This article is designed to help readers understand how red light therapy can be beneficial for recovery in esports.
Brett Becker MS, OTR/L, ACE-CPT is an Occupational Therapist and an American Council on Exercise (ACE) personal trainer where he has history working with traditional athletes. His traditional sports experience includes football, baseball, basketball, tennis, golf, disc golf, volleyball, and wrestling. His undergraduate degree comes from the University of Northern Iowa in Psychology with a strong interest in sports psychology. Following undergrad he went on to earn his Masters in Occupational Therapy at Allen College where he now resides in Minneapolis, MN working as an Occupational/Hand therapist. He has been involved with multiple esports performance initiatives and education programs.
What Will You Learn?
- What is Red Light and how does it work in esports?
- Red Light Therapy: Effects on Performance/Cognition in esports
- Red Light Therapy: Effects on Sleep in esports
- Red Light Therapy: Effects on Anxiety in esports
- Applications for Gaming
Performance, sleep, and recovery are some of the most important areas to consider when it comes to esports. Our bodies all recover, function, and recharge differently depending on many factors such as the duration, intensity, and even what activity is being done. This recovery will also vary based on what we do or use throughout the day. For example; someone who eats a healthy diet, gets good quality sleep, prioritizes stretching and exercises, and addresses their mental health will likely demonstrate a quicker recovery than if these were not done. The basics discussed above are all hugely important and should be prioritized first, but there are modalities out there that may also demonstrate positive effects towards performance and recovery. One of these modalities that has gained in popularity over the years is near infrared light or better known as red light. Together we will take a look at what the research says regarding the effects, safety, and administration of red light therapy.
You likely learned throughout school that light runs on a spectrum and throughout the spectrum, humans are only able to see a small section of light with the human eye called visible light. Near infrared (NIR) light has a longer wavelength than the more harmful lights we experience on a daily basis such as manmade light (lamps, computer screens, etc) which emit a shorter blue and white light and sunlight which emits all wavelengths of light, with us most often hearing of UV rays being the most damaging. Through NIR, the light is then able to penetrate deeper into the human tissue as opposed to visible light which is taken in by more superficial layers of the skin. This in turn stimulates an enzyme in our mitochondria which absorbs light between 600–900 nm. This leads to enhancement of the cellular metabolic energy, ATP production, and improvement in cerebral blood flow (CBF) while also helping to prevent neuronal cells from dying (Jahan et al., 2019).
In short summary, NIR promotes and recruits cellular help to elicit better energy production and use. Let’s take a look at how what we see in research can be applied practically.
A 2017 study by Grover Jr. and colleagues looked at the effects of how 20 minutes of NIR could affect reaction time and performance. They took a total of 31 healthy volunteers, between the ages of 14 and 65, and used quantitative electroencephalography to look at 3 measures consisting of brain speed, reaction time, and amplitude. Participants in the treated group were given 20 minutes of near infrared treatment. Following the treatment they were asked to complete a reaction time where they were to click a mouse every time a high tone was heard.
Results from the study found that the treated group using red light therapy noticed a 2.31% faster reaction time compared to the control group. They also looked at amplitude, which is a measure of voltage emitted from neural tissue and found that 11 of 13 subjects had a non-statistically-significant increase in amplitude after NIR light treatment. The authors propose that NIR use increases blood flow to the brain through the release of nitric oxide. This in turn enhances the activity of our neurons to work more effectively resulting in these increased statistical measures. The belief in this research is that “cerebral blood flow is linked to neural activity. Where NIR light has been shown to stimulate release of nitric oxide, an endogenous potent vasodilator resulting in increased blood flow.”
Another study from 2019 by Jahan and colleagues also used NIR use in a group of 30 healthy young individuals and found statistically significant improvements in reaction time.
There are several other studies included in the resource section also showing evidence that NIR could promote attentional performance, executive function, and memory.
