Should You Try Red Light Therapy for Weight Loss? - Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC

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Should You Try Red Light Therapy for Weight Loss?

Is Cold Laser Therapy the Ticket to a Healthy Weight?

Key Takeaways:

  • Red light laser therapy (RLT) for weight loss is promising, as research shows it has fat-burning effects and can help you lose fat from targeted areas, like the waist.
  • RLT can also regulate the hormones involved in metabolism like thyroid hormone, insulin, and leptin.
  • Claims from body sculpting/contouring companies are often vastly overstated, and research is mixed on its weight loss benefits, so use your discretion.
  • Cold laser therapy isn’t a substitute for diet and exercise and shouldn’t be used as a stand-alone therapy for weight loss. 
  • However, RLT seems to work best for weight loss when combined with regular exercise.
  • The biggest “risks” of red light therapy for weight loss are its expense, unclear long-term effects, and poorly defined protocols.

Can red light therapy for weight loss make dieting a thing of the past? While the scientific evidence does support the use of these red light-emitting cold lasers for body sculpting and weight loss, they are by no means a miracle cure for that extra weight. 

Though it’s likely not a stand-alone for weight loss, red light therapy (RLT) may boost your weight-loss efforts alongside a whole-foods diet and an exercise regimen. It may even have hormonal effects that promote a healthier body weight and overall metabolism, along with numerous other health benefits. 



The downsides of RLT are that it can be expensive, time-consuming, and lacking in standardized protocols. And if you do decide to take the plunge and splurge for a few sessions, it’s currently unclear how long the effects will last. 

If you’re looking for sustainable weight loss, I’ve broken down a scientific review that covers other fat-burning methods including a diet that cuts processed foods, such as the Paleo diet or is calorie-restricting, as in intermittent fasting. Unfortunately, the long-term weight loss benefits of these are also unclear, but I frequently see my patient’s health drastically improve from these diets, giving them an edge over RLT.

But for those with stubborn fat or who want to quickly drop some pounds while pursuing a healthy diet and lifestyle, research shows that cold laser therapy may help you attain your weight loss goals. Just keep an eye out for overstated claims, and know that these sessions often come with a high price point.

Red Light Therapy for Weight Loss: How Does It Work?

Red light therapy can be performed in-office with larger devices, which most body sculpting companies use. However, smaller devices can be purchased for at-home use for other concerns like joint pain or wrinkles. 

The light is directed toward or placed on your body, and a session length can vary from 5 minutes to over an hour. It depends on many factors, including the target area, desired benefits, and device size. Weight loss companies state that benefits can be seen after one use, while others promote multiple sessions for up to a year. 

Red light therapy emits red light (hence its name), but is typically not felt during a session as it does not emit heat. While we still aren’t exactly sure how red light therapy exerts its benefits, research shows that these wavelengths penetrate into the skin tissue and stimulate the production of the body’s natural energy source, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) [1]. 

Research shows that cold laser therapy can release lipids from fat cells (adipocytes), which explains its popularity as a fat burner [2]. Weight loss is actually one of the more well-known benefits of red light therapy, made popular by body sculpting procedures that use this technology to reduce adipose tissue and tighten skin. 

RLT increases blood flow, helping to eliminate waste from the body and ensure a well-functioning metabolism. Cold laser therapy (synonymous with RLT) can reduce oxidative stress, which is known to accelerate the aging process and increase weight-promoting hormones. It can also improve collagen and elastin production, an essential component of healthy skin [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]. 

While the optimal red light therapy parameters and protocols are still up for debate for many conditions, 20 minutes of RLT every other day for 2 weeks removed an inch from the participants’ waist, hips, and thighs in one 2013 study [7]. A second clinical trial replicated the findings with a 4-inch total loss from the hips, waist, and upper abdomen in overweight participants [8].  

