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The Benefits of Red, Green, and Blue Light Therapy

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Photo: wacomka/Getty Images

Light therapy is having a moment, but its potential for easing pain and fighting depression has been recognized for decades.  Different hues of lights have different therapeutic benefits, so before you jump into a treatment session or invest in a light, consult this primer on the effects of three different colors of light. (Related: Crystal Light Therapy Healed My Post-Marathon Body—Sort Of.)

For Energy: Blue Light Therpy

Exposure to blue light during the day can make you feel more alert and improve reaction time, focus, and productivity, according to research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “Photo receptors in the eye, which link to the areas of the brain that control alertness, are most sensitive to blue light. Therefore, when blue light hits them, the receptors set off activity in those brain regions, making you more energized,” says Shadab A. Rahman, Ph.D., the study’s author.

Another perk: Daytime exposure may protect your z’s from the disruptive effects of blue light at night, a study from Uppsala University in Sweden found. “When you get a lot of bright light during the day, levels of melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy, are suppressed,” study author Frida Rångtell says. “In the evening, melatonin increases sharply, and nighttime blue-light exposure has less of an impact.” Boost your productivity and safeguard your sleep by placing the blue-enriched Philips GoLite Blu Energy Light ($80; amazon.com) on your desk. And sit or stand by the windows or go outside as often as possible every day for an extra dose of bright natural light, which contains blue rays. (Also read up on digital eye strain and what you can do to combat it.)

For Recovery: Red Light Therapy

To wind down before bed, use red light. “The color signals that it’s night, which may encourage the body to produce melatonin,” says Michael Breus, Ph.D., an advisory board member for SleepScore Labs. Turn on a bulb like Lighting Science Good Night Sleep-Enhancing LED bulb ($18; lsgc.com) at least 30 minutes before bed.

Red light can also improve your workout. Just one to five minutes of exposure to red and infrared light right before exercise boosted strength and prevented soreness, says Ernesto Leal-Junior, Ph.D., the head of the Laboratory of Phototherapy in Sports and Exercise at Nove de Julho University in Brazil. “Certain wavelengths of red and infrared light—660 to 905 nanometers—reach skeletal muscle tissue, stimulating the mitochondria to produce more ATP, a substance that cells use as fuel,” he says. Some gyms have red-light machines. Or you can invest in your own, like the LightStim for Pain ($249, lightstim.com) or the Joovv Mini ($595; joovv.com).

For Pain Relief: Green Light Therapy

Gazing at green light can reduce chronic pain (caused by fibromyalgia or migraines, for example) by up to 60 percent, according to a study in the journal Pain, and animal studies have shown that the beneficial effects can last up to nine days. “Looking at green light seems to lead to an increase in the body’s production of enkephalins, pain-killing opioid-like chemicals. And it reduces inflammation, which plays a role in many chronic pain conditions,” says researcher Mohab Ibrahim, M.D., Ph.D.

More studies are needed before doctors can make recommendations on how and how often to use green light to treat migraines and other pain, and Dr. Ibrahim says you should see a physician before trying to treat yourself at home. But at this point research indicates that exposing yourself to an hour or two every night—either by using a green light bulb in a lamp or by wearing glasses fitted with tinted optical filters—may decrease migraines and other types of chronic pain.

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