WHAT I LEARNED IN COSTA RICA
I was worn out from traveling back and forth between NYC and Sarasota to help my mother through her several-year battle with stage 4 colon cancer. It claimed her in 2000. Ten days after she died and I’d returned home to NYC, my father collapsed from an internal bleed – also from colon cancer – so I was back there helping him. Then, after his surgery, there were three years of looking after him as best I could long distance. And he wasn’t an easy person to help. He died in 2003 a few months short of his 91st birthday. Then there were about 18 months back home dealing with his estate.
When that had reached a good place, I decided to take myself to a week-long yoga retreat in Costa Rica to start recovering. While there, I was having a great massage of some sort inside a peaceful tent on the Pura Vida grounds. At the end, the masseur mentioned the dark circles under my eyes. I said, “Oh yes, I inherited them from my mother’s side of the family. My grandmother had them. My mother did too. And I always have them.” And he said the most amazing thing back to me: “Just because you inherited a trait doesn’t mean you need to express it.”
At the time, I had no idea what he meant but I was definitely interested.
WHEN DIGESTION DOESN’T WORK PROPERLY
This is what he meant.
As with most of our symptoms and illnesses, the underlying cause of this skin discoloration is disturbance in the composition of our intestinal flora leading to inflammation of the intestinal mucosal lining and increased permeability (“leaky gut”) which leads to Leaky Gut Syndrome (LGS): nutrient malabsorption, impaired immune response, GI problems and food allergies, chronic inflammation in the body and autoimmune diseases. And those things further aggravate the mucosal lining in the gut, establishing a repeating, destructive cycle.
This is how Doctor of Natural Medicine and Clinical Nutritionist Josh Axe describes Leaky Gut:
“Think of the lining of your digestive tract like a net with extremely small holes in it that only allow specific substances to pass through. Your gut lining works as a barrier keeping out bigger particles that can damage your system.
“When someone has leaky gut (often referred to as increased intestinal permeability) the ‘net’ in your digestive tract gets damaged, which causes even bigger holes to develop in your net, so things that normally can’t pass through, are now … able to.
“Some of the things that can now pass through include proteins like gluten, bad bacteria and undigested foods particles. Toxic waste can also leak from the inside of your intestinal wall into your blood stream causing an immune reaction.”
– Axe, 2015
See Dr Axe’s article 4 Steps to Heal Leaky Gut and Autoimmune Disease for some sound information on the symptoms and progression of Leaky Gut Syndrome – and which foods and nutritional supplements help restore the integrity of the intestinal walls.
Basically, dark circles under the eyes indicate that your immune system has become overactive, that autoimmune processes are taking place in your body.
“When your intestinal flora is not fully populated with good, healthy bacteria it leaves room for the mucus membrane on the gut wall to become compromised. This compromised gut lining can allow food particles to pass through the gut wall and into the blood stream undigested. These undigested particles are seen as “foreign” invaders just as they might see a virus attacking the body.
“Your body will then produce anti-bodies to attack the foreign substance, as the body attacks you will most likely develop allergy symptoms as your body’s attempt to naturally detox your system and rid it of the invaders. Dark under eye circles are just one allergic symptom and too often this allergy related symptom is overlooked by health professionals.”
– Webb, 2015
Leaky Gut Syndrome underlies ALL the autoimmune conditions and diseases. There are many of them – about 100 have been identified so far. It’s also common to have more than one autoimmune problem at the same time. This isn’t surprising since all autoimmune problems stem from the same source: chronic inflammation in the intestines.
The hallmark of autoimmune conditions and diseases is the body’s immune system becoming overly vigilant, identifying healthy body tissues as dangerous, attacking and gradually destroying them.
Medline Plus, of the US National Library of Medicine, NIH, publishes this information about autoimmunity:
An autoimmune disorder may result in:
- The destruction of body tissue
- Abnormal growth of an organ
- Changes in organ function
An autoimmune disorder may affect one or more organ or tissue types. Areas often affected by autoimmune disorders include:
- Blood vessels
- Connective tissues
- Endocrine glands such as the thyroid or pancreas
- Red blood cells
– Medline Plus, 2015
This is how Functional Medicine doc Ronald Grisanti (2015) describes the Leaky Gut Syndrome:
“Leaky Gut Syndrome (LGS) