The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
Months ago I started writing about colored light therapy assuming I would share the history of colored glass in ancient temples and quirky stories about phony chromotherapy practices. I assumed that "color therapy," (chromotherapy, photobiomodulation, etc.) had no medical credibility but would make for an interesting story or two. As much as I wanted to believe shining colored lights could fix my scars, or improve my mood, I had a hard time believing it. Is there any proof that color therapy actually works?
Colored light therapy in medicine dates back to ancient Egypt, Greece, India, and China and has been investigated within medicine since at least 2000 BCE. In various cultures, temples were built to reflect light in certain ways, and houses were painted to induce different energies and moods. Ancient Egyptian scrolls write about using color to cure ailments and recognized the importance of sunlight by worshipping the god Ra, an embodiment of the physical sun. In fact, most cultures at some point in written history had a solar deity or honored the sun. Ancient cultures built healing temples with windows covered in a variety of colored cloths. Colorful gemstones were used in healing rooms to transfer light. The sick were “color diagnosed” and then put into rooms that radiated a prescribed color. The Greeks used colored minerals, stones, crystals, salves, and dyes as remedies, and painted treatment sanctuaries in a variety of colors.
Chroma healing also has roots in ancient China and India. The Chinese have used color to symbolically represent the cosmic order on Earth, a cosmic energy—ch’i—that can shape destiny. And most recognizable to 21st-century eyes are the colorful chakras, conceptual yet phenomenologically based colored energy sources from the human body. Universally we have convinced ourselves ( some claims more outlandish than others) that colored light can heal.
Ancient cultures knew the power of color but not how to quantify its effects. Is there any truth that colors can heal us? can light help our ailing bodies or improve our quality of life? ( see a long list of articles at the end of this blog... and if you are already bored by this colorful rabbit hole, skip to the healing properties of color, hue by hue in an easy-to-read list
There is a long succession of scientists and researchers who have spent their life learning about the healing properties of light (color). Many of these researchers ( during and after their lifetime) were seen as quack doctors. It is only recently that contemporary research is proving that light therapy might just be the real deal.. at least in some aspects. Andrew Huberman, a current neuroscientist at Stanford University states " No other form of energy can target a particular area of the body like light can. Light is the sharpest of tools."
During the 1800’s Edwin Babbit spent his time studying light and color therapy, opening schools and treatment centers. He authored the book Principles of Light and Color and specialized in understanding the antagonistic effect of red and blue light. He invented the Chromalume, a stained glass therapy device. One of his predecessors includes Avicenna, born in 980 CE. Avicenna discussed chromotherapy in The Canon of Medicine. He wrote that "color is an observable symptom of disease. " Another pioneer of color therapy is Civil war general Augustus Pleasonton. Pleasonton conducted his own experiments and published his book The Influence of The Blue Ray of The Sunlight. This book describes how the color blue can improve the growth of plants and aid in healing diseases in humans.
Following in line with Babbitt, Dinshah P. Ghadiali, a well-criticized researcher of color therapy published The Spectro Chromemetry Encyclopaedia. Ghadiali claimed to have discovered why and how the different colored rays have various therapeutic and balancing effects on the body. He produced the Spectrochrome, a large portable device that projected colored light on the body. Ghadiali was supported by a few experts, but overall his claims were seen as preposterous. He was sued a lot, lost everything, and was required to destroy his beloved Spectrochrome. If you google him, the first thing that pops up is an article calling him the" kingpin of fakers," I'll let you decide.
We know though, that during the late 1800's light therapy or phototherapy was a primary treatment for tuberculosis, as prolonged exposure to sunlight kills bacteria. Exposing the sick person to sunlight raised their vitamin D levels. Exposure to sunlight ( heliotherapy) is not always available so artificial lamps (phototherapy) were used such as the ultraviolet Finsen lamp, invented by Nobel prize-winning Danish physician Niels Ryberg Finsen.
