All you need to know: DO NOT shine red light in your open eyes in an attempt to treat depression. “Why not?” is covered below.
Red Light Therapy for Depression?
Two recent, popular articles have mentioned red light therapy for depression and mood improvement. As a result, people are getting the idea that red light therapy can be an effective treatment for depression. That statement can be true. But it can also be dangerously untrue, depending on the type of treatment you’re talking about, which is often unclear. So let’s start clearing it up.
There are at least four very different ways that red light therapy can be used.
- Red light can be shone on the skin. The light is absorbed by the cells to initiate healing, rejuvenation and pain relief. That is called photobiomodulation. That is the kind of red light therapy this website is all about.
- Red light can be taken in through the eyes in a relatively natural way, like if you swapped the light you’re under now with a red light bulb. That is red “color therapy.”
- Red light can be used to stimulate acupuncture points instead of needles. That is called “laser acupuncture” or, “color puncture”.
- Red light can be shone into the eyes in a very specific and deliberate way, in order to treat specific health problems. This is called “syntonic phototherapy” or, “optical phototherapy” and it should only be done by a professional.
Now let’s talk about these in terms of depression, and in relation to the articles you’ve seen.
The Dr. Axe Red Light Therapy Article and the Subheading, “Reduced Depression and Fatigue.”
This page is ranked #1 on Google right now, so lots of people are seeing it. There’s also a nice looking infographic which I’m sure is all over social media.
In that subheading titled, “Reduced Depression and Fatigue”, he is talking about Chinese medicine, specifically acupuncture – to treat the energy system of the body through chakras and meridian points.
What does red light have to do with it, then?
Since red light can penetrate the body around 3/8 of an inch, a small beam of red light can be used to effectively stimulate the acupuncture points instead of needles.
Can acupuncture treat depression and improve mood and energy? Yes.
Can red light be used to stimulate the points instead of needles? Yes.
Does that mean red light is treating depression and improving energy? No.
In this case it’s not the light having the effect. It’s the stimulation of the specific acupuncture points that’s having the effect.
Using light instead of needles may make acupuncture more attractive for people, and that is great. But this is not an example of “red light therapy for depression.” It’s an example of acupuncture for depression.
Further, and more importantly, in this example the light is in direct contact with the skin- not entering the eyes.
On to the next example.
The Red Light Therapy Article in the Current Women’s World Magazine
Because this is important, I’m going to quote the whole thing:
“Red light is naturally energizing and fights depression. ‘Photoreceptors in the retina pick up wavelengths of red light and become stimulated in a way that improves mood,’ says Dr. Fusco. An at-home device probably won’t give you enough red light exposure to beat the blues; ask your doctor to recommend a local medical spa or physical therapist that offers the treatment. Sessions start at around $50; check to see if your insurance covers them.”
So “photoreceptors in the retina” clearly indicate she’s talking about red light being shone into the eyes.
She’s comparing at-home devices to medical spa devices so she’s not talking about syntonics here, she’s talking about light entering the eyes in a broad way, like light is entering your eyes right now. That’s red color therapy using a red light therapy device. And that’s where the potential danger lies.
Dr. Fusco says, “Photoreceptors in the retina pick up wavelengths of red light and become stimulated in a way that improves mood.” And that’s true. It’s true like this is true: “When the fuse of a stick of dynamite is lit, it causes brilliant sparks which are entrancing to watch.” That’s true. Does that mean you should stand around and watch? No. Because there’s more to the story. The dynamite blows up and you die.
There’s more to the shine-red-light-in-your-eyes story, and for some who are clinically depressed, it can be just as serious, I think. That’s why I’m writing this article.
Shining red light into the eyes is very different than shining red light onto the skin. Your eyes deliver light directly to the brain through pathways that have an immediate effect on hormone levels and, as a result, every cell in your body.
Normally, this is a good thing. Naturally speaking, light is good for us. Light from the sun makes us feel good. That’s a given. But take a look outside. How much red do you see? How much of that is man made?
Nature does not give us red in any sort of abundance separately from light itself. It’s rare.
As explained by master colorist Kathryn Kalisz in her book, Understanding Your Color1:
“Red has a very stimulating effect on man. Exposure to the color red increases pulse rate, respiration rate, blood pressure, and body temperature; red is also known as the color of arousal and excitement.”
“The ability of red to distract attention from within and direct it outwards may be helpful in counteracting melancholy moods; however, overexposure to red increases nervous tension and restlessness.”
“Uncontrolled, the extremism of red’s nature is symbolized by emotional ups and downs to manic-depressive psychoses.”
For these reasons, the book, Light Years Ahead2 warns, “Use care in the initial color selection for phototherapy in patients prone towards depression or violence. Individuals with a history of depression or violence should not begin phototherapy with light from the red end of the spectrum.”
So, if you are a normal, mentally and emotionally sound person who is feeling a little down right now, a 60 second shot of red light does have the potential to improve your mood. But should red light be used as a treatment for depression? No way.
Very closely related to depression is bi-polar disorder. According to Kathryn, the very nature of red is characterized by “manic-depressive psychoses.” It could be like adding accelerant to the fire. It could be explosive.
Also often inseparable from depression is anxiety. Over exposure to the color red causes nervous tension and restlessness. It does not take much to trigger an anxiety attack in someone who is prone to them. It’s not worth the risk.
Do not shine red light in your eyes in an effort to treat depression, anxiety, or any other mood or mental disorder.
If you are a local medial spa or physical therapist with red light therapy equipment, you may be asked if you will treat depression with it. Decline that request.
The Future of Red Light Therapy for Depression – Photobiomodulation
There is a more promising way that red light therapy can be used to treat depression in the future, though. It’s red and near infrared light shone directly through the skull into the frontal lobe of the brain. So far two studies have been done and both have had positive results.
This section is still under development. I just wanted to get the above information published for now.
1. Kalisz, Kathryn. Understanding Your Color – A Guide to Personal Color Analysis. 1st ed. Self published, 1996
2. Jacob Liberman, thirteen others. Light Years Ahead – The illustrated Guide to Full Spectrum and Colored Light in Mindbody Healing. Light Years Ahead Productions, 1996
3. Quah-Smith I, Smith C, Crawford JD, Russell J. Laser acupuncture for depression: a randomised double blind controlled trial using low intensity laser intervention. Journal of Affective Disorders 2013 Jun;148(2-3):179-87. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2012.11.058. Epub 2013 Jan 19. [Pubmed]
The Brain Effects of Laser Acupuncture in Depressed Individuals: An fMRI Investigation