Everything You Need to Know About Red Light Therapy and Parkinson's Disease
Emerging research red light therapy research shows great promise for patients with Parkinson’s disease. Although medications may help control symptoms, they cannot repair the underlying nerve damage that is characteristic of Parkinson’s. Because red light therapy works at the cellular level, it can help heal the nerve damage, and also relieve symptoms of the disease.
An Overview of Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is an incurable nervous system disorder. It is characterized by movement problems including uncontrolled tremors, impaired balance, muscle stiffness, and Bradykinesia (slowing down of spontaneous and automatic movement) that usually begins on one side of the body, eventually affects both sides of the body, and worsens over time.
It is often accompanied by depression, emotional changes, loss of facial expression, speech changes, muscle cramps, pain, fatigue, urinary/excretory problems, sleep problems, dementia and other cognitive declines, sexual dysfunction, difficulty chewing and swallowing, and orthostatic hypotension (sudden drops in blood pressure).
PD is caused by the abnormal death of brain cells (neurons), especially in the substantia nigra, which is the base of the brain which controls dopamine production. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control motor functions such as walking. MS patients also have extremely low production of norepinephrine, which is responsible for the autonomous nervous system functioning including blood pressure.
Although the cause of neuronal death is not fully known, it could be due to environmental toxins such as pesticides, hereditary factors, and/or mitochondrial dysfunction. The mitochondria are the energy-producing centers of cells in the human body (including brain cells) and it is believed that mitochondrial dysfunction may be the culprit in several neurodegenerative disorders, including PD.
Most PD treatments focus on improving motor symptoms. Dopamine replacement, for example, may slow the progression of the disease but does not cure it.
An emerging treatment—red light—may hold promise in restoring mitochondrial dysfunction, reducing inflammation, and potentially protecting neurons from damage.
The Power of Light
Humans need light to live, and to thrive. We need light for our bodies to perform at their peak, starting at the cellular level. Blue light, for example, directly affects the sleep-wake cycle and alertness, body temperature, hormonal secretions, and cognitive performance.
Today, light is used in a very controlled way for therapeutic purposes. Where healers of the past used to send their patients to the sea or to the mountains to spend time in the sun, we now know that UV light and blue light can cause more harm than good, which makes more sun exposure a less-than-ideal therapy.
What we perceive as light is a narrow spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, which is measured in wavelengths. The length of these waves is measured in nanometers (nm). 1 nanometer equals 1 billionth of a meter. Visible light ranges from about 380nm to 700nm. Together, these wavelengths create “white light,” or what we perceive as sunlight.
Researchers have discovered that of all the visible and invisible wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, red (630-660nm) and near-infrared light (810-850nm) have the most therapeutic uses for human health.
An Overview of Red Light Therapy
“Red light therapy” is often used as an umbrella term that encompasses both red light and near-infrared light. Other terms that are commonly used for this treatment method are photobiomodulation and low-level light therapy (LLLT).
The major difference between red light and NIR light is the depth to which they can penetrate tissue and bone. Red light can absorb into the body’s tissues up to about 1-2cm (about half an inch). NIR light wavelengths (810nm to 850nm) absorb about 4cm (1.57 inch).
Red light therapy has been shown in hundreds of clinical studies to have a wide variety of therapeutic effects on the human body. The treatment is administered to bare skin and t forehead via powerful light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs.
Light photons are absorbed into the skin and underlying tissue where they interact with mitochondria, the “energy factories” inside most cells. Mitochondria, in turn, are stimulated to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the primary fuel for cells. This process is much like photosynthesis, whereby plants absorb energy from the sun to make glucose for their food.
Because of the difference in wavelengths, red light and NIR light are suitable for different types of therapies. Red light soaks into the skin where it stimulates collagen and elastin production, along with forming capillaries and reducing inflammation. Its shorter wavelengths can't absorb deeper into the body, so it’s the ideal therapy for chronic skin conditions, hair loss, and for reversing the signs of aging.
NIR light can absorb much deeper into the body’s tissues. It can even penetrate connective tissue and bone, where it activates stem cells and promotes nervous system health.
Red Light Therapy for Parkinson’s
For people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, red light therapy has incredible potential because of how it addresses the possible causes of diseases, rather than simply managing symptoms. Red light therapy should not be considered a cure, because at this point there is no known cure, but its potential may give hope.
Red light therapy has proved to be effective for people with Parkinson’s disease in many ways, including regenerating nerves, protecting nerves from further damage, reducing inflammation, and stimulating healthy cell activity.
These patients benefit from a combination of both red and NIR light: red light for peripheral nerves in the hands (to help restore normal neuronal functioning and ease tremors); and NIR light to treat the central nervous system, protect neurons from damage, and reduce inflammation.
