eyes

Your EYES are the Windows to Your Health

A couple thousand years ago, the Roman orrator and Stoic Philosopher, Cicero, spoke a phrase that has been handed down to us over the years. The phrase has changed its structure from time to time, but the meaning is the same. In Latin, Cicero is quoted as saying “Ut imago est animi voltus sic indices oculi” which, for us non-Latin interpreters, translates into “The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter.”

You may recognize the more recent iteration of this saying more easily, “the eyes are the windows to the soul”. For anybody who has had human interaction lately (which, sadly, has become more scarce of late), you know this saying to be true. When you ask someone “how are things going?”, you’ll naturally look into their eyes for confirmation of their answer.

But the eyes aren’t only good for seeing into people’s souls. More recently the eyes are being proven to be windows to your health, as well. However, when it comes to health, the eyes do much more than show what kind of health you’re in (diabetes can actually be diagnosed, or at least detected, by peering into the eyes). They also have a huge impact on the health and vitality of the body based on how you use them.

Now, before we dive deep into how the use of the eye impacts, say, your metabolism, let’s talk about fashion. More specifically, let’s take a quick pitstop at the outlet store and learn a little bit about sunglasses…

From Ill-Health to Truly Illin’

The original sunglasses were not created with the intention of blocking the sun directly, as most of us use them today. About 2,000 years ago, the Inuit developed eyewear that helped block the blinding reflection from the snow. The so-called “snow goggles” allowed the Inuit to see more easily as they hunted, gathered, and trekked from place to place.

A few hundred years later, Roman emperor Nero was fashioning “sun glasses” made of gemstones to help him watch the gladiatorial games, deflecting the reflection of the sun that came off of the sandy white ground of the Coliseum.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that sunglasses were used to directly block light coming from the sun. Sufferers of syphilis were prone to having sensitive eyes. And, noticing this, doctors began prescribing sunglasses to their syphilis patients to help reduce the irritation from the light. But, at some point in the early 1900s, sunglasses went from being associated to bad health, to being associated to being cool.

This happened in big part thanks to General Douglas MacArthur and his dawning of aviator sunglasses, so named because they were produced for…well…aviators to help block the sun. But one thing led to the next, and suddenly all the celebrities in town were wearing different shades and styles of sunglasses. This, of course, led to the public following suit.

Which is how it came to be the sunglasses came to be known as a fashion symbol instead of a symbol of ill-health.

Now, sunglass distributors figured out that, eventually, they would have to show that their sunglasses were the best. While fashion trends can certainly lead a product to great heights, linking your product to a health benefit well can take it over the top. So companies started to do “research”. They wanted to prove that their sunglasses blocked more solar rays than the other guys, hopefully leading to better sales and higher profits.

Around this time, and thanks to the marketing of sunglass companies, we started hearing concerns about the suns radiation and eye damage. As the companies proclaimed, too much UVA and UVB radiation from the sun can damage the eyes, increasing the risk of cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. None of that sounds fun, of course, so we started to buy more and more sunglasses so that we save our eyes while looking cool in the process.

When Marketing Goes Bad, Your Health Pays the Price

So, the question is, what did these companies find? Does sunlight truly damage the eyes? And should we protect our eyes at all costs to ensure our eye survival?

Well, as it turns out, staring at the sun does damage your eyes. I’m sure you’ve noticed this before. Even the great astronomer, Galileo, understood that staring at the sun directly damages the eyes. Thanks to his in-depth research of the sun while viewing it through a telescope, his eyesight was pretty well gone by the time he died.

But any smart person knows that STARING at the sun causes damage. This begs the question, what about general exposure to the sun? Does that damage the eyes?

After searching a few research sites for a while, I finally came across a study that brought some clarity to this question. Based on the study, every hour spent in the sun during the summer increases the chances of eye-lens alterations by about 4%. Okay, so that’s not a HUGE number, but significant nonetheless. So, if long-term sun exposure (in the summer) increases the chances of lens alterations by 4%, that means that wearing sunglasses must decrease that chance to zero, right?

Well, not exactly. In the exact same study, the paper states that researchers stress the importance of wearing sunglasses between 10am and 4pm, because it reduces your chances of lens alterations by…2%. Yes…you read that right. Wearing sunglasses reduces your risk of eye damage by 2%!

Now, it’s not fare to judge sunglasses through the lens (pun intended) of one simple study. After all, I’m certainly there are other studies that would contradict these findings. However, the insignificant findings of this study might tell you that wearing sunglasses may not be as important as we previously thought.

As a matter of fact, there’s a good chance that excessive sunglass-wearing can actually harm your eye AND physical health more than help it. To understand that, let’s shift gears a bit and talk about how the eye uses light to dictate your health…

Let There Be LIGHT

I believe that one of the best ways to get to better answers is to ask better questions. Since sunglasses are meant to help reduce the risk of eye disease, and the vast majority of Americans wear sunglasses on the regular, we should see a decrease in eye disease over the years, right?!

On the contrary…

Glaucoma incidence has risen from 2.7 million in 2011 to just under 4 million in 2020. In just a few years time, from 2018-2020, macular degeneration numbers went from 1.8 million to just under 3 million. In that same amount of time, cataracts incidence has gone from 20.5 million to just over 30 million.

Now, it may seem like I have a vendetta against sunglasses. However, this essay is not about sunglasses at all. On the contrary, this essay is about eye health and how that impacts YOUR overall health. And what these statistics show us is that our eye health is not getting any better, even though we’re “following the rules” and protecting our eyes from the supposed villain, the sun.

So, in order to know what good eye health looks like, we have to ask the question…what are our eyes meant to do? On the surface, the eyes are meant for one particular thing…vision. But there is much more to vision than meets the eye (wow, really throwing out the puns today!).

You see, your eyes are part of your central nervous system (CNS), which is the part of your internal body that controls…well…your body. For those of you who don’t know, the master controller of your CNS is the brain. So, quite literally, your eyes are part of your brain (pretty cool, huh?).

Now, because your eyes are the only part of your CNS, or brain if you will, that are on the outside of the body, they are the only way for sunlight to be passed into the body, allowing it to send signals to the CNS and other internal organs. This is important because the CNS dictates what is called your circadian rhythm. Every human being on earth runs on relatively the same circadian rhythm, which is simply the body’s natural 24-hour clock.

As you can imagine, light has a HUGE impact on the circadian rhythm. As a matter of fact, the body’s internal clock is literally set by the rise and fall of the sun. And the only way the body knows if the sunning has come up or is going down is, you guessed it, by the light transmitted through your eyes. Without this natural light exposure, your internal clock gets thrown off.

When your circadian rhythm is not in alignment with the natural ebb of flow of the sun, a few things can happen. First, it’s highly likely that your sleep will be disrupted. The body should naturally wake up and get sleepy as the sun rises and falls. But if it’s not exposed to the sun (because you’re too busy looking cool with your sunglasses), then the body doesn’t know when to start feeling tired.

In the same sense, an altered circadian clock can cause weight gain and increase the risk of weight-related diseases. This happens because, surprise surprise, your circadian rhythm and eating rhythm are inextricably linked. In other words, when you’re body is in rhythm with the sun, it has a natural hunger pattern that it will follow. However, when the internal clock is off, your hunger patterns are thrown off and eating can become disordered.

So, if light is necessary for a good circadian rhythm, and lack of natural light causes disruptions in this rhythm, then what can we do to start to align ourselves with the natural ebb and flow of the sun?

Let the Sun Be Your Guide

There are a few simple strategies you can follow to optimize your sun exposure. Yes, excessive exposure to the sun can damage the eyes (especially when you STARE at it). However, we spend 90% of our time indoors and the incidence of eye damage is continuing to increase. So my feeling is that none of us are in grave danger of excessive sun exposure.

So, if you follow these simple ideas, you’ll align the body with the sun, feeding it the light it NEEDS to run on nature’s time…

#1) Ditch the sunglasses…most of the time

As this essay alluded to in the beginning, our excessive use of sunglasses is likely doing more harm than good. And while sunglasses can and should be used in certain circumstances, such as when you’re on the water, around snow, or near any other type of highly-reflective substance, or if you have certain eye conditions, most of us would be much better off keeping them stowed away. At first, this is going to be uncomfortable for your eyes because they’re not used to viewing the sunlight directly. However, over time, you’ll recognize that your energy will start to improve, the world will become more colorful, and, possibly, you’ll start to see clearer as a result.

#2) Get sunlight first thing in the morning and later in the evening

To start to reset the body’s natural rhythm, you need to expose it to the ebb of flow of the sun. To do that, it’s important that you expose your eyes to the sun in the morning and in the evening. For your morning exposure, shoot to get outside before 10:00am and, preferably, within an hour waking up. Then stay outside for at least 5-10 minutes. Next, do this again at night as the sun is going down. This can be anywhere around 7:00pm, depending on the time of year and your location. But the goal is to expose your eyes to the setting sun again for another 5-10 minutes.

Now, it’s important to remind you that, when I say “expose your eyes to the sun” I DON’T mean STARE at the sun. You just have to be outside WITHOUT sunglasses on.

#3) Reduce direct artificial light exposure at night

The reason we want to get our eyes in the sun while the sun is going down is that this lets the body know that it’s time for bed. Due to our technologically-driven world, many of us spend our evenings staring directly at devices that are emitting…light (I wonder if THAT’S what’s causing us to go blind?). Direct artificial light exposure throws the body’s rhythm out of whack. So it’s important that reduce the amount of direct light (via phones, laptops, tablets, and TVs) and overhead light at night. This is especially important in the timeframe about 2 hours before bed.

It can be hard to overcome beliefs that have been drilled into us over time. Sadly, when it comes to our health, most of our beliefs are given to us via companies that are trying to make a buck.

Work to get your body in alignment with nature. When you do this, the body works in mysterious and often magical ways.

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