Oftentimes we prioritize our physical health while our mental health gets overlooked. Seasonal depression gets written off as just a bad mood, and anxiety disorders as just the normal effects of stress.
The truth is that mental health disorders are one of the biggest epidemics of today. According to WHO, depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide, and suicide is the fourth most common cause of death among young people. People with mental health issues often die much younger due to physical health reasons too, including many treatable conditions.
When you look at the numbers, it becomes clear that optimal health of the mind is just as important as keeping your body healthy and in shape.
Disorders such as major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, substance abuse or post traumatic stress disorder require help from a mental health professional, and active treatment, such as therapy.
However, red light therapy for mental health has also been producing positive results, and can be used as supplemental therapy for mental health conditions due to its antidepressant effects and other benefits.
What Causes Mental Health Problems?
There is no universal cause of mental health problems. In many cases, it's a combination of factors.
For some people, mental disorders are hereditary. The disorders which most commonly have a genetic component are ADHD, autism, major depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Just because someone carries the genes for a certain disorder, doesn't necessarily mean they are going to develop it, which is part of the reason why it is currently impossible to predict mental illness from genetic tests. The illness is usually a combination of genetic predisposition and outside factors.
Mental health issues can also stem from an imbalance in brain chemistry. Nerve cells use pathways to connect different parts of the nervous system, as well as to communicate. They communicate using chemicals called neurotransmitters. Mental disorders, like clinical depression or anxiety, are mostly caused by low levels of neurotransmitters. There are many neurotransmitters, but the ones that play the biggest role in mental health are dopamine, acetylcholine, GABA, noradrenaline (norepinephrine) and serotonin.
There is a wide range of outside factors that can contribute to or cause mental health issues - from living in a stressful environment, to bad weather and lack of sunlight, and even exposure to toxins and harmful chemicals.
Lack of sunlight is one of the most common contributors, and the main cause of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Traumatic brain injury
Brain injuries to certain parts of the brain can sometimes leave lasting consequences and contribute to the development of mental health disorders.
What is Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy, photobiomodulation, or low level laser therapy (LLLT) is a type of treatment that uses LED light lamps of red and near infrared frequencies. Red light therapy devices emit light of the most beneficial red and near infrared light frequencies which mimic the natural light the sun emits at dawn and dusk.
Light of the red spectrum acts more on the surface level of skin and tissues, whereas near infrared light penetrates deeper, all the way to inner tissues, internal organs and bones. Together, all of these light frequencies affect the body in a myriad of ways.
With consistent use, red light therapy can help improve physical performance, aid muscle recovery, resolve many skin conditions and boost collagen production, speed up wound healing and recovery time, and stimulate blood flow - to name just a few benefits.
Low level light therapy was originally developed by NASA, but due to its extensive benefits, it has become FDA approved, and the therapy of choice for many conditions, including mental health issues.
What Are the Benefits of Red Light Therapy for Mental Health?
Red light therapy supports mental health through several mechanisms, and it can help in the treatment of several conditions.
Red light therapy supports cellular health and boosts your body's energy production in the process.
The mitochondria are special structures within the cell which transform sugar from the food you eat into energy carrying molecules called ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate). Clinical research has shown that stimulation with red light therapy increases ATP production and improves mitochondrial function by increasing the mitochondrial membrane potential, the mitochondria's oxygen consumption, and the activity of Cytochrome C Oxidase, the protein which plays the main role in this energy production process.
This boost in ATP energy production directly helps combat the feelings of fatigue and low energy that often accompany mental health issues, especially in the case of conditions such as major depressive disorder.
Depression and Anxiety
Natural light and red light therapy have a surprising effect on major depression and anxiety disorders. Scientists have discovered that treatment with low level laser therapy significantly elevates beta-endorphin levels.
Endorphins are neurotransmitters that are associated with happiness, and are released during enjoyable activities - exercise, laughter, sex and even eating candy.
Neurotransmitter levels are usually treated with medication, but red light can boost endorphin and serotonin levels - exactly those neurotransmitters that are the most affected in depression and anxiety.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Around a total of 20 percent of the population suffers from some form of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), with 14 percent experiencing milder symptoms and around 6 percent of people suffering from a more severe version.
The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are not unlike those that occur in depression - feelings of sadness or emptiness, poor sleep, fatigue and feelings of low energy, and changes in weight and appetite - to name just a few.
Not only does photobiomodulation with red light boost serotonin and endorphin levels, leading to a natural lift in your mood, it also provides the one thing that's missing for people who suffer from SAD - sunlight. The frequency of the red light emitted by red light devices is identical to the frequencies emitted by the sun.
Better Sleep Quality
Sleeping problems and mental health issues often go hand in hand. In fact, it's somewhat of a chicken and egg situation, because they both exacerbate each other.
One of the most important effects of red light on the body is the way it regulates melatonin and the circadian rhythm. Red light stimulates the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, and this, in turn, regulates the circadian rhythm - or the sleep and wake cycles.
This cycle follows the natural light patterns - red light at dawn signals to the brain that it is time to wake up. The abundance of blue light during the day keeps you awake and keeps melatonin levels in plasma low. And finally, at twilight, when red light is prevalent again, it is a signal to wind down for sleep, and melatonin levels rise once again.
Melatonin and the circadian rhythm govern almost all other hormones and metabolic processes in the body. People who have trouble falling or staying asleep often resort to taking melatonin supplements before bed. However, research has shown that taking exogenous melatonin might lead to impairment in glucose tolerance, which might contribute to weight gain and even diabetes.
Experts suggest that, instead of using supplements, it is much better to try to regulate melatonin production and circadian patterns with physical activity and natural light therapy, especially red light therapy.
Improved Mental Clarity
One of the well known effects of red light therapy is improved blood flow. This also means better mobility of immune system cells, better fluid drainage, more efficient cleansing of the body, and decreased inflammation. All of these effects contribute to improved brain function.
With many mental and physical conditions, one of the most common symptoms is brain fog, or loss of mental clarity. By boosting blood circulation, red light therapy can help restore this clarity.
Effects on Mental Health Issues Due to Brain Injury
In 2018, a pilot study with 12 veterans who had suffered traumatic brain injury set out to investigate whether pulsed red LED light could help in the treatment of brain injury. The findings showed significant improvements in the patients' neuropsychological test scores and single photon emission computed tomography measures of regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF), proving the potential of red light in the treatment of brain injuries and the subsequent mental health issues.
Are There Cons of Red Light Therapy for Mental Health?
There are no cons to using red light therapy to treat mental health issues. Unlike conventional laser therapy, red light therapy mimics natural light which does not involve heat. This type of therapy isn't invasive and doesn't cause sensitivity or skin damage. It doesn't emit UV rays, doesn't cause sun damage, and doesn't increase your chances of skin cancer.
How and When Can You Use Red and Near Infrared Light Therapy?
You can use red light therapy daily as a treatment for mental states improvement and mental clarity. The natural red and near infrared light are the most beneficial when used early in the morning or in the evening, because that mimics the prevalence of red light in the nature.
Red light therapy can be used at home, and does not cause adverse effects. The psychological benefits are the most effective when you follow the pattern of natural light and use this treatment consistently, in bouts of 20-60 minutes once or twice a day. Although you might benefit even from a single session, it usually takes around two weeks to feel the full effect of your treatments.
Infraredi red light devices have highly adjustable settings, which also allows for a single treatment, with a lower intensity and longer duration.
Red light treatments are highly customizable, so you can tweak them for maximum benefits, depending on your needs and lifestyle.
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