Used in conjunction with traditional medicine, red light can potentially help Parkinson’s patients experience a return to a more normal life.
The Effects of Red Light on Parkinson’s
Here are some examples of how red light can help with the symptoms and underlying causes of Parkinson’s disease.
Stimulation of Cellular Metabolism and Functioning
When red/NIR light photons are absorbed by photoreceptor molecules inside cells, there is an immediate surge in the production of ATP in the mitochondria. This stimulates vasodilation (the dilation of blood cells), which increases the flow of blood and lymphatic fluid.
It also leads to increased activity of genes responsible for neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons in the brain) and synaptogenesis (the formation of synapses or communication between neurons in the nervous system). According to a 2017 study by Australian researcher John Mitrofanis, this chain reaction leads to healthier neurons that can better protect and repair themselves from oxidative stress and other damage. As Mitrofanis writes in the published study:
“As it stands, light therapy in the experimental setting has been shown to both protect and rescue neurons from degeneration after parkinsonian injury, something that current therapies in patients do not do.”
Red light affects cells not only in the brain but throughout the entire body. Along with being stimulated and energized to perform at their best, cells also become less prone to the degenerative effects of Parkinson’s and other disorders.
Direct and Indirect Effects and Neuroprotection
Both red and near-infrared light appears to have neuroprotective effects in animal studies. The ability to protect neurons that would otherwise die as a result of Parkinson’s-related degeneration means that red light could potentially be an invaluable treatment for other neurodegenerative disorders.
It’s important to note that NIR light wavelengths are insufficient to reach the substantia nigra in humans (as they can in mice) and therefore achieve neuroprotective effects in this region of the rain. However, NIR light can penetrate to the motor cortex, and spark a chain reaction of positive effects.
John Mitrofanis (University of Sydney) believes that a particularly intriguing result of red light therapy is that when it is applied to other parts of the body, it appears to have a neuroprotective effect on the brain. How, is not yet understood, but it may be due to stem cell activation as a result of red light exposure.
A University of Sydney article explored how transcranial photobiomodulation could positively affect PD patients. The researchers believe that NIR light could have three effects:
- Direct stimulation of the distressed neurons to activate the mitochondrial function
- Indirect stimulation whereby LLLT recruits immune and/or stem cells to mobilize to the damaged area and reduce inflammation
- Stimulate other brain regions such as the motor cortex; improved functioning in the motor cortex could then stimulate the neural networks responsible for behavioral (locomotive) improvements.
By protecting the neurons within the motor cortex—along with reducing inflammation and stimulating healthy neuronal activity—red light could be the key to restoring normal bodily functioning that has been impaired by Parkinson’s.
Reducing Inflammation, Oxidative Stress, and Nitrosative Stress
Some of the most common symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are tremors, slowed movement, rigid muscles, slurred speech, loss of automatic movements, and impaired balance. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, symptoms typically start to appear when people with Parkinson’s have lost 60 to 80 percent or more of the neurons in the substantia nigra. It is this devastating loss of dopamine-producing neurons that leads to the development of the disease.
Dopamine isn’t just a feel-good chemical, which is how it’s often perceived. It is a neurotransmitter, and one of its primary functions is relaying messages within the nervous system. Dopamine is vital for the execution of voluntary and involuntary movements: everything from walking and talking to blinking your eyes and breathing.
But what causes the decline in dopamine production that leads to Parkinson’s disease? Scientists do not know for sure, although they have theories based on years of research. Environmental toxins, adverse reactions to medicine, other neurodegenerative conditions, and even strokes are thought to be contributing factors.
Inflammation is also believed to be a culprit in Parkinson’s disease development. When the body is exposed to any pathogen, it responds with inflammation. Under normal circumstances, this is a natural, healthy part of the immune response. But if inflammation persists and becomes chronic, it can cause oxidative stress (an overabundance of free radicals that isn’t controlled by normal antioxidant activity) and nitrosative stress (abnormal overproduction of nitric oxide).
Oxidative stress leads to mitochondrial dysfunction. This invites even more oxidative stress and a downward spiral of cell functioning as more and more neurons become damaged and die. Likewise, nitrosative stress can damage neurons and lead to a host of neurological problems.
Red light therapy reduces chronic inflammation in the central and peripheral nervous systems. It also slows neuronal death due to oxidative and nitrosative stress and helps boost cellular health so that neurons are better able to protect themselves against any recurring stressors.
Help for the Nervous System
Increasingly, researchers are seeing a link between Parkinson’s and neuropathy, in which there is damage to the peripheral nervous system. This part of the nervous system is vital for movement, balance, receiving sensory information, and autonomic functions like heartbeat and digestion.