However, it’s worth stating that many body contouring companies that promote red light therapy for weight loss make significantly exaggerated claims that are not backed up by scientific evidence. Some studies have even shown that it may not have consistent fat loss results (perhaps caused by a lack of standardized protocols) [2, 8]. The literature also shows that it may not reduce the appearance of cellulite, if that’s the effect you’re looking for [6].

Overall, while it probably shouldn’t be used as a substitute for a healthy lifestyle, it’s possible that red light therapy helps to boost your weight loss efforts.

How RLT Can Aid Your Weight Loss Efforts

Red light therapy is more effective for fat reduction when combined with exercise [2]. It can improve athletic performance and speed up post-exercise recovery, which could further benefit your weight loss efforts [9, 10]. 

And if pain is preventing you from exercising for weight loss, red light therapy can improve that too. It’s beneficial for skeletomuscular pain [11], with research showing that it benefits conditions like:

  • Low back pain [12]
  • Tendon pain [13]
  • Knee osteoarthritis [14, 15]
  • Plantar fasciitis [16]
  • Fibromyalgia pain [17]

Mental health concerns can create an obstacle to weight loss tools like diet and exercise, and it turns out that low-level laser therapy may help regulate your mood [18]. However, keep in mind that the evidence is scarce, the studies primarily used near-infrared light therapy, and RLT should not be used in place of other treatments like therapy or your current prescriptions. 

If you are wanting to try it out, cold laser therapy is a treatment best used as an add-on for burning fat mass from specific areas of the body. Low-level light therapy may also be beneficial for helping to address any barriers, like pain and depression, that are preventing you from dropping the unwanted pounds.

Weight and Hormones: Where Cold Laser Fits In

Red laser therapy also has hormonal effects that can play a role in boosting weight loss efforts. Both acute and chronic sleep deprivation reduces appetite-satiating hormones (leptin) and increases appetite-stimulating ones like ghrelin. Red light therapy can reverse these effects and help to normalize your appetite, ultimately keeping you full for longer [19].

When combined with exercise, RLT improves insulin and adiponectin levels — two important hormones involved in weight regulation, blood sugar control, inflammation, and appetite [2]. Not only do these benefits help you lose weight, but they have significant benefits for your overall health.

RLT for Thyroid Health

If you are struggling with a low metabolism due to hypothyroidism, cold laser therapy may increase thyroid hormone output. One study found that 30% of the participants were able to stop their thyroid medication within 3 months after starting RLT with selenium, vitamin D, and/or iron [20]. 

Though the added supplements make it hard to tease out which therapy pulled the most weight, another RLT-only trial showed that half the participants were able to maintain normal thyroid status 9 months after discontinuing their medication [21]. 

Those with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis may also see the added benefit of reduced thyroid antibodies [20, 21, 22], but the only long-term study to date shows that they reappeared after 6 years [23].

While this evidence is promising, it’s strongly recommended that you don’t stop your thyroid medication suddenly, and follow a tapering schedule while working with a thyroid-knowledgeable practitioner. It’s also unclear how long these benefits last, as in the case of TPO antibodies, and not all research supports the use of red light therapy treatments for thyroid health [24].  

There are plenty of other options that are well-proven to support a healthy thyroid, including probiotics, selenium, and vitamin D. We offer a self-paced, online thyroid course if you are ready to tackle your thyroid health today — no RLT required.

Are There Risks of Red Light Therapy for Weight Loss?

Red Light Therapy

In the short-term, red light therapy is considered to be safe. Research suggests that it’s even safe for use on the head for brain disorders and on the neck for thyroid dysfunction [24, 25]. Keep in mind that more long-term studies are needed to truly show its safety profile. 

Most of the known side effects are topical and may include:

  • Skin irritation
  • Redness
  • Stinging
  • Skin peeling
  • Hyperpigmentation (skin darkening)

Red light therapy appears to play a role in treating unwanted weight gain, but its benefits are not yet well-understood. While it’s not a “risk” per se, it’s unclear whether it offers sustainable benefits for most conditions, meaning the effects may wear off after use or the body may build a “tolerance” to it.

