We are reader-supported and sometimes earn a commission if you buy through a link on our site.

Red Light Therapy For Depression: A Potential Solution?

Last Reviewed on February 1, 2024

Can red light therapy help depression? Explore how red light could offer a safe, non-invasive solution to mood enhancement and mental health improvement.

Can red light therapy work for depression? The quick answer is: yes!

While depression symptoms are not something to be taken lightly and those suffering from it need to contact a medical professional, we can look at positive natural remedies for mood enhancement to combat the symptoms. And, this is where red light therapy treatment takes center stage!

Red wavelengths are non-invasive and 100% safe to use. They’re known for a wide range of benefits, from helping with anti-aging to hair growth and yes, you guessed it, depression too! While it isn’t a cure, it sure can make a difference, especially when combined with other treatments.

A 2019 systematic review in the Journal of Affective Disorders reported that red and near-infrared light therapy exhibited a significant antidepressant effect and good tolerability in clinical studies for major depressive disorder (MDD) [1].

In this article, we’ll discuss the promising treatment of red light therapy for depression, how it works, and why you should consider this non-invasive therapy.

Red Light Therapy: Mental Health Benefits

Red light therapy (RLT), also known as photobiomodulation (PBM) or low-level light therapy (LLLT), uses low wavelengths of red or near-infrared light to stimulate the body’s natural healing processes.

Brain PBM therapy improves the energy production in brain cells (neurons) and promotes responses that reduce inflammation and cell death. Additionally, it boosts the brain’s defense against cellular damage and encourages the growth of new neurons and the formation of new connections between them [2].

In other words, red light exposure helps brain cells work better, protects them, and even encourages the growth of new cells and connections – which has shown significant mental health improvement in mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Doctors discussing red light brain therapy benefits

According to a study in The British Journal of Psychiatry, both bright white and dim red light led to over 40% decreases in symptom scores for primary care patients [3]. Moreover, a study in Archives of Women’s Mental Health found that both bright light and dim red light significantly improved postpartum depression symptoms [4].

In both studies, researchers found red light therapy just as effective as bright light therapy in treating depression!

Red light therapy has also shown the potential to improve brain health and treat:

  • Traumatic brain injury (e.g. strokes)
  • Neurodegenerative diseases (e.g. dementia)
  • Psychological disorders (e.g. PTSD) [2]

How Light Affects Your Mood

The psychological benefits of light are fascinating, revealing how different light wavelengths can influence our minds and mental health.

For instance, your body produces vitamin D when exposed to natural sunlight. Studies have found a negative correlation between this vitamin and clinical depression, i.e. those with depression tend to have lower vitamin D levels [5].

Sunlight contains various wavelengths; red light being one of them. While more research is needed, red light therapy may potentially be used as an effective alternative – providing all the benefits of natural light without having to worry about UV damage [6].

Light affects our moods in the following ways:

  • Circadian rhythm regulation: This is our body’s natural alarm clock and disruptions in the cycle can lead to mood disturbances. Proper exposure to light (including red light), especially in the mornings helps synchronize sleep-wake cycles. This leads to better sleep quality and mood regulation, confirmed by a 2012 study [7]. On the flip side, a lack of light leads to sleep disturbances and mood swings.
  • Serotonin levels: Bright light is known to increase the natural release of the “happy hormone”, serotonin, within our brains. It’s what makes us feel ‘happy’ on sunny days. A lack of natural light is linked to higher depression rates [8].
  • Cognitive function: Light exposure can improve cognitive functions like reaction times, attention, and memory. A lack of it can have an adverse effect on mental clarity!

Light Therapy In The Workplace

Many modern workplaces recognize the importance of natural light or full-spectrum lighting to enhance employee well-being and productivity. Proper lighting, as discussed, can reduce fatigue and improve mood. SAD lamps have been used in therapy centers to combat the effects of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Woman reading by light therapy lamp

Red Light Therapy For Depression & Anxiety

Depression is more than just feeling sad. It’s a common yet serious mental health problem that affects the way we think, how we act, and how we feel. It’s an imbalance of serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain and often needs medication in severe cases [9].

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)

Studies have shown that transcranial infrared light therapy is a safe and promising therapy for mood disorders and can help reduce major depression symptoms [10,11].

More specifically, a review of 19 studies (9 clinical and 10 pre-clinical trials) found transcranial photobiomodulation (tPBM) to be “a safe and potentially effective treatment” for major depressive disorder [11].

Red light therapy has also been used to treat patients suffering from traumatic brain injury, as seen in a 2015 case study. The patient experienced reduced depression and anxiety after 20 sessions over 8 weeks [12].

In a 2017 study, 92% of patients receiving near-infrared light therapy saw significant declines in depressive symptoms. What’s more, 89% of these patients went into remission. And, at the end of the study, all but two patients stop having suicidal ideation [13].

Woman using red light therapy helmet for depression

It’s important to remember that symptoms vary from person to person. Someone who seems “happy” on the outside, might be struggling internally. Symptoms can range from mild to severe but recognizing these signs is the first step towards seeking help and finding effective treatment.

While red light therapy can be an effective remedy for mental health problems, it may work best when combined with another treatment, e.g. antidepressants.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), more commonly known as seasonal depression, is when individuals experience depression for a “limited time” – often during the dark winter months when sunlight is limited. Symptoms are similar to MDD but are usually short-lived, as patients start to feel better once the season is over.

