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Drinking Habits

Red Light Therapy for Addiction Recovery: Is It Effective?

June 8, 2024
15 min read
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A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 8, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 8, 2024
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 8, 2024
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Reframe Content Team
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Red Light Therapy Can Be a Supportive Treatment in Alcohol Addiction Recovery

  • Red light therapy is a newer process that is being looked at as a treatment in alcohol addiction recovery, but does it work?

  • While red light therapy doesn’t cure dependence, it can help reduce withdrawal symptoms, boost our mood, and promote healing.

  • Take a more holistic approach to recovery with Reframe! Reframe is a 24/7 recovery support team in your pocket, complete with the information, motivation, and strategies you need to make a lifelong change.

Have you seen influencers recently promoting Darth Vader-looking face masks that shine red light onto their skin? These masks are commonly used for skin care, but more recently, the same red lights have been suggested as a treatment for alcohol addiction recovery. How can red light possibly help with alcohol misuse or dependence?

Well, the red light in red light therapy isn’t the same red light we see at stoplights or on top of police cars. Science shows that the red light used in red light therapy has beneficial effects. Let’s take a closer look at its mechanisms to understand how it might help in recovery from alcohol use disorder.

What Is Red Light Therapy?

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Red light therapy (RLT) is a technique that uses low-level wavelengths of red light and near-infrared light for a variety of benefits. RLT regenerates cells and restores cell function through a process known as photobiomodulation.

The treatment is administered through devices such as light beds, lamps, wands, and masks, which expose our skin to specific wavelengths of light. Red light therapy has a wide range of uses:

  • Repairing skin damage
  • Reversing hair loss
  • Reducing redness and scarring
  • Managing acne
  • Reducing inflammation

RLT appears to have many benefits, but how does it work?

The Science Behind Red Light Recovery

Red light sits on the low-energy end of visible light, next to infrared light. In comparison to other colors of visible light such as blue or green, red light penetrates further into our skin without the detrimental effects of infrared radiation. 

By penetrating deeper into our skin, red light targets our mitochondria — vital structures that generate most of the energy needed to power our cells’ biochemical reactions The low wavelengths of light are absorbed by our mitochondria, improving our energy level and promoting cell function, which enhances oxygen saturation and blood flow. This helps reduce inflammation and stimulates cell and tissue regeneration. Together, these mechanisms promote healing and reduce pain. But how does this process relate to alcohol dependence or alcohol use disorder? Let’s first review how we acquire alcohol use disorder so we can better understand how red light therapy can help relieve its symptoms and help us heal.

Benefits of Red Light Therapy

Understanding Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) or alcohol “addiction” is a condition that is marked by an impaired ability to stop drinking despite the negative consequences. It’s a neurological disorder that can range from mild to severe impairment. The severity and diagnosis of AUD are determined by healthcare professionals using criteria from the DSM-5.

In recovery from AUD, many of us experience alcohol withdrawal after quitting or cutting back on alcohol. In some cases, medical treatment and monitoring may be needed. Treatment for AUD can also consist of medication, behavioral treatments, and support groups. So where does red light therapy fit in?

Is Red Light Therapy Effective for Addiction Recovery?

Although red light therapy does not reduce alcohol dependence, it can help address acute withdrawal symptoms and symptoms of dry drunk syndrome. 

Acute alcohol withdrawal and post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) involve mental and physical symptoms that may benefit from the healing properties of red light therapy. Let’s take a closer look at the exact treatments and benefits that can be used in recovery from AUD.

Red Light Therapy Detox Treatment 

Red light therapy is commonly used during alcohol detoxification — typically the most physically grueling process of recovery. Those of us with AUD have developed a dependence on alcohol, which can cause symptoms of withdrawal once the substance is removed. 

Alcohol withdrawal comprises mild to moderate symptoms such as headaches, GI disturbances, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, insomnia, anxiety, and more. Red light therapy can help reduce these unpleasant symptoms and help our body return to normal functioning by decreasing pain and repairing cell damage. Increased blood flow and elimination of toxins through our skin and lymphatic system support natural detoxification, another benefit of red light therapy detox. (Severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, including hallucinations, disorientation, and impaired attention, are not treated through RLT and require immediate medical attention.)

Another major aspect of alcohol detoxification is our mental condition. When we developed a neurological dependence on alcohol, quitting can cause decreased mood, disrupted sleep, and urges to drink. Research shows that red light therapy has mental benefits such as improved sleep and mood. RLT releases melatonin, which improves our quality of sleep. It also releases endorphins and increases serotonin and dopamine levels, which help with cravings and mood.  

