Here is a partial list of what one company promises sitting under a small panel of red lights will improve: athletic performance and recovery (owing to faster muscle recovery and joint repair), sleep (thanks to increased melatonin production and a “healthy circadian rhythm”), and skin quality (because of reduced inflammation and increased collagen production).
These red lights, in this case made by Joovv, are one of dozens of at-home versions of what’s known as light therapy, or photomedicine, or photobiomodulation, a technology based on the idea that light can change us on a cellular level. This past summer, the journal Frontiers in Medicine published an issue dedicated to photomedicine, and its 12 articles have an overwhelming effect similar to Joovv’s marketing copy, covering dermatological concerns like aging, skin cancer, and psoriasis as well as autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes. I like the way a 2016 journal article phrases it with a bad joke that gives away the researcher’s quiet exuberance: After a brief overview of peer-reviewed light-therapy treatments (for arthritis, hearing loss, and chemotherapy side effects), the conclusion states that “after decades confined to the ‘scientific wasteland,’ [photobiomodulation] may be finally emerging into the light of day (pun intended).”
In recent years, research on light therapy has moved from the fringes of scientific discovery to something closer to the mainstream; its commercial uses are now following the same path, as these devices, once available only in spas, gyms, or dermatologists’ offices, become increasingly affordable for consumers. Meanwhile, the research is only getting more ecstatic. New studies are showing how light can heal the brain and body of … anything? Everything? That’s an exaggeration, obviously, but just barely, or so I’m beginning to believe.
Something about the sheer breadth of maladies that light therapy can supposedly treat has the effect of making the whole thing seem too good to be true; it starts to sound like an infomercial or maybe something advertised on Joe Rogan’s podcast. It does make intuitive sense that light could change the skin — I know (vaguely) that a baby born with jaundice will often be treated with light. I know (personally, irresponsibly) that if you lie in the sun, your skin will tan or burn. And I know people who’ve seen their seasonal depression lift after using a SAD lamp. But what does something like diabetes have to do with light? There’s even some evidence that neurological problems, including Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injuries, can be improved with light therapy. What does neurology have to do with light? And even if I understand that light can and does alter the skin, why (how?) would it reduce wrinkles or acne?
I remember from my brief, failed attempt at becoming a millennial plant parent that houseplants respond to sunlight more dramatically than I might’ve guessed; the cheery, perky pothos I bought for my desk drooped within two days because I’d placed it too far from a window. But that’s a plant. I am not a plant.
(Am I a plant?)