The American Thyroid Association estimates that more than 12% of Americans will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime. Women are particularly at risk.
With thyroid disease being so common, it’s likely that you or someone you know is dealing with a thyroid issue. Light therapy has proven valuable in many aspects of medicine, but does any evidence show benefits of light therapy for thyroid conditions?
What Is Light Therapy?
Light therapy is a type of non-surgical treatment that uses specific wavelengths of light to encourage healing and regeneration in various body systems. Light therapy, or phototherapy, offers a variety of applications, including increasing blood flow, reducing inflammation, accelerating healing, and even managing depression.
Red light therapy, also known as low-level laser therapy or LLLT, uses light from the red and near-infrared light spectrum (between 630 nm and 1,000 nm) to elicit a response from your body. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) or lasers saturate your body with wavelengths of bioactive, therapeutic red light. As the body absorbs and uses the low-level light, deep healing can occur with few to no side effects.
What Is the Thyroid Gland?
Your thyroid gland is a small but mighty organ that sits at the base of your neck. Located right in front of your voice box, this butterfly-shaped gland has two lobes connected in the middle. It makes and releases triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) hormones that control many of your important bodily functions, such as metabolism, heart rate, temperature, and energy level.
When your thyroid is functioning normally, you won’t notice much. But sometimes the thyroid produces too little thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) or too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism). This can cause a variety of problems in the body.
Hypothyroidism happens when the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough hormone. This can be caused by autoimmune disease, congenital disease, radiation or surgery on the thyroid, certain medications, treatment for hyperthyroidism, pregnancy, or iodine deficiency.
Because the thyroid gland controls so many body functions, hypothyroidism can produce lots of unpleasant symptoms. These can include:
- Unexplained weight gain.
- Swelling in the face.
- Memory problems.
- Changes in your menstrual cycle.
- Slow heart rate.
- Feeling colder than normal.
- Swelling in your joints.
- Hair thinning and breaking.
Hypothyroidism is diagnosed through a blood test. It can be treated with an inexpensive medication, usually the synthetic thyroid hormone called levothyroxine.
Hyperthyroidism, on the other hand, occurs when the thyroid is overactive and produces too much thyroid hormone. Conditions like Graves’ disease, an inflamed thyroid gland, and Plummer’s disease can lead to hyperthyroidism.
While hypothyroidism causes “slow and sluggish” symptoms, hyperthyroidism speeds everything up. Symptoms can include:
- Irritability and anxiety.
- More frequent bowel movements.
- Unexplained weight loss despite an increased appetite.
- Tremors and sweating.
- Changes in your menstrual cycle.
- Irregular heartbeat or heart palpitations.
- Feeling warmer than normal.
- Brittle hair that breaks easily.
Hyperthyroidism can be treated with radioactive iodine, anti-thyroid medications, and thyroidectomy surgeries.
Light Therapy’s Effect on the Thyroid Gland
Light therapy’s efficacy has been well established in treating ailments like seasonal affective disorder (SAD), acne, wrinkles, and even osteoporosis in dogs. But when it comes to the thyroid, research is still in its early days. More clinical studies are needed before we can say with confidence that red light therapy can treat thyroid dysfunction. But the limited about of data we do have shows promise.
Safety of Light Therapy for the Thyroid Gland
Because light therapy is sometimes used for cosmetic purposes on the neck, there has been some concern as to the safety of light therapy used near the thyroid gland. Scientists have conducted studies specifically to investigate the matter and have found that light therapy applied to the neck to treat wrinkles caused no side effects in the thyroid gland.
Light Therapy for Specific Thyroid Conditions
While the study mentioned above found no clinically significant change in thyroid function, the light therapy in this study wasn’t specifically targeted to the thyroid gland or conducted in individuals with known thyroid conditions.
The number of studies on light therapy for the thyroid is slowly growing. Below are a few early studies that have already been performed for certain thyroid issues.
Light Therapy for Hypothyroidism
Many patients with chronic autoimmune thyroiditis (CAT) experience low levels of thyroid hormones, or hypothyroidism. One clinical trial involved 43 patients on levothyroxine supplementation due to CAT. One group of participants received 10 sessions of targeted low-level light therapy, while the other group receive 10 sessions of a placebo treatment.
Thirty days after the study was complete, researchers examined participants’ thyroid vascularization. In the group treated with light therapy, normal vascularization was significantly more common than in the patients who received the sham treatment.
The same group of researchers also found that CAT patients who received targeted light therapy for their thyroid glands later required less levothyroxine to achieve normal hormone levels, and sometimes no longer needed the drug at all during the follow-up period.
Light Therapy for Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis also requires long-term supplementation with a thyroid hormone replacement drug like levothyroxine. Treatment can also include dietary changes, radiation therapy, and thyroid surgery. While there is not yet much research examining light therapy for this thyroid disease, one recent study shows promise.
A total of 350 patients with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis were divided into two groups. One group received light therapy and a dietary supplement, and the other received only the supplement. The improvement in thyroid hormone levels was “markedly superior” in the treatment group, as was the reduction in thyroid autoantibodies. Researchers concluded that light therapy may be “very effective” for Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and that its anti-inflammatory properties play a large role.
Consult With Your Doctor Before Using Light Therapy for Thyroid Issues
Many products and articles online claim that red light therapy is a cure for thyroid issues. Before trying any new treatment, however, you should always consult with your healthcare provider. They can help you evaluate whether a potential treatment is safe in your particular situation and assist you in taking a methodical, scientific approach.
For example, you should not stop your regular thyroid treatments on your own, but your doctor can check your thyroid hormone levels through blood work and determine when a change in treatment is safe and warranted.