Another study looked at 20 female athletes and the effects of red light therapy on sleep. Participants were divided into 2 groups, with 10 using red light treatment and the others using a placebo over a 14 day period. Researchers looked at measures for melatonin, which is the body’s natural hormone secreted by the pineal gland to help regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycle, endurance performance, and sleep quality using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index.
Results found that red light therapy improved sleep quality, latency, duration, and serum melatonin levels with statistical significance when compared to the control group. Additionally there was a noted increase in endurance for the red-light therapy group when compared to the placebo group, but this was not significant. These findings demonstrate the benefit that red light therapy could play on gamers, by helping to better regulate their circadian rhythm if sleep is an issue which also correlates with performance and overall health. If gamers are able to get longer and higher quality sleep while also being able to fall asleep quicker than this may be a great too which teams can utilize to help increase players performance and wellbeing (Zhao et al., 2012).
A 2021 study by Maiello and colleagues took 15 participants who had a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and provided them with a NIR headband device to be worn 15-20 minutes 1x/day for 8 weeks. Results show that there was a statistically significant decrease in anxiety according to a number of standardized assessments. In particular, the authors found a significant decrease in sleep latency from the baseline indicating that participants took less time to fall asleep after the NIR treatment.
The research discussed in this article is not focused specifically on gaming performance, but many of the measures can be used to supplement a competitive gamer or esports team to help give them a slight advantage or edge over their competition. This edge can be accomplished in only a short 20 minute treatment and can even be purchased by individual players or teams with little to no safety concerns.
The measures discussed in the article are all very relevant toward gaming performance and overall health for gamers. By focusing on sleep quality, reducing anxiety, increasing cognition, and performance we can help gamers have higher efficacy in their ability and develop a cascade of effects for all other areas in which they can improve.
What Wavelength Should be Used?
Red light therapy can be beneficial specifically towards skin and collagen production between 600-700 nm. NIR has a range between 800-2,500 nm. Research suggests that 830-850 nm is the range for peak absorption, as many of these studies suggest this is the range at which ATP production is increased. It should also be known that when using NIR it should be for a non-thermal effect as a thermal effect could be damaging to skin. In an article by Alper Bozkurt and Banu Onaral, they discovered that NIR use can increase temperature up to 9°C. This is important as cell death increases substantially when cell temperature reaches 41°C (105.8°F). It is also known that depending on the location of the body our surface temperature varies, for example our arm is likely to be close to 32°C whereas our forehead is near 35°C. This means that with a 9°C increase at either of these locations it is possible for our body to experience serious skin burns as a result of using thermal NIR.
The long term effects of near infrared light therapy are not yet fully established, but in review of several studies only a few mild to moderate safety concerns were recognized. These side effects consist of headaches, memory and concentration issues, insomnia, visual illusions, and hypersomnia. Overall, the safety of NIR light has been well-established within specific dosages. These dosages vary a great deal throughout the research, but still fall within a range.
There are many variables and parameters that need to be known in order to correctly use NIR. Energy density is the most important measure as it combines many of the other parameters to determine the dosage, and which is measured in (J/cm²). Distance is one such parameter. The further or closer you are to the light source will play a role in what effect it will have; most research utilized a light source 6-12 inches away from subjects. Power density looks at how intense or concentrated the light is which is measured in mW/cm², and varied widely in the research. Wavelength is another parameter that is important in the setup and is measured in nanometers (nm). Most of the studies cited above utilized wavelengths between 830-850 nm. The last variable is time; time should be monitored because overexposure could be harmful.
Parameters used in research utilize the following formula to determine dosage.
Dose/Energy density (in J/cm2) = Power Density (in mW/cm2) x Time (in seconds) x 0.001
Note: Use of red light therapy as a modality may be subject to varying levels of regulation in your region. Please consult your profession’s practice act prior to use. This articles is designed to provide an overview of the functions of red light therapy, and practical application may require training or practice. We are not responsible for any use or misuse of devices purchased, nor are we responsible for any accidents or injuries that may occur. Always consult the manufacturer’s directions for use.