In the 1930s heliotherapy became very popular in Europe. One of the biggest proponents of light therapy was Dr. Auguste Rollier who established a sun-therapy clinic in Leysin in the Swiss Alps. During the early 20th century a few doctors around the globe, including the Institute of Ray Therapy in London were using these techniques to treat things from anemia, puerperal sepsis, peritonitis, encephalitis, polio, and herpes simplex. Although it wasn't long before too much sun was just too much... and skin cancer became a side effect of the treatment. This led to an investigation into more specified research on how light heals, and how its hues can be isolated and used for a variety of treatments.
During the 1950s, jaundice in babies, a potentially fatal condition, was successfully treated by exposure to sunlight. The success of this treatment was confirmed in the 1960’s, and white light treatment, and later blue light treatment replaced high-risk blood transfusions. Another example of color therapy success happened in the early 1990’s. During this time Nasa had success with light experiments where they attempted to grow plants in space and found that the intense light from red light-emitting diodes (LEDs) helped promote the growth and photosynthesis of plant cells. These experiments led to the beginnings of solid proof that hues have the power to heal.
Fast forward to the 21st century and there is cutting-edge research proving that color therapy or chromotherapy is not just helpful, but quantifiably beneficial for a large list of ailments. Many aestheticians, psychologists, and medical specialists now support that colored light can be beamed onto an afflicted part of the body to promote healing. Kaiyan Medical states " Today, the therapeutic applications of light and color are being investigated in major hospitals and research centers worldwide. Results indicate that full-spectrum, ultraviolet, colored, and laser light can have therapeutic value for a range of conditions from chronic pain and depression to immune disorders."
So how does it work? Light is made up of a variety of electromagnetic wavelengths, also known as energy. Light (Color) has many wavelengths, some we can see, and some we cannot. These wavelengths of energy range from long red wavelengths and short blue wavelengths. There are also Invisible ( to us) wavelengths longer than red called infrared and wavelengths shorter than blue are ultraviolet. All of the colors of light visible and invisible can affect our health. These wavelengths can penetrate our skin and our eyes at varying depths. Each wavelength stimulates various organelles in the body ( mitochondria, nuclei, etc.) Infrared can penetrate our body down to the bone, whereas blue light effects are more superficial.
Color therapy can be administered by exposure to various colors through experience and eyesight such as the use of paint colors, clothing, or even light bulbs in the workplace. This therapy is helpful, but much more subjective. However, controlled exposure to sunlight and targeted colored lights shows evidence it can heal us. Verywell Health states "Various wavelengths of color can penetrate tissues at various depths. Light and color exposure have been scientifically proven to heal us in many ways. After light therapy sessions, improvements have been found in alertness, mood, energy, attention, concentration, happiness, and other markers of depression. Additionally, while currently thought of primarily to treat seasonal affective disorder, light therapy is increasingly being used to treat other forms of depression and mood disorders, with promising results " The same goes for skin. Skin contact light red light therapy can take many forms such as isolated wavelength exposure through face masks, sleeping bags, or other forms of colored LED lights. These treatments speed up healing and skin turnover.
There is also research that points to light therapy's improvement in hormone levels, fertility, and aging. Each color seems to correlate with different ailments, with red and blue light ranking as the most quantifiably helpful. As an artist who constantly observes the subtlety of color shifts in paint and the environment, I can see a correlation between the psychology of color in design and the science of light. For example, red is a color often used in design to tap into our primal instincts ( think red lips or red fast food advertising ). This red can also penetrate our skin and heal from within our core. Red reaches deep physiologically and psychologically. Within this context, artists have exploited the effects of color for hundreds of years. Artists have used color and light in sculpture, painting, installation, and land art to capitalize on the colorful phenomena of hue and pigment.
If you made it this far, congratulations. Here is a list of practical ways you can use light therapy. I am an artist, not a doctor, so always check with a medical professional before you experiment with any type of light therapy.
Outdoor light :
Use a light box in the morning or walk outside for a few minutes to cue the body that it is daytime.
20-30 min of UVB exposure resets the circadian rhythm producing melatonin and inhibits melatonin synthesis.
Take time to be outdoors every day, and if possible expose as much skin as you can. This can improve mood, reduce anxiety and improve one's mental health.
Reasonable exposure to bright light, dawn light, or daylight lamps can treat seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder.
