I get it:
You’re consuming plenty of high-quality protein over the course of the day – especially after your workouts. You’re also stretching, moving a lot, and supplementing with creatine and other ingredients.
Additionally, you’re making sure you’re getting tons of sleep, avoiding (excess) alcohol, have cut out junk food, and you’re doing everything you can to boost your testosterone levels.
And yet, I’m telling you: you can still recover quicker.
But why should you care?
Well, quicker recovery times translate into completing more frequent training sessions. And a higher training frequency leads to improved workout performance in turn.
Be honest: who doesn’t want to perform better?
Furthermore, what if you could take 3 weeks to heal an injury instead of 6?
You’d have found a game changer.
So in this blog post I’m going to talk about such a game changer. It turns out that red light therapy may be the secret weapon for workout recovery and healing injuries.
Let’s get started:
Red Light Therapy For Rapid Workout Recovery And Injury Healing
In this blog post I’ll look at different areas in which workout recovery can be stimulated. These areas include:
- improved overall oxygenation of your tissues
- greater energy creation in your cells
- less fatigue and inflammation
- quicker workout recovery and gains
- faster healing of injuries
- enhanced sleep quality
Let’s get started with the basics though:
1. How Red Light Therapy Affects Cellular Function And Thereby Healing
You probably know that you’ve got many different cells in your body. These cells range from brain to red blood to muscle cells.
And contrary to popular belief, it’s not just your muscle cells that affect your workout performance. Red blood cells, for instance, also influence your workout capacity.
Red blood cells carry oxygen. In turn, that oxygen determines how much energy your cells are able to create.
If you can turn up energy production, many processes in the body will run better than they did before.
And guess what…
Each of your cells contains hundreds if not thousands of mitochondria. Mitochondria are the “energy-producing factories” of your cell – although they also have other roles such as in the immune system (7).
Nonetheless, the better your mitochondria function, the more energy you’ll have. And the more energy you’ll have, the quicker you’re able to recover from workouts and the greater your potential to heal from injuries.
How is that effect is achieved?
Well, red light therapy deeply penetrates your tissues and subsequently affects a very specific step of that energy-production process in the mitochondria.
Depending on the scientific literature you’re quoting, and the tissue you’re applying red light therapy on, the light penetrates up to several inches into your body (8; 9; 10). Wavelengths from the mid-600s to the mid-800s work best.
Those precise wavelengths are included in the professional-grade red light rising panels.
Red light therapy thus fires up those mitochondria so that your energy levels go through the roof.
I’ll now dig into several topics related to workout recovery and healing injuries:
2. Improved Oxygenation And Cellular Repair
Remember I told you that all energy-creation depends on oxygen?
If you don’t believe me, just try holding your breath for 3 minutes – reality will prove that point very quickly. Sure, the example is somewhat childish–but many people don’t know that oxygen is an actual end-product used in your mitochondria.
Greater oxygen carrying capacity by your red blood cells, in turn, translates into higher energy-production in your cells. This effect on oxygen is rarely emphasized, and yet, very important for your workout recovery.
The improved capacity to carry oxygen can be likened to enhancement of your circulatory system. And guess what, with red light therapy blood flow literally increases (11).
(Some studies contradict the earlier outcomes on blood flow and oxygenation, specifically in healthy participants (13) You’ll probably get fewer benefits the healthier you are).
So let’s dig into the topic of circulation some more:
Microcirculation is your body’s circulation at the microscopic level, where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged between your blood and cells.
Nutrients such as minerals are also exchanged at that level.
What’s fascinating is in animal studies is that these small blood vessels expanded for up to 12-16 hours with red and infrared light exposure (12).
The study was conducted in rabbits, but because circulation has great similarities in mammals, it’s reasonable to expect the same effect exists in humans too.
Levels of growth hormone and fibroblast growth factor (which helps build fibrous material such as tendons and ligaments) also “rapidly increased” (12). Your benefit is quicker recovery and healing of tissues that normally have a poor blood supply.
In humans, studies also show that red light therapy increases skin blood flow (14). Healthy young males specifically saw their blood flow in the biceps increase after the application of a red light laser, for instance (15).
But let’s return to the topic of the cell once again:
Stem Cell Activation
Stem cells are the primordial cells of your body that can differentiate into many different cells, such as muscle or nerve cells.
One mechanism by which red light therapy helps existing stem cells proliferate into new functions (16). As a result, the healing and/or recovery processes are sped up because stem cells are increasingly and more optimally used.
Many tissues can actually be affected through stem cell activation by red light therapy, such as those found in bone marrow, teeth, ligaments (which hold bones and joints together), and in your body fat (17).
The subject is fascinating and you can expect the literature on using red light therapy for improving stem cell interventions to explode in the future.
For instance, red light therapy may help your heart heal after a heart attack, specifically through the mechanism of affecting stem cells (18). In time, stem cells may be injected if you’ve got heart problems, and supplemented with red light therapy.
That example shows you how deep the healing potential of red light therapy can go…
Other Recovery Mechanisms
Other mechanisms of red light therapy exist as well, such as lowering “oxidative stress”. Oxidative stress – or the production of “free radicals” – is a byproduct of energy-creation in the body.
Excess free radicals also contribute to aging and their levels are influenced by red light therapy. Unfortunately, it’s mostly animal studies that demonstrate the effect of lowering excess free radicals right now (19; 20).
Human studies will surely follow in the future…
Let’s now consider the reason why you’re really reading this blog post: translating these effects at the cellular level to real-world gains in recovery and healing:
3. Workouts: Rapid Recovery, Less Soreness, Reduced Fatigue, And Decreased Inflammation
The moment you’ve been waiting for:
Boosting your recovery so that you’ll feel like an 18-year-old again…
(Or kick even more ass as an 18-year-old.)
Fortunately, many studies have investigated this topic so let’s get to it:
- If you’re receiving a big dose of red light therapy on your arms each day, you’ll better maintain your strength over time in the face of fatigue (25).
- In one study, the biceps muscles were exercised maximally and to failure (27). The group of participants receiving red light therapy showed decreased muscle soreness (DOMS), experienced less strength loss due to fatigue, and had better maintenance of range of movement of the joint. By applying red light therapy you’ll be less fatigued when you’re performing a maximum number of repetitions at a given weight (30).
- Most studies, in fact, show beneficial effects of red light therapy for lowering fatigue (35; 37; 38)–although some studies disagree (36). Nonetheless, no studies demonstrate that red light increases fatigue, while all studies either show no effect or a decrease in fatigue. The overall picture is thus clear.
- Regarding the topic of muscle soreness (DOMS), some studies do demonstrate beneficial effects (31; 39; 40) — while others do not (33; 34). Again, the benefits are skewed towards lowering soreness, not increasing it.
- One group of soccer players who received red light therapy on their leg muscles after a workout had significantly lower lactate levels than the groups receiving red light therapy before the workout or no therapy at all (21). High levels of lactate is what causes the feeling of a pump. Excess lactate also decreases performance. And if red light therapy dosages were higher in this study, I’m sure fatigue and performance would have been affected as well.
- Many studies that are actually using the correct dosages demonstrate less inflammation and lower lactate levels (26; 28; 29).
- Quicker recovery, in turn, also translates into performance improvements. For example, applying infrared light to your hands improves grip strength over time (23). I’ll cover the topic of workout performance in a subsequent blog.
- In a rat study, red light therapy increases the amount of muscle fiber as well as the density of the fibers (22). Another rat study shows increased recovery speed as well (24).
- So far I’ve mostly quoted short-term studies. How about the longer-term picture? Well, in endurance-training young women, applying red light therapy over the course of 9 weeks led to lower fatigue levels (41). Older women experience lower inflammation but no difference in fatigue with red light (44). Another study investigating the effects on twins showed decreases in fatigue, pain, and inflammation (42). Muscle mass was also maintained better with red light therapy. Additionally, rehabilitation of muscles may speed up as well (45). One study did not find differences in muscle soreness or fatigue–but most show positive results (43).
Keep in mind that this list is only partial – I could have included 20-30 more studies on the same topic.
The application of red light therapy is also more complex than I’m letting on here.
Different dosages, or using red light therapy before or after a workout can lead to different effects.
For instance, using your panel after a workout seems to have the most profound effect on lactate levels and inflammation, for instance. Red light therapy before a workout, however, may lead to greater immediate increases in workout performance. For reducing fatigue during exercise, using red light therapy before a workout may also be superior.
One interesting finding is that combining red light therapy with cold exposure, such as “cold water immersion” may reduce the effect of both (40). As frequently is the case, context is thus king.
The jury is still out on this topic–although many positive recovery outcomes are found.
Overall, many recovery-mediated parameters can be influenced by red light, including soreness, inflammation, fatigue, the prevention of performance losses after exertion, and a better handling of lactate.
Now that I’ve talked about post-workout recovery, let’s move to another important topic:
4. Quick(er) Injury Recovery
What’s one of the biggest fears as an athlete?
But getting injured can be worse. Let’s be real: a major injury can set you weeks, months, or even a year in some cases.
In many instances, ensuring that you keep moving and not overtaxing yourself (i.e. don’t provoke the injury) helps heal you faster.
But red light therapy is another solution to speed up the healing process. Let’s consider the benefits:
- Several types of tendon injuries, like a tennis elbow, jumper’s knee, and Achilles tendinitis, are healed more quickly with red light therapy (46). In a tennis elbow, for instance, overall strength also increases with (55).
- Sprains of muscles can be effectively treated as well (47; 48).
- Many types of musculoskeletal conditions, moreover, can actually be countered (50). For muscular problems, reduced inflammation, alteration of growth factors and substances that contribute to muscular recovery, and an increased creation of blood vessels is the result (51). Got a sore neck from sitting all day? Try red light therapy!
- Red light therapy also decreases overall pain. For instance, even if you’ve broken your lower leg, red light therapy allows you to use fewer painkillers during the healing process (49).
- Non-sports related conditions such as a-specific lower back pain are also helped tremendously with red light therapy – specifically with regards to pain (53). The same is true for conditions such as knee osteoarthritis (54). If such conditions are preventing you from exercising, red light therapy may be of great help–depending on the condition. Red light is a great option to try for joint conditions.
- In animal studies, where muscle trauma can be intentionally induced, red light therapy enhances the overall inflammatory process and led to greater functionality despite the injury (51). Even when back nerves are injured in animals, nerve and myelin regeneration improved (52). Myelin is a sheath around the nerve that allows for quicker conductivity. Muscle fibers also recovered more quickly.
- Ligaments? Depending on the dose and setup, ligaments also heal quicker in animal studies (55; 56). Ligaments connect your bones with each other and provide joint stability. In an ankle sprain, it’s mostly the ligaments that are affected, for instance – such incidents often take weeks if not months to heal. The ligament-healing effect of red light is very welcome because such injuries are harder to treat than muscle problems (in most cases).
- Lastly: even bone itself regenerates quicker with red light therapy (57; 58; 59). In animal studies, the mineral density of the bone literally improves (60; 61). Crazy but true…
Because of the benefits for muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones, red light therapy looks like an amazing tool in the toolbox to help your injuries recover quicker.
Overall, there’s a very high likelihood that your injury benefits from red light therapy.
There’s one more area to cover, however, with regards to workout recovery:
5. Enhanced Sleep Quality
“Pssst”: if you don’t sleep well, you won’t recover well.
Far too many people under-emphasize the role of sleep in their strategy for recovering from workouts.
In fact, on the days that you’re training yourself into the ground you’ll probably need a few hours of extra (deep) sleep at night.
And yet, up to 40% of people are chronically sleep deprived because they’re not consistently getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night (62).
To reach a state of chronic sleep deprivation, you’ll have to sleep poorly night after night after night…
Of course, just laying in your bed for 8 hours is not good enough–you’ll want quality sleep.
Fortunately, red light therapy may improve your sleep quality (63).
In a study with 20 young Chinese participants, the group of 10 people receiving the red light therapy increased their sleep quality at night. Overall melatonin levels also improved. Melatonin helps you fall asleep quickly, keeps you asleep, and increases the amount of deep sleep you get.
That increases in sleep quality translated into better endurance in turn. The bright part about the study? Only teenagers and young adults were included, whose sleep quality is already high and harder to improve.
And there’s more:
Another very recent study from June 2019 demonstrated that red light therapy improves sleep quality for insomniacs as well (64). Specifically, insomniacs fall asleep quicker with red light therapy, have fewer awakenings, and experience more deep sleep each night.
Of course, it’s very likely that improved sleep quality translates into better workout recovery in the end as well.
6. Conclusion: Keep Up With The Arms Race In Workout Recovery
Remember when you were avant garde by using creatine and whey?
Well, the competition has moved on and almost everyone is using these supplements today.
So you need the next big thing to get an edge over your competitors – because if you’re playing football or soccer, you’ll take any (legalized) help to become the best, right?
In fact, for now I’m telling you to forget about the next pre-workout, or training more frequently or harder, or even, God forbid, performance enhancing drugs.
No, red light therapy is the secret recovery weapon you’ve been searching for…
For just 20 minutes a day, just let the light do its job and take you to the next level. No risk, almost foolproof, and guaranteed results.
Does that picture sound too good to be true?
The bigger panels are an excellent choice for aiding your body’s overall recovery, because you can hit all muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and even your blood simultaneously.
The Target light is perfect if you want to make a small investment in speeding up the recovery processes of that shoulder that’s been injured for 4 weeks now, or your back that’s sore after a workout, or that wrist or knee that could use an extra edge.
One more hint:
For deeper tissues, such as big muscles or bones, use higher dosages. For more superficial tissues, such as tendons at the surface of your skin or ligaments that are located close to the surface, use lower dosages.
Examples are the tendon that runs over your knee cap, or the ligaments at the sides of your ankle. Both are common places of injury.
And always remember: you deserve the best. Start believing that today…
Author: Bart Wolbers
Bart Wolbers holds Master degrees in Clinical Health Science, Philosophy of Science and Technology (with distinction), and Philosophy. He’s also extensively written about the science of red light therapy before, as well as many other health-related topics. Bart has also been featured on Yahoo, Fitbit, MSN.com, the Daily Beast, Bodybuilding.com, The Sun, Bustle, and Oxygen Magazine, and many others.
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