Is Red Light Therapy Actually Good for Performance and Recovery?
The theory underpinning how red light therapy works is similar to LLLT. With red light therapy, longer wavelength visible and near-infrared light is applied to the skin. Upon penetrating the cells, mitochondria absorb it and have their function modified to produce more ATP, the energy molecule for the cell’s functions. This is hypothesized to improve performance and endurance sooner after hard workouts than without it.
The evidence to support most of the claims made by manufacturers of red light therapy devices is either very scarce or weak or both. However, there is a fairly robust amount of evidence on the use of this modality for exercise performance. A review article from 2016 summarized much of this evidence.
The first group of studies evaluated red light therapy to improve performance or recovery after hard efforts when applied to the upper extremities. Studies evaluated both objective markers of performance and biochemical markers of cellular damage and subjective reports of muscle soreness. While some studies in this group reported improvements in biochemical markers of cellular damage with red light therapy, this finding was not associated with any objective measures of improved performance nor any reported improvements in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). A single study in this group of 10 reported a slight performance improvement.
A final group of studies sought to determine if red light therapy might have longer-lasting effects on cellular functions. In these papers, researchers reported on experiments designed to evaluate if red light therapy could change cellular functions over time in a way that would benefit an athlete by leading to improvements in muscle tissue architecture and the ability to handle oxidative stress.
The theory is that longer-term exposure to red light therapy might upregulate the expression of specific genetic pathways altering both characteristics. Once again, the results were very inconsistent. Some studies did report changes in muscle architecture over time, but those changes were not associated with any performance benefits. No studies found any improvements in the ability of tissues to handle oxidative stresses.
It would appear that based on what is known about photobiomodulation and specifically red light therapy at this juncture, it remains an interesting yet very much unproven technology. While there is clearly the ability to mass-produce and market these devices, the evidence to support their use remains lacking.
This is another example of a technology with significant theoretical benefits but no proven clinical benefits to date. That may change as additional studies are done, new applications are developed, or the technology is modified somehow. Still, red light therapy remains a novelty for now and is not worth the significant investment.
Red light therapy works to nourish the skin's surface and renew underlying cells as blood circulation increases, and is currently used by doctors, therapists and trainers in professional athletes.
Red light therapy has been studied and tested in hundreds of peer-reviewed clinical trials, with positive results in skin health, collagen production, physical and muscle recovery, sleep, joint pain, inflammation and more, and is used without drugs, chemicals, UV rays, invasive surgery or other common side effects.
It is thought that red light therapy works by acting on the "power components" in the mitochondria of human cells, and with more energy, other cells can do their jobs more efficiently, such as repairing skin, promoting new cell growth and promoting skin rejuvenation. Red light therapy is a safe, natural way to speed up the healing process of burns, surgical incisions, and scars.
There are many benefits to red light therapy, and several red light therapy pad products have been tested and reviewed for optimal red light therapy devices for skin, acne, wrinkles, hair loss, and anti-aging, which also include hand-held, whole-body, and facial treatments.
Regarding human health, I believe that the most interesting and powerful of all the different wavelengths of light are the red and near-infrared parts of the spectrum. You'll be shocked to learn what these forms of light do in our bodies, and specifically how our cells use them to produce more energy, because it revolutionizes the way we think about how cells produce energy and has the potential to dramatically improve our health. We need sunshine to keep healthy. Red and near-infrared light are a big part of the reason. Just as our bodies need certain vitamins and minerals from our diet (e.g., vitamin C, magnesium, zinc, etc.) to function properly, our cells need certain "photonutrients" (sufficient amounts of light of certain wavelengths) to be healthy.
In short, the human body needs red and near-infrared light to function optimally. Just as we can be malnourished by a poor diet, we can be underfunctioning by a lack of light. Frankly, most people's lighting habits are the equivalent of eating a full McDonald's every day. Like I said, it's bad lighting. We used to be exposed to a lot more light, and at the right wavelength, because our ancestors spent hours each day working in sunlight and around fires at night, both of which would have given off plenty of red and near-infrared light.