In one study, researchers compared the effects of bright light and dim red light on SAD. There was no significant difference in effectiveness between the two groups. In other words, dim red light worked just as effectively as bright light in reducing SAD symptoms [14].

Red light bulb

Anxiety

There is a growing body of clinical research showing how red light therapy may help people with anxiety disorders [15].

A 2011 study in International Journal of Psychophysiology found that red light exposure decreased parasympathetic activity in depressed and anxious subjects, potentially aiding in anxiety relief [16].

Another study, using the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale (HAM-A), found t-PBM to have therapeutic effects in those with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): a 63.1% reduction in HAM-A.

While the exact mechanism behind this significant improvement isn’t fully understood, the researchers suggested it might be a mix of increasing frontal regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF), boosting mitochondrial function, and promoting nerve growth factors [17].

Interestingly, tPBM was found to reduce cortisol (the stress hormone), increase serotonin, and decrease nitric oxide (NO), which led to significant anti-anxiety effects [18].

Red light therapy penetrates the skin and can directly stimulate cellular energy production and blood flow in the brain. This process has the potential to treat depression and other mental health disorders where limited blood flow to the frontal regional cerebral is believed to be the cause [17].

How Does Red Light Therapy Work?

As we now know, red light therapy boosts cellular health and has many neurological benefits, especially when combined with antidepressant medications or other treatments. These marvelous devices have seriously taken our well-being to new heights!

At the base level, red light therapy stimulates mitochondria and ATP production. This energy boost results in other benefits like:

  • Reduced inflammation
  • Improved healing
  • Pain relief
  • Neurological benefits
  • Skin rejuvenation

Important Note: If you, or someone you know, is struggling with symptoms of depression for extended periods, I urge you to seek advice from a mental health professional. This guide is by no means a substitution for medical care but rather to highlight the potential red light therapy benefits for depression.

How To Use A Red Light Therapy Device

We’ve established that red light therapy has antidepressant properties but how do you actually use it?

  • Opt for red light therapy devices that are specifically designed for the head, such as helmets and intra-nasal devices.
  • While red wavelengths are considered safe for the eyes, prolonged exposure to red light can be harmful. Consider wearing protective goggles when in use.
  • Different models may differ in terms of positioning but the rule of thumb is to position the red light device a couple of inches away from the affected area – in this case, your noggen!
  • Near-infrared light therapy ranges in duration between 5 and 20 minutes. Depending on your symptoms, it’s best to start with 5-minute increments, three times a day for 8 weeks, and then ramp up the frequency as needed.
  • Do NOT discontinue any antidepressant medication during your treatment, unless a medical professional has advised you to do so.

For the best results, experts recommend using devices that emit 830 nm wavelength light at an average irradiance of 30 mW/cm2 for 20 minutes [19].

FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions about red light and depression.

Is Red Light Therapy Safe?

Yes, red light therapy is 100% safe for people of all ages to use. However, pregnant women and cancer sufferers should avoid red light therapy.

What Light Is Best For Anxiety & Depression?

Based on the current research, near-infrared light therapy is likely to be the most effective for treating depression and anxiety. It can penetrate through the skull and up to 4 cm into brain tissue.

What Does Red Light Do To The Brain?

Red wavelengths penetrate the skull and reach the brain tissue. It stimulates mitochondrial function which enhances energy production in brain cells. This stimulation promotes healing, reduces inflammation, and has the potential to improve cognitive function. It has shown potential in treating major depressive disorder (MDD) and alleviating anxiety symptoms.

Brain scans showing red light therapy effects

Final Thoughts

Red light offers a non-invasive, low-risk option for alleviating depression symptoms and has shown remarkable potential in improving mood, regulating sleep disturbances, and more. It makes an appealing option for individuals looking for an alternative or complementary treatment to traditional methods.

Put your mental health and well-being first by considering red light as another treatment option for your depression.

References

  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165032718311558
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29327206/
  3. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry/article/light-therapy-for-seasonal-affective-disorder-in-primary-care/07F5A340400D5BB1F665283EFCAF423C 
  4. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00737-007-0200-1 
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6970300/ 
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32464190/
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23182016/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7445808/
  9. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30346890/
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37171473/
  12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26535475/ 
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5627142/ 
  14. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1600-0447.1994.tb01526.x
  15. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B978012815305500035X 
  16. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167876010007117 
  17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2796659/
  18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30883832/
  19. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31647775/
Anne, Founder of Therapeutic Beams

Anne Linde

Since using it to clear up her acne in college, Anne has been an avid user and fan of all things light therapy. She now primarily uses red light therapy for its anti-aging benefits. Anne's mission is to make the science behind red light therapy easy to understand and accessible, so anyone can use it to take control of their health and wellbeing.

John Ni, BSc.

John, a graduate of the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, serves as a respected scientific reviewer at TherapeuticBeams.com. His expertise extends across various domains, including chemistry, pharmaceuticals, and dermatology. He contributes to publications like Royal Society of Chemistry, Drug Topics, and Practical Dermatology.

John Ni, Content Editor & Scientific Review

Leave a Comment