When I first told family members and friends I was going to school to become an aesthetician, I was surprised with this common response: “Good, then you can help me fix the puffiness and dark circles under my eyes.” More than any other concern (acne and acne scars coming in at a close second), most of my requests for skin care advice are about the eye area: specifically puffiness on the lids and under the eyes (bags), dark circles and redness under the eyes, and “what the heck are these tiny white bumps around my eyes?”
Most people are looking for a miracle eye cream or gel to apply to the area to improve the appearance of whichever of the above they are experiencing…some even want tried and true home remedies. What people don’t ask about though is WHY they are experiencing these eye symptoms and what they can do to eliminate the cause. It’s not their fault…we live in a society dominated by allopathic, or Western Medicine which focuses on treating and alleviating symptoms after they appear rather than actually finding the underlying causes, eliminating or reducing those, and preventing the symptoms from returning again in the long term.
In the more preventative and holistically-minded practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), most practitioners can look at a person’s physical features, especially those on the face, and get a general overview of the person’s condition. Different areas of the face are governed by different organs and systems inside the body, therefore inflammation or other symptoms in certain areas can indicate imbalance, malfunction, or even disease in the organs/systems associated with them. So what does TCM say to do about these eye symptoms?
Puffiness on the lids and under the eyes (bags):
In TCM, puffiness in the eye area is either caused by a pool of liquid or a pool of mucus (yuck); both of which are caused by issues with the kidneys. The type caused by pools of liquid is often caused by excessive liquid intake overworking the kidneys with frequent urination, leading to inflammation. This type is less likely in Western cultures though, since the majority of the general public is perpetually dehydrated.
The second type, caused by accumulation of mucus and fat directly correlates to built-up mucus and fat in and around the kidneys and other organs in that region of the body. If this build-up is not removed from the area, puffy eyes are the least serious of the symptoms that can occur. Bacterial and fungal overgrowth in this area can lead to health issues such as inflammation of the prostate glands, uterus and ovaries; which can eventually develop into cysts and tumors, some of which can be cancerous.
What causes these deposits of mucus and fat? The consumption of mucus and fat-containing foods such as dairy products, meat, poultry, sugar, refined grains, and oils. The Standard American Diet (SAD) recommends multiple servings of these foods on a daily basis, which is unfortunate, but could explain why so many Americans suffer from disorders of the kidneys, and also are willing to spend an arm and a leg on expensive products and procedures to eliminate eyebags. According to TCM, greatly reducing or eliminating these foods from one’s diet will not only reduce or eliminate puffy eyelids and eyebags, but will also correct the internal cause. Regular detoxification efforts will also be beneficial.
How do you know if your puffiness is caused by liquid or mucus? Think about whether or not you drink enough water on a daily basis for your weight; also take an honest and unbiased look at your diet. How much milk, yogurt, and cheese do you consume? How much meat and poultry? The honest answers to those questions will help determine the type and cause of your eye puffiness.
Discoloration of the skin around the eye area:
In TCM, a person whose skin color around the eye area does not greatly differ from that of the rest of his or her face is considered to be a manifestation of good overall health and balance. However, if someone has dark “circles” under the eyes, redness or a purplish hue, a yellowish tone, or even a grayish color, the practitioner automatically knows that something is out of whack.
Dark, bluish circles are typically indicative of problems or disorders with the kidneys, and adrenal and gonad hormones. These problems can stem from issues with sexual/reproductive or excretory functions which are often caused by the excessive consumption of salty, roasted, baked, or dried foods. If you have any of these issues, you might want to consider limiting your consumption of these foods and replacing them with whole, raw, living foods.
Redness (which could eventually appear purple) is caused by dilation of the capillaries under the eyes. Capillaries distend when the area is lacking nutrition; they expand to try to take in more nutrients whether they are present or not. Dilated capillaries can also suggest excessive stress, nervousness, anxiety, or other mental disharmonies. In TCM, any of these symptoms can be linked to an overworked cardiovascular system due to the excessive consumption of yin foods and beverages such as sugar and alcohol. Regular consumption and absorption of certain chemicals and medications in addition to refined sugars can also interfere with the function of the excretory and nervous systems, and often present with purplish discoloration of the eye area.
A yellowish tone in the eye area is directly related to an over-functioning liver and gallbladder. Again, excessive dairy consumption can be the culprit of this discoloration, in addition to eating too many yellow or orange vegetables such as carrots and members of the squash family. Again, yellowish discoloration can point to an excretory issue, but in serious cases can point to serious liver diseases like cirrhosis or hepatitis.
A gray discoloration can not only indicate an issue with the kidneys, but also with the lungs, endocrine and lymph systems, and reproductive system. These issues can be caused by excessive ingestion of yang foods such as salt, dairy, animal fats, and meat. It can also indicate a lack of oxygen in the body, and is often present with smokers.
Those tiny white bumps around the eyes:
These are called milia. They are hardened deposits of fat or oil that are trapped underneath the skin’s surface. To treat existing ones, the safest way is to go to a trained aesthetician, cosmetic nurse, or physician and have them extracted with the assistance of a sterile lancet or needle. Each states have different regulations regarding the use of needles and lancets in aesthetics, so in certain states you might have to go to a cosmetic or dermatologic doctor or nurse. However, unless you address the cause of the milia, they will most definitely come back.
In some cases, you may need to just change your eye moisturizer. The delicate skin around the eyes does not have the ability to absorb heavy creams or products containing ingredients with large molecules. In my Create Your Skincare course, students learn about how to create a customized eye moisturizer specifically suited to their own skin, but there are some high-quality brands out there as well. Look for a lightweight, high quality eye cream or serum that is formulated with smaller molecules that will not get trapped and cause deposits underneath the skin.
However, the presence of milia can also indicate difficulty eliminating certain foods. TCM considers milia to be hardened deposits of mucus, fat, and oil from a diet that consists of too many animal proteins and fats (dairy, oily fish, eggs, poultry, and meat), as well as sugar. Disproportionate intake of these foods also can lead to high cholesterol and other cardiovascular problems, which is why milia are sometimes referred to as “cholesterol deposits” in aesthetics. Aestheticians are often taught to suggest that clients with milia in the eye area have their cholesterol levels checked. Restricting these foods in one’s diet will help prevent future milia from forming, as well as the health conditions associated with them.
Aren’t most of these issues genetic?
In TCM, it is not a person’s genetic patterns that determine eye puffiness, dark circles, or the presence of milia; rather it is one’s “inherited” dietary and lifestyle routines that are responsible. Practitioners of TCM even associate the development of certain physical features with certain foods the mother consumes while pregnant. Often, one’s dietary and lifestyle choices and norms were learned from parents or cultural traditions. These choices and routines can be changed, which can then eliminate the causes of these eye symptoms.
With this knowledge, it is very easy to understand how the appearance of one’s eyes can reveal overall good health and balance, or point to disorders and disease. A lot of the health issues indicated by the eyes can be addressed by diet & lifestyle changes, but also by adjusting your skincare routine to properly align with your skin type.
*Source: Kushi, Michio. Your Body Never Lies: The Complete Book of Oriental Diagnosis. Garden City Park, NY: Square One Publishers, 2007.