Red light 650 - 700 nanometers
Strengthens the mitochondria. By increasing the function of the mitochondria using a cell can make more ATP. With more energy, cells can function more efficiently, rejuvenate themselves, and repair damage.
Directly stimulates the regeneration of the skin without damaging it. Red light exposure can also penetrate deep into the human body, even stimulating bone marrow.
Red light can improve skin complexion, improves scars, builds collagen, and helps to mend sun damage
Add long-wavelength light like amber or red to your evening space for deeper sleep if you tend to wake up a lot. Avoid evening overhead lights after 9 pm.
Red light Improves hair growth in people with androgenic alopecia.
Helpful in the short-term treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Stimulates the healing of slow-healing wounds, like diabetic foot ulcers, and psoriasis lesions, and provides short-term relief of pain and morning stiffness in people with rheumatoid arthritis
Can reduce some of the side effects of cancer treatments, including oral mucositis
Prevents recurring cold sores from herpes simplex virus infections
Improves the health of joints in people with degenerative osteoarthritis of the knee
Relieves pain and inflammation in people with pain in the Achilles' tendons
Causes hemoglobin to multiply, thus increasing energy and raising body temperature conditions as it stimulates sensory nerves such as hearing, taste, and smell, and activates metabolism
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
Replace your night lights with red or orange/amber lights to promote better sleep if you frequently wake up in the middle of the night
Through orange, we are able to heal the physical body (similar to red).
Orange is the best emotional stimulant, helping to remove inhibitions and encouraging independent social behavior.
Exposure to Amber/Orange light can aid in repairing inflammation of the kidneys, gallstones, menstrual cramps, epilepsy, wet cough, and sinus conditions.
The use of amber lights within the home or hospital doorways aids in preventing falls during the night.
This color is often associated with one’s mind-body connection. Using this color in therapy may help with healing one’s relationship with food.
Yellow light 580 nanometers
Yellow can be used for conditions of the stomach, liver, and intestines. It can help the pores of the skin by repairing scarred tissue. These rays have an alkalizing effect which strengthens the nerves.
Typical diseases treated by yellow are constipation, gas, liver troubles, diabetes, eczema, and nervous exhaustion.
Yellow is used for treating redness, flushing, sunburn, irritation, and Rosacea. It may also reduce the appearance of the tiny blood vessels on the nose and face
Stimulates the lymphatic system
Yellow can be used for conditions of the stomach, liver, and intestines. It can help the pores of the skin by repairing scarred tissue.
Green light 550 nanometers
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. Green can reduce inflammation, which plays a role in chronic pain conditions
More studies are needed but 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
Helps to treat and prevent hyper-pigmentation by inhibiting the production of excess melanin which then prevents it from traveling to the surface. It will help break up the melanin clusters that are already on the surface.
Natural colors are serene and inviting. UVB light green hues have grounding attributes that could allow a person to feel more connected to themselves and their environment, but too much of this green light can become disturbing. The eye and brain accommodate the color and it almost starts to feel neutral, although, in reality, the brain's visual system is becoming fatigued.
Blue light 450 - 500 nanometers
Artificial blue light decreases serotonin levels. By limiting exposure to blue light, you may notice a change in your overall mood. Try taking a break from looking at your laptop, phone, or TV. Or, you can change the color balance on your devices so displays are dimmer and warmer.
Avoid artificial blue light 2 hrs before your normal bedtime, this will help with your ability to fall asleep
Blue light has been proven to increase levels of estrogen and testosterone. Because of this, blue light ( especially exposure during the summer months, or long days of the year) can increase mating and reproduction.
Exposure to blue light during the day can make you feel more alert and improve reaction time, focus, and productivity.
Targeted blue light soothes inflammation and calms sensitive skin
Violet Light 400-450 nanometers
Increases cell regeneration and renewal
Eliminates acne-causing bacteria
Reduces facial inflammation
Reduces the appearance of acne-related scars
Violet light has a similar effect as the combination of red and blue light therapies.
Violet can calm the nervous system, soothes organs, and helps to relax muscles. Violet has meditative qualities and is often used to treat conditions of the lymphatic system and spleen, as well as urinary disorders and psychosis.
