Every year, approximately 17.3 million Americans (that’s 7.1 percent of the population) struggle with major depressive disorder (one of the most common forms of depression).
Have you been diagnosed with depression? Are you looking for a more natural way to manage it? If so, red light therapy may be an effective solution.
If you’ve never heard of red light therapy, or if you’re just confused about how it helps with depression and other related mood disorders, keep reading. Outlined below are some key facts that everyone should know about red light therapy and depression.
What Is Depression?
Depression is a mental health disorder. It’s most commonly characterized by a persistent depressed mood or a loss of interest in activities one once enjoyed.
Other common symptoms of depression include changes in sleep patterns, changes in appetite, a decrease in energy level, difficulty concentrating, headaches, chronic pain, and experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
Researchers aren’t sure exactly what causes depression, but the majority believe it is a combination of external and internal factors, including imbalances in key neurotransmitters like serotonin.
What Is Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy (also known as RLT or photobiomodulation) is a unique treatment modality most commonly used for skin conditions like eczema, scars, wrinkles, and other signs of aging. In recent years, though, researchers have found that it may also offer some benefits for those struggling with mood disorders like depression.
Red light therapy uses red, low-level light wavelengths. These light wavelengths penetrate the skin and strengthen the mitochondria, which is responsible for generating the majority of the cell’s adenosine triphosphate (or ATP) supply. ATP is a primary source of chemical energy for the body.
Benefits of Red Light Therapy for Depression
At first, it might seem strange that red light therapy, a treatment regularly recommended for external conditions, could have an impact on the chemical imbalances in someone’s brain.
In reality, though, there are quite a few ways that red light therapy can support mood improvements and lessen symptoms of depression, including the following:
Improved Blood Flow to the Brain
One reason why red light therapy is so effective for healing and addressing skin conditions is the fact that it can improve blood flow to the targeted area. Red light therapy devices can also help to improve blood flow to the brain.
Some experts have hypothesized that depression stems from a lack of blood flow to the brain. A lack of blood causes a lack of oxygen and nutrients while also impairing normal tissue function.
By stimulating more consistent blood flow, people with depression may find that their mood and energy levels improve. They may be less prone to headaches as well.
Sleep disturbances are common among people with depression. To make matters worse, though, poor sleep can also exacerbate depression symptoms. This is where red light therapy comes in.
Exposure to red and near-infrared light has been shown to help adjust and reset the sleep cycle. Blue light, on the other hand (which is what we’re exposed to when we look at our phones, computers, TVs, etc.) can throw off the circadian rhythm and cause sleep problems.
Red light therapy can also increase melatonin production. Melatonin is a hormone that plays a key role in supporting quality sleep and regulating the sleep-wake cycle.
Increased Serotonin Levels
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and hormone that plays a significant role in improving mood, modulating pain, and more. Many people who have been diagnosed with depression have low levels of serotonin.
Antidepressant medications typically work by increasing the availability of serotonin in the brain. However, red light therapy has also been shown to boost serotonin levels while also decreasing cortisol (a stress hormone, without causing the same side effects that sometimes come with antidepressants.
Does Red Light Therapy Help with Seasonal Depression?
In addition to minimizing symptoms of clinical depression or major depressive disorder, there’s also a strong red light therapy-seasonal depression connection.
Some people who struggle with seasonal depression (also known as seasonal affective disorder), which typically occurs during the winter months, find relief when they use red light therapy regularly.
Red light therapy’s effect on sleep quality is likely the main contributor to its effectiveness when it comes to managing seasonal depression.
Many people who struggle with seasonal depression find that their sleep gets thrown off during the winter months. This can cause them to sleep longer than they normally would or have lower energy levels during the day.
With regular time spent in front of a red light therapy device, these individuals may find that their circadian rhythms are better solidified and they have an easier time sticking to a consistent sleep-wakefulness cycle. This, in turn, leads to increased alertness during the day and an easier time falling asleep at night.
Red Light Therapy for Anxiety
Not only can red light therapy be used to support those who deal with various types of depression, but it can also help those who struggle with anxiety disorders.
Often, increasing serotonin levels in the brain can be beneficial to those dealing with anxiety. This is why so many anxiety sufferers are prescribed antidepressants as part of their treatment protocol.
Red light therapy appears to do just as good of a job, according to some studies, as antidepressants when it comes to increasing serotonin availability and correcting chemical imbalances in the brain.