects on skin health and anti-aging. 

The wavelengths of red and near-infrared light used in RLT can penetrate the skin and stimulate cellular processes that promote collagen production, reduce inflammation, and improve skin texture and tone.

2. Pain Relief and Tissue Repair

RLT has potential therapeutic applications in pain management and tissue repair. 

The light energy absorbed by cells can stimulate the production of nitric oxide, which has anti-inflammatory and vasodilatory effects, thereby reducing pain and promoting healing. 

Besides, it can alleviate pain associated with conditions such as arthritis, muscle injuries, and neuropathic pain and accelerate the healing process of wounds and bone fractures.

3. Improved Athletic Performance and Muscle Recovery

Athletes and fitness enthusiasts have explored using RLT for enhanced performance and faster recovery from exercise-induced muscle fatigue and injuries. 

Research findings confirm it may improve mitochondrial function, increase adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production, and reduce oxidative stress in muscle cells.

4. Neuroprotective Effects

Emerging research suggests that RLT may have neuroprotective properties. These effects make RLT a potential therapeutic option for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and traumatic brain injuries.

5. Hair Loss and Hair Growth

The light energy from RLT can stimulate the hair follicles and increase blood flow to the scalp. 

As a result, it could reverse the miniaturization of hair follicles and promote the growth of thicker, healthier hair strands. 

Side Effects of RLT

While red light therapy (RLT) is generally considered safe and well-tolerated, there are some potential side effects that you should be aware of. 

Here are some of the common side effects associated with RLT:

1. Eye Strain and Discomfort

One of the most commonly reported side effects of RLT is eye strain or discomfort. This pain happens if the treatment involves direct exposure to the light source without proper eye protection. 

Prolonged exposure to bright light can cause eye fatigue, headaches, and even temporary vision disturbances. 

To avoid this risk, wearing appropriate eye protection, such as goggles or shields, is essential during RLT sessions.

2. Skin Irritation or Redness

Although rare, some individuals may experience skin irritation, redness, or a mild burning sensation after RLT sessions, particularly if the light intensity or exposure time is excessive. 

This reaction is often temporary and typically resolves within a few hours or days. 

However, it is advisable to start with lower light intensities and shorter treatment durations and gradually increase them as tolerated to minimize the risk of skin irritation.

3. Photosensitivity

Certain medications or medical conditions can make individuals more sensitive to light and increase the risk of adverse reactions during RLT. 

Individuals taking photosensitizing medications, such as certain antibiotics, antidepressants, or skin treatments, should consult their healthcare provider before undergoing RLT to ensure it is safe for them.

4. Headaches or Dizziness

Sometimes, individuals may experience headaches or dizziness during or after RLT sessions. 

This encounter occurs if the treatment involves exposure to the head or neck area. 

Though these symptoms are typically mild and temporary, it is essential to inform the treatment provider if they persist or become severe.

It is important to note that these side effects are generally mild and transient. However, RLT can only be considered a complementary treatment option. 

This approach should not replace conventional therapies or medications prescribed by healthcare professionals. 

Similarly, leverage contacting licensed therapists on platforms like BetterHelp for proper counseling regarding RLT.


1. Does red light therapy help with mood?

Research suggests that red light therapy may help improve mood by regulating hormones like serotonin and melatonin, which affect mood regulation.
It has shown potential benefits for conditions like seasonal affective disorder and depression.

2. What does red light do to your brain?

Red light therapy can interact with photoreceptors in brain cells, potentially increasing energy production, reducing inflammation, and promoting neuronal growth and repair, which may benefit cognitive function and overall brain health.

3. Is red light good for anxiety?

Preliminary studies indicate that red light therapy may help alleviate symptoms of anxiety by modulating neurotransmitter levels, reducing inflammation, and improving overall mood and well-being.

Emma Loker

I attribute my extensive knowledge to a 1st Class Honours degree in Psychology and my current studies to become a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist at the University of Cambridge.


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