Is photobiomodulation (PBM) useful for depression? There is a surprising amount of research that says it is.
A study from 2009, published in Behavioral and Brain Functions, described great success with a form of PBM against major depression and anxiety. Another 2018 review in Journal of Affective Disorders also found PBM to be effective in treating major depressive disorder.
How Antidepressants Work
To try to understand this, I looked up a three-page article on WebMD that explains how antidepressant medications work. The article was refreshing in its honesty: “The truth is that even experts aren’t completely sure how antidepressants work. There’s just a lot we don’t know about how the brain functions.” But if you keep reading, you may come to the same conclusion I did: antidepressants improve the work of synapses. That is, they manipulate neurotransmitters (which are fundamental to synaptic communication) in order to reduce blockages that get in the way of neurons communicating with each other.
So nobody is really sure how antidepressant medications work. On the other hand, nobody really knows how PBM works, either. But…
PBM’s Similarity to AntiDepressants
Michael Hamblin’s influential 2016 paper (which I have cited before) suggested that PBM performs three kinds of health-giving services to the brain. The first he calls short-term stimulation: increased ATP production, improved blood flow, improved lymphatic flow, and increased oxygenation. This is probably what creates the mild sense of buoyancy you get coming out of a PBM session. The second service he calls neuroprotection: reduced inflammation, increased antioxidants, and growth in proteins that mitigate cell death. The third service he calls “help the brain repair itself,” which results from processes that enhance the growth of neurons and synapses.
Could it be that PBM’s brain repair service is analogous to the effect of antidepressant medications? If PBM enhances synaptic communication, that’s likely. I’m neither a doctor nor a physiologist. But I can tell you that after 12 minutes of PBM, I always come out with the same feelings: relaxation, energy, buoyancy. And if I were suffering from depression, PBM would be the first thing I would try. Feelings of relaxation, energy, and buoyancy don’t leave much room for depression.
But there is one way in which PBM and antidepressant medications are not at all alike: PBM has far fewer side effects. The only side effects we’ve ever seen here are the aforementioned feelings of relaxation, energy, and buoyancy. The risks of trying PBM are negligible. It’s certainly worth discussing with your doctor or therapist.
Photobiomodulation for Depression
The clinical studies of photobiomodulation almost all rely on LED-lined helmets, and even LED nasal probes. You won’t find those devices at a drug store, and you won’t find them at Peak Recovery & Health Center. What we offer is a PBM bed that can bathe your entire body in light shifted to the near infrared. This is called systemic PBM. Scientists are currently discussing whether PBM’s beneficial effects on brain health result more from applying it directly to the head or from systemic treatment. There are good technical arguments for systemic treatment, but it has gotten less coverage in the research literature.
If you are looking to help yourself or a loved one with the kind of systemic (i.e., whole-body) PBM we offer here at Peak Recovery & Health Center, you can do so without risk to your health. One of our PBM sessions is usually 12 minutes long, which is a minimal time investment for a potentially massive benefit. Book a session or two.