"Talking about the third eye is very trendy in the West," says Ayurvedic clinician Reenita Malhotra. "But in order to reach a more spiritual plane, you must first care for the physical body."
Summer is the perfect time to give extra attention to your physical body's eyes. In the Northern Hemisphere, the sun casts its strongest ultraviolet rays during July and August. An unprotected outing can toast the orbs—and contribute to long-term eye problems like cataracts and macular degeneration—just as sunburn can harm the skin. But take heart: 75 percent of the vision loss from such ailments is preventable or treatable if caught early. Here's what you need to know.
Pamper Your Peepers
The science and mythology of Ayurveda hold the eyes in high esteem. In ancient Indian lore, a fetus's eyes were thought to be formed when light particles from the sun and moon passed through the eyes of the expectant mother, traveled along the nervous system, and entered the womb, says Vasant Lad, founder of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The eyes, he says, are ruled by the sun: "They are bright, brilliant, and full of luster."
Because of this connection with the sun, the eyes are thought to be fiery in nature and therefore more easily irritated by the hot days of summer. Luckily, Ayurveda offers many ways to douse the flames. In Ayurvedic theory, there are three doshas, or energies, that influence our bodies and minds. Pitta is associated with fire, and people in whom pitta is typically dominant tend to be motivated and focused; those with lots of vata (linked with air and wind) are often lively; those in whom kapha (ruled by earth and water) is strongest are thought to be stable and compassionate.
No matter what your dominant dosha, you can refresh your eyes by splashing them gently with cool water, blinking seven times (once for each chakra, or energy center in the body), and rotating them in all directions. If they burn or are bloodshot or light sensitive, an excess of pitta may be to blame. To counter it, lie down for 15 minutes with milk-soaked cotton balls on your closed lids. Cucumber slices will also do the trick.
Although pitta is most easily provoked during summer, the other two dosha, kapha and vata, can also get out of balance now. If you awaken to eyes that feel tired or more crusty than usual, a kapha imbalance may be to blame, says Malhotra, the author of Inner Beauty: Discover Natural Beauty and Well-Being with the Traditions of Ayurveda. To quell kapha, she suggests sprinkling the eyes with rose water. You can look for rose water in health food stores or Middle Eastern markets, or make your own by soaking an organically grown rose in filtered water overnight. (You can boil the water to extract more of the rose's essence; be sure to cool the water and remove the rose before sprinkling your eyes.)
Dry, itchy eyes may signal that your vata is out of balance. To restore them, Malhotra recommends a home version of an Ayurvedic treatment called netra basti. To start, warm a quarter cup of ghee (clarified butter) over medium heat, cool it to room temperature, pour half the liquid into an eyecup (sold at drugstores), lean your head back, and bathe the eye for five to seven minutes. Repeat on the other eye using the remaining ghee. (This treatment can be messy, so do it in a bathroom, in clothes that can handle a few drops of ghee.)
What's more, it's a good idea to save this self-care routine until just before bedtime, because your vision will be clouded for a few minutes afterward, says Malhotra. This gives you a good excuse to rest your eyes and your whole body, which should also help calm a vata imbalance. If you sign on for netra basti at an Ayurvedic spa, don't be surprised if you wind up with dough on your face. Traditionally, the dry-eye remedy involves placing a wheel of uncooked whole-wheat dough around each eye to act as a dam as the eye is immersed in the ghee.
Feed Your Head
What you eat also affects your eyes, and one of the best ways to shore up your vision is to chow down on antioxidants. Sunlight creates free radicals, rogue molecules that damage the eyes. Antioxidants scour the bloodstream and neutralize the harmful invaders. To suss out the best antioxidants for eyesight, scientists at the Laboratory for Nutrition and Vision Research of the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University collected and reviewed dozens of clinical studies. Their findings point to vitamin C, vitamin E, and lutein as the best antioxidants for eye health.
To infuse your diet with these nutrients, dish up spinach, broccoli, corn, strawberries, and nuts. The researchers suggest at least 250 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C, 90 mg of vitamin E, and 3 mg of lutein daily. These levels are higher than the government's recommended dietary intake; hedge your bets with a daily multivitamin.
Rest for the Weary
Technology may bring us many marvels, but it has also helped create a world full of people rubbing tired eyes. Don't blame the gadgets, says Marguerite McDonald, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. The problem is how we use them. Essentially, we become zombies in front of a glowing screen, blinking only three times a minute instead of the normal 20. The result? Dry eyes.
Time on the yoga mat may be a source of relief. Last December, research published in the journal Head & Face Medicine hinted that yoga can soothe irritated eyes. Scientists in Bangalore, India, enrolled 291 employees of a software company, all of whom spent at least six hours a day in front of a computer. (Sound familiar?) The researchers assigned half the group to a yoga class that met for an hour a day, five days a week. The class included asana, pranayama, and guided relaxation. Those in the other group spent equal time in the company's recreation center talking to friends, working out, and watching TV. By study's end, the yogis reported a 30 percent decline in eye problems like dry eye; eye complaints increased in the other group. The authors note that relaxed people blink more, which moistens the eyes.
But what about eyestrain? The word is a bit of a misnomer, says Eli Peli, a professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School. Peli says that vision happens in the brain, not the eyes; therefore, sitting at a computer isn't a strain for the eyes in the sense that it causes trouble for their muscles. Instead, the fatigue you feel is your brain asking for mercy."The brain, in its smart way, projects fatigue onto the eyes, so you'll take a break."
Both Eastern and Western healing traditions view eye care as a holistic affair. The eyes are a reflection of the body's overall health, says Ilene Gipson, a senior scientist at Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston. "All the risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke cause eye disease as well," she says, "so taking care of the eyes isn't one-stop shopping."
Malhotra agrees. "The eyes are only one of the five sense organs, along with the ears, nose, mouth, and skin; unless you maximize the health of all five, you'll never fully access your true potential."
Catherine Guthrie is a freelance writer based in Bloomington, Indiana.