The most important concern when looking for a RLT device is to purchase one that has been FDA approved. Many companies are now selling cold lasers for half the cost, but may not hold up to their promises. It’s essential that the device emits the correct wavelength and frequencies. As both at-home and in-office devices are costly, you will want to make sure you’re purchasing an authentic, approved cold laser.

However, once you have a device, the ideal treatment parameters (intensity, wavelength, etc.) for most conditions can be unclear. Daily treatments can be time-consuming (often the same length as a high-intensity interval training session).  

Overall, the biggest concerns of red light therapy for weight loss surround the lack of research on its use and effects. This can make it an expensive and time-consuming treatment that may not provide everything you’re looking for. 

other

Natural and Proven Weight-Loss Methods

Red Light Therapy

Diets for Weight Loss

The research is still in its nascence on red light therapy for weight loss, but there are plenty of methods that are proven to show benefits for losing weight. A Paleo diet is an anti-inflammatory, and research supports its use for weight loss (along with many other wellness benefits).

High-quality evidence shows that a Paleo-style diet can help you [26, 27, 28, 29].

  • Lose weight and lower BMI
  • Reduce waist circumference
  • Lower body fat percentage

Like RLT (but with more evidence to back it up), it can regulate factors involved in weight gain, as it can regulate insulin, blood sugar, and inflammation [26, 29, 30, 31].

Intermittent fasting is another option that can help achieve weight loss by cutting calories. Intermittent fasting restricts meals to certain time frames of the day, or alternates fasting days with feeding days. After 2 months, fasting led to a 12 lb. weight loss in overweight individuals [32], and has been shown to reduce BMI and waist circumference in other populations [33]. 

There are several variations of intermittent fasting, so you may want to check out one of our articles that breaks down the details of this weight loss option. 

Probiotics for Weight Loss

It may be surprising to hear that a healthy gut microbiome can also assist in weight loss, and probiotics may be the ticket to getting there. Not only do these tiny organisms lower inflammation and balance your gut bacteria, but there is a small amount of evidence that they also help shed pounds [34, 35].

While the evidence on the direct weight loss benefits is mixed, they can help you lose weight if you are struggling with food addiction. As it turns out, our gut flora can play a part in the foods that we crave, and balancing it with probiotics can lower food cravings and appetite [36]. 

The same study revealed that, compared to placebo, it boosted the weight loss and fat-burning effects of a low-calorie diet, helping to lower BMI, waist circumference, and body fat percentage [36]. 

It’s suggested that thyroid imbalances and autoimmunity are linked to an unhealthy gut microbiome [37, 38], making probiotics a good choice for those with thyroid-related weight gain. They can even reduce fatigue and the need for thyroid medication in those with hypothyroidism [39]. 

They may not directly cause weight loss, but probiotics can help you get there and have many other health benefits.

I would be remiss not to end this article with a mention of exercise for weight loss. While the best exercise regimen is one you can be consistent with, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) combines aerobic and resistance training for optimal fat-burning effects. 

A Final Note on Red Light Therapy For Weight Loss 

Red light therapy, also known as cold laser therapy, does have some evidence backing up its weight loss benefits. It can also help reduce joint pain, improve your mental health, and balance your hormones which all contribute to weight. 

However, the evidence backing up its benefits is still in development, so be wary of exaggerated claims from companies promoting its benefits. When used alongside (not as a replacement for) proven weight loss methods, it can be a helpful tool. 

But it’s important to note that its long-term benefits are unclear, and it can be expensive, so the tried and true methods of weight loss and exercise are probably a more worthy investment of your time. 

At the Ruscio Institute for Functional Health, we can help you along your journey to better health. Feel free to reach out and we can answer your healthcare questions and concerns. 

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

➕ References
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