Infrared 780 nanometers and 1 mm
Infrared (heat) penetrates the inner layers of the skin at about 2 to 7 centimeters deep. Hence, it reaches the muscles, nerves, and even the bones. Many studies have shown that a frequency of infrared light, with wavelengths from 700 to 1,000 nanometers, is best used for healing inflammatory conditions.
infrared therapy was developed to improve wound healing, reduce the pain caused by arthritis, boost endorphin levels, and bioactivate neuromodulators.
Infrared therapy technology allows people to harness the benefits of the sun, without being exposed to harmful ultraviolet rays. Also, infrared therapy is safe and effective, without adverse side effects. As a matter of fact, infrared light is safe and is used even for infants in neonatal intensive care.
Chromotherapy as a system of treatment can benefit people because of its harmony with nature. Color researcher Dr. Morten Walker said: "You realize you are part of the hologram of life, surrounded by an aura or energy field that radiates distinct color and vibrations. The aura fingertips your soul and reflects your goodness, wellness, mental stability, maturity, emotional/inner turmoil, or peaceful fulfillment. More of each of these qualities, peace, wellness, stability, maturity, and fulfillment may become your ever-present precious possession by the application of color's power in our daily living "
Still, think it's quackery?
Check out these credible resources:
Skin exposure to UVB light induces a skin-brain-gonad axis and sexual behavior (Cell Reports)
Skin Exposure to Ultraviolet B Rapidly Activates Systemic Neuroendocrine and Immunosuppressive Response (Photochemistry and Photobiology)
A visual circuit related to the periaqueductal gray area for the antinociceptive effects of bright light treatment (Neuron)
Light exposure during sleep impairs cardiometabolic function (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)
Light-emitting diodes in dermatology: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials (Lasers in Surgery and Medicine)
Low-level laser (light) therapy (LLLT) in skin: stimulating, healing, restoring (Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery)
Weeklong improved colour contrasts sensitivity after single 670 nm exposures associated with enhanced mitochondrial function (Scientific Reports)
Red light: A novel, non-pharmacological intervention to promote alertness in shift workers (Journal of Safety Research)
Gamma Entrainment Binds Higher-Order Brain Regions and Offers Neuroprotection (Neuron)
Birren, & Lufkin, R. (2016). Color psychology and color therapy : a factual study of the influence of color on human life. Pickle Partners Publishing.
Azeemi, A., et al. (2019). The mechanistic basis of chromotherapy: Current knowledge and future perspectives. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 46, 217–222. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2019.08.025
Ifdil, I., et al. (2019). Chromotherapy: An alternative treatment for mathematics anxiety among elementary school students. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 1175, 012183. https://doi.org/10.1088/1742-6596/1175/1/012183
Deppe A. Ocular light therapy: a case study. Aust J Holist Nurs 2000;7(1):41.
Geldschlager S. Osteopathic versus orthopedic treatments for chronic epicondylopathia humeri radialis: a randomized controlled trial. Forsch Komplementarmed Klass Naturheilkd 2004;Apr, 11(2):93-97.
Maher CG. Effective physical treatment of chronic low back pain. Orthop Clin North Am 2004; Jan, 35(1):57-64.
Natural Standard Research Collaboration, Chief Editors: Ulbricht C, Basch E, Natural Standard Herb, and Supplement Reference: Evidence-Based Clinical Reviews, USA. Elsevier/Mosby, 2005.
Ohara M, Kawashima Y, Kitajima s, et al. Inhibition Of lung metastasis of B16 melanoma cells exposed to blue light in mice. Int J Molecular Medicine 2002;10(6):701-705.
Wileman SM, Eagles JM, Andrew JE, et al. Light therapy for seasonal affective disorder in primary care: a randomized controlled trial. Br J Psych 2001;178:311-316.
Wohlfarth H, Schultz A. The effect of color psychodynamic environment modification on sound levels in elementary schools. Int J Biosocial Res 2002;(5):12-19.
Zifkin BG, Inoue Y. Visual reflex seizures induced by complex stimuli. Epilepsia 2004;45(Suppl 1):27-29.