Of all the details you may notice while looking in the mirror, under-eye circles are perhaps the "crystal ball" of health messengers. They can tell you a lot about your sleep habits, hydration needs, allergies and food sensitivities - and your sweet tooth.
They can also provide warning signals of much more complex health issues such as stress, adrenal exhaustion or even sluggish kidney function.
Whatever the underlying cause, under-eye circles have one unfortunate universal effect: They make you look tired. Luckily, there's a lot you can do about them, and
taking a holistic approach to this "superficial" issue can produce added benefits that will help make your whole body beautiful too.
sleep & stress
Sleep deprivation is probably the most prevalent reason for under-eye circles. Skin is healed during deep-wave sleep, thanks to increased circulation to the face. Without quality sleep, the face literally sags. However, if you sleep with your head on a downward angle, which allows fluid to drain to your face, your beauty sleep can turn into anything but. So sleeping with your head slightly elevated is the best idea.
Nicholas Perricone, MD, dermatologist and author of The Perricone Prescription, says lack of sleep results in an increase in stress hormones such as cortisol, which can lead not only to health problems, but also to the swelling that creates dreaded dark circles.
When your adrenal glands are exhausted - weakened by stress, caffeine, sugar and alcohol - the result can be edema-related facial puffiness.
According to David Williams, DC, who writes about health at drdavidwilliams.com, sodium and potassium levels are kept in balance by a hormone called aldosterone, which is produced in optimal amounts by healthy adrenal glands.
But if you're overstressed, drink too much coffee or alcohol or eat too many sweets, your adrenals may not be doing an adequate job. In this case, try nurturing your adrenals back to health with adaptogens such as ginseng or - as Williams recommends - adrenal glandular supplements.
In addition, try cutting out the caffeine, alcohol and sugar, and minimizing stress. In the meantime, fulfill your cravings with herbal coffee, such as Teeccino, and sugar-free treats.
Sensitivities to skin, hair and eye care products - or even nail polish - can also make the eye area puff up.
And sensitivities to food additives such as the sulfites in wine can give you a serious "morning after" face, featuring puffy eyelids, under-eye circles and a headache on top of it all. (Organic wines, which contain only traces of sulfites, might be a better choice for the sulfite-sensitive. To find out more, see "Cheers," p. 38.). Thin or sun-damaged skin makes matters worse since weak blood vessels show through and make circles more pronounced.
Sugar and white flour are enemies of beauty. Research about the action of insulin shows that those things can lead not only to weight problems, but also skin problems, through inflammatory responses as well as their effect on protein which can age the skin and the body prematurely through a process called glycation. Inflammation leads to puffiness.
Perricone recommends Ester-C (ascorbyl palmitate), a form of vitamin C that retains its potency, and alpha lipoic acid (ALA) ingredients for helping to abolish under-eye circles. "ALA aids with blood flow and lymph drainage issues. It's like opening up an irrigation ditch," he says.
Ester-C stimulates collagen production and thickens the skin. Supplements containing green tea or turmeric, as well as bioflavonoids such as quercetin, in combination with vitamin C and the enzyme bromelain, have a histamine-blocking effect that can help diminish allergy symptoms and inflammation without any side effects.
While proper diet and supplementation can help get rid of under-eye circles from within, there are also plenty of natural creams, concealers and other cosmetic products that treat the problem on the surface.
"Industrial-strength" lighteners found in most products include alpha hydroxy acids and hydroquinone. Both require ample sunscreen use. Hydroquinone can be toxic, and it may actually cause hyper-pigmentation.
On the other hand, less intense lighteners, such as kojic acid, licorice, mulberry and vitamin C, diminish darkness only slightly, if at all.
Cosmetic concealers can make a huge visual difference if you want to hide your dark circles. Here's my superficial beauty tip: First, look in the mirror and lower your chin. Then, dab a clean lip brush in a skin-matching concealer. Finely paint the concealer on moisturized skin directly where the darkest part of the circle is and in between your eyes. Next, pat - never rub - the product with your pinky to blend it in. Burt's Bees and Borlind both make naturally pigmented concealers with the slight golden tone makeup artists look for.
Chamomile, and particularly the Camillosan chamomile extract, has demonstrated anti-inflammatory action in German studies and even proved comparable in effect to hydrocortisone in treating eczema-type skin conditions, according to Commission E Monographs. (Commission E is the German equivalent of the US Food & Drug Administration.)
Applying a chamomile-rich cream or moisturizer such as Derma E's Aloe and Chamomile Skin Soothing Moisturizer could help provide a cure for several nagging skin ailments. Camocare makes German Camillosan products, including some with an especially potent form of alpha lipoic acid called Alpha-Lipotene. Those who are allergic to chamomile should beware - it's a member of the ragweed family.
Horse chestnut seed extract and vitamin K strengthen the capillaries, and they also show promise as anti-swelling agents. One skin cream I've found that contains not only vitamin K and horse chestnut, but also chamomile, bromelain, Ester-C and other top firming and brightening ingredients is called K Creme Plus by Jason Natural Cosmetics. Cold compresses of any sort can also help reduce swelling.
other cool tricks
Even caffeine has been shown to stimulate circulation and reduce swelling. Dip black tea bags briefly in boiling water, then cool and apply to your eyes.
Good sources of green tea extract, as well as chamomile extract, include Nature's Gate's Ginkgo Ultimate Eye Cream and Earth Science's Beta-Ginseng Age-Protective Anti-Oxidant Eye Gel. Vivi EyeCe Cucumber Pads by Aurora contain not only a significant amount of cucumber but also chamomile, aloe, Japanese green tea and bilberry, among other powerful anti-inflammatories. And cooling these pads in the refrigerator can add to their effectiveness.