People with Parkinson’s disease can also suffer from many non-motor symptoms as described on this website. These include a reduced sense of smell, gastrointestinal problems, urinary problems, excessive sweating, mood changes, cognitive changes, sexual dysfunction, sleep disturbances, and vision problems. This varied assortment of symptoms indicates that Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the entire nervous system, including the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system.
Research has shown that NIR light helps to repair nerve damage partly through reducing inflammation, and also by stimulating Schwann cell production. Schwann cells are essential for building the protective myelin sheath around nerves. The effect of red light on nerve regeneration allows damaged nerves to reconnect and resume normal communication. This, in turn, helps to restore normal locomotor functioning and reduce any weakness, pain, numbness, tingling, or other signs of neuropathy.
Optic neuropathy, which is damage to the optic nerve, is one of the effects of Parkinson’s disease, and if left untreated it can lead to blindness. Fortunately, red light therapy has proved to be effective in helping to relieve eye problems and maintain optic health. Specifically...
- Red light has a neuroprotective effect on the eyes.
- It reduces the degeneration of the optic nerve
- And red light therapy reverses mitochondrial decline in the retina, to help with optic neuropathy.
Treating Parkinson’s at Home with Red Light
Before you self-administer red light therapy, please consult your doctor and do not discontinue any prescribed treatment unless advised to do so. Here are some additional considerations.
The Helmet Controversy
The key to success with red light therapy is using a high-output LED device that ensures the maximum number of light photons will absorb into the skin.
You may have heard about red light wearable helmets as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease. One researcher who has studied the effectiveness of these devices is Mitrofanis, who was the lead author of a 2013 study that involved using red light on mice infected with Parkinson's. The success of that study led to a clinical trial with Parkinson’s patients in Australia.
That may sound promising. But before you go out and purchase one of these helmet devices, remember that even though Parkinson’s originates in the central nervous system within the brain, it also involves the peripheral nervous system. So, irradiating the entire body as well as the head may be more effective in promoting the normal functioning of the entire nervous system.
Helmet problem #1: Low power, high cost. Although commercially available red light helmets cost $3,000 or more, they are severely underpowered. One of the highest-rated helmets, for example, delivers only 24 mW/cm2 of light output (known as irradiance), which is one-fifth of the light energy emitted by the smallest PlatinumLED BIOMAX 300 panel (124 mW/cm2). This means you’re either going to spend extremely long periods wearing the helmet, or you’re going to sacrifice effectiveness.
Helmet problem #2: Wavelength deficiency. Most helmets deliver only one specific wavelength. As mentioned before, the combination of red and NIR wavelengths is the most effective at helping alleviate systemic inflammation and neuroregeneration, both in the peripheral areas of the body as well as within the brain. The PlatinumLED BIOMAX panels offer a patent-pending combination of five of the most scientifically validated red/NIR wavelengths in the right proportions to ensure maximum light absorption and effects on various “layers” of the body.
Helmet problem #3: Too limited! At $3,000 for a helmet vs. $569 for the BIOMAX 300, you’re paying 427 percent more while sacrificing the ability to use the light for other parts of your body, such as the hands. Since Parkinson’s affects the entire body, you want to cover as much of your body as possible in the shortest amount of time and with the most light energy. The PlatinumLED BIOMAX series panels (300, 450, 600, and 900) can be used individually or linked together for a full-body treatment.
Remember that you likely won't notice signs of Parkinson’s until 60 to 80 percent of your neurons are damaged. Give your body a chance to grow new neurons and restore normal neuronal functioning through consistent treatments. Just three to five sessions per week at 10 to 20 minutes per session on an ongoing basis, could gradually help support your body’s natural healing mechanisms, and possibly a reduction in Parkinson’s symptoms and a slowing of the disease’s progression.
At all stages of Parkinson’s disease, give your body the best support you can through:
- A nutrient-dense diet and little or no inflammatory agents like sugar
- Balance exercises such as yoga or dance
- Quality sleep
- Stress reduction
- Cognitive exercises
- A rich social life
Although red light should not be considered a cure for Parkinson’s, it may offer relief and help your body rebuild itself from the inside out.
Head-to-Toe Therapy for Parkinson’s Disease
Regain your enjoyment of life with red light: a non-invasive, natural, painless, and effective way to alleviate for the symptoms and causes of Parkinson’s disease. Although ongoing clinical studies on red light for Parkinson’s have not yet been released (currently, publicly available Parkinson’s research is focused on animal studies), many clinical trials point to red light’s therapeutic benefits for neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis. And since the therapy is free of side effects, it’s a worthwhile consideration for Parkinson’s patients.
Curious to see what else red light can be used for? The PlatinumLED blog is a great resource for discovering the ways that red light therapy can be used for everything from hair loss to diabetic foot neuropathy: literally, head-to-toe benefits.