Treating Co-occurring Conditions

Besides withdrawal, alcohol dependence and AUD may cause health conditions that are linked with co-occurring conditions such as:

  • Liver disease
  • GI issues
  • Diabetes 
  • Cardiovascular disease 
  • Musculoskeletal conditions 
  • Certain types of cancer
  • Psychiatric conditions

While red light therapy can’t treat these conditions on its own, it can deliver benefits as a supporting treatment. For example, when it is used in conjunction with other treatment methods, It can help reduce inflammation, elevate immune function, promote healing, and produce positive emotional impacts.

Other Benefits of Red Light Therapy

Red light therapy has many uses beyond AUD recovery that bring a wide range of benefits.

  • Reduces alcohol hangover symptoms. Similar to aiding in symptoms of withdrawal, alcohol hangover symptoms can be made less unpleasant with red light therapy. Hangover headache, GI discomfort, and low mood can be treated efficiently with RLT.
  • Promotes hair growth. By increasing blood flow and reducing inflammation, RLT can increase cell activity and bring nutrients to the scalp, encouraging hair growth.
  • Combats symptoms of aging. RLT can reduce signs of aging such as wrinkles and skin texture. RLT acts on fibroblasts — cells that contribute to the formation of connective tissue — which ups collagen production and improves skin elasticity.
  • Accelerates wound healing. RLT’s positive impact on cell and tissue repair can accelerate wound healing.
  • Potentially increases fat loss. Some studies show that RLT may affect the cells that store fat. However, additional research is needed to conclude that it’s an effective weight loss treatment. 

It appears that red light therapy has many benefits, but is it safe? 

Is Red Light Therapy Safe?

No major direct dangers from red light therapy have yet been reported. The treatment is generally regarded as safe and noninvasive. In addition, no major side effects have been reported. However, if used improperly for too long or with excessive power, it may cause burns, adverse skin reactions, and could possibly lead to tissue damage. 

Red light therapy isn’t recommended for those with photosensitivities — conditions aggravated by exposure to sunlight, such as lupus or psoriasis. The therapy also isn’t recommended for those  who are taking photosensitizing medications such as tetracycline and naproxen. Anyone with cancer or a history of cancer should also proceed with caution as research shows conflicting results. A study on the safety of red light therapy on cancer cells in mice found no harmful effects. A different study found, however, that it can increase the growth rate of cancer cells in cell culture. In any event, before trying red light therapy, first consult a physician.

Although red light therapy is relatively safe, it isn’t always accessible to us, and it isn’t necessary to recover from alcohol dependence or AUD. Let’s review some other methods that we can utilize to aid our recovery.

Tips for Navigating Recovery From Alcohol Addiction

Treatment for alcohol use disorder typically requires an all-around approach that will help target the different aspects of recovery. A variety of practices other than red light theory are known to support recovery from alcohol dependence and AUD.

  • Using healthy coping mechanisms. Finding and utilizing healthy coping mechanisms such as deep breathing and distractions can help prevent us from drinking to self-medicate.
  • Managing stress. Reducing stress through meditation, journaling, physical activities, and other strategies helps minimize a major trigger for drinking. 
  • Practicing self-care. Self-care through healthy eating, regular exercise, taking breaks, and other wellness practices can give us strength to keep moving forward in our journey.
  • Developing a support system. Support through family and friends, professional treatment, and peer support groups is key to our success as we navigate recovery.

By no means are these strategies reserved for recovery from alcohol use disorder. They can benefit anyone looking to quit or cut back on alcohol. 

Green Light on the Red Light

Red light therapy is a helpful tool in recovery from alcohol dependence and alcohol use disorder. It can aid in mitigating unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal and dry drunk syndrome, which can motivate us to continue on our journey to recovery. But if we aren’t able to access RLT, many other self-care strategies will support challenges we may face in recovery. In this case, red light doesn’t mean stop!

Summary FAQs

1. What is red light therapy?

Red light therapy is a type of treatment that utilizes red light or near-infrared light to enhance cell function.

2. Does red light therapy help in alcohol addiction recovery?

Yes, red light therapy can serve as a supporting treatment in alcohol addiction recovery due to its physical and mental benefits. 

3. What are some symptoms of alcohol detox that RLT assists?

RLT can help with withdrawal symptoms such as body aches, low mood, low energy, and inflammation.

4. Can red light therapy help with alcohol hangovers?

Red light therapy can help with some hangover symptoms, including headache and inflammation. It supports natural detoxification.

5. What other helpful tools can support my recovery journey?

Developing a support system, managing stress, and finding healthy coping mechanisms are all useful tools in recovery.

Feel Supported in Recovery with Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

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The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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