On paper, the concept that light can heal depression is poetic. I am not talking about the theoretical light, or spirit, or energy inside us all. I am, instead, speaking of actual light waves. Infrared light is a wavelength that is perceived as heat by the body. A few months ago, I posted about a recent study on near-infrared as a treatment for depression and received an overwhelming response from our community to know more about this link. I did not expect to discover the depth of research on this topic - how infrared, especially near-infrared, therapy can heal our brain.
We all know the seriousness of mental illness, but to put it into perspective for a moment, the WHO (World Health Organization) states that over 300 million people worldwide are affected by depression. Close to 800,000 people die of suicide every year and it is the second-leading cause of death in 15 to 29 year olds. Not to mention the millions of people suffering and dying from addictions to drugs, alcohol, and amphetamines, which most commonly used as numbing-agents and coping mechanisms to deal with mental illnesses and emotional issues. People of all genders, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds are affected by mental illnesses, but women are especially at risk for depression.
A network of researchers, scientists and doctors are working tirelessly to learn more about our brains, stress, mental illnesses, and how to create more effective, long-term treatments without negative side effects. One such treatment is light and heat. Of all the types of light and heat available (think a hot bath, a regular sauna, other wavelengths of light such as red light), infrared has taken center stage for many reasons. Infrared light is particularly effective and can penetrate the body up to three inches deep, affecting tissues at a cellular level. It can heat the body comfortably at a lower level, making it more tolerable than other forms of heat. Infrared has been reliably proven to decrease inflammation, which on a basic level is known to positively affect all bodily processes including brain health. Infrared has also been well documented to relieve pain, in everything from chronic low-back pain to rheumatoid arthritis. Given that we know that the same regions in the brain are activated by physical and emotional pain and how inflammation can affect the brain, scientists have turned to infrared, and multiple studies are showing that infrared sauna therapy is a promising treatment for healing the brain and combatting depression, anxiety and even Alzheimer’s disease.
To be honest, when I began to research this topic, I thought that there were a smattering of studies about the brain and infrared out there and not much more. Infrared has not been studied at length due to the simple fact that it is an alternative healing modality that no one corporation stands to gain money from. The sad fact is most clinical research is sponsored by big pharma and lobbyists like factory farmers, dairy farmers, and so on. That’s for another day, but the bottom line is I was overwhelmed by the amount of data that is proving the link between brain health and near-infrared light. Here is a summary of what I discovered, which is just scratching the surface of the amount of evidence out there on how infrared therapy, namely near-infrared light, benefits the brain, and could possibly be an effective, healthy treatment for everything from depression to dementia.
Let’s start with just heat, meaning all infrared wavelengths. One study found that hyperthermia (i.e. heating the body to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit) stimulated the skin in a way that activated serotonin production, which in turn changes brain functionality. Serotonin is the positivity neurochemical and it regulates mood, happiness and anxiety and low-levels trigger depression. As mentioned earlier, infrared decreases inflammation, and this decreases and heals cell damage in the brain. To dial it back for a moment – not all inflammation is bad, it’s an important immune mechanism for the body, but chronic inflammation has been connected to a wide range of health problems and auto-immune diseases.
A variety of studies are finding that near-infrared light increases connections in between neurons and stimulates the formation of new ones. In 1967, a doctor named Endre Master from Hungary accidentally discovered that near-infrared light could help with wound healing, reduction of pain and inflammation. Scientists have been applying this theory to the brain with stroke patients, and sadly, mice, rats, and rabbits, and have discovered that near-infrared light increases the connections between neurons and stimulates the formation of new ones. It has been proven to restore brain function in stroke patients. Even in a study of mice where they covered their heads with aluminum, the body being exposed to near-infrared produced results of increasing healing in the brain. Other animal models of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease have reported that low-level near-infrared light has neuroprotective effects and slows the death of neurons. What near-infrared essentially does is promote the repair of tissue throughout the body, and this function in the brain is the mechanism that has been shown to combat depression and other neurological issues.
These two studies were conducted on real people suffering with depression, with rigorous trial standards, and had remarkable results. They are the first of their kind, with hopefully many more trials on humans using infrared to replicate these promising results to come.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison used infrared lights to heat patients diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder to temperature of 38.5°C – or 101.4°F – and found a substantial reduction in the symptoms of depression within as little as one week. If you’re interested in the standards of the trial, it was randomized, double-blind and sham-controlled – and worked with 338 volunteers from a range of levels of depression. Researchers concluded that using infrared light to heat the body “holds promise as a safe, fast-acting anti-depressant modality with a prolonged therapeutic benefit.”
Some scientists believe that depression is a metabolic disorder, “an under functioning of the cellular process by which complex molecules are broken down to produce the energy to maintain life.” Paolo Cassano at Massachusetts General Hospital theorized that an infrared “jolt” could possibly restore normal brain function in people suffering from depression: “Cassano’s idea was to target those sluggish neurons close to the surface where mitochondria, the power sources of cells, could convert the near-infrared light into chemical energy. More chemical energy would mean more neuronal growth and repair, and more and better-functioning neurons in the prefrontal cortex would mean better control over the hyperactive amygdala.”
Participants in the study received twice-weekly twenty-minute treatments of near infrared light for eight weeks. The device used was about the size and shape of a TV remote and sent concentrated light-beams into a specific spot on the head, penetrating the scalp, skull and brain tissue. Patients in the trial had dramatically decreased levels of sadness, anxiety, lethargy, and agitation.
This journal post truly just scratched the surface of the data that is available on brain healing, depression, stroke, and infrared and light therapies. As you can tell, there is a vast amount of research out there on everything from depression to Parkinson’s to Alzheimers and strokes, and I encourage you to read the sources listed below and do your own deep dive. I walked away from this investigation with a deeper appreciation for this healing modality of infrared light than I have ever had before. Yet what affected me the most is that while reading about all of these studies, all the science and data and numbers, I found myself feeling deeply grateful for all the men and women behind them who are working tirelessly to solve these dire medical issues. It made me think of Mr. Roger’s mother’s reminder that we should always “look for the helpers.” How beautiful is it to remember that each and every day, there are incredibly smart, creative, and loving people waking up and giving their time, their lives, to find new ways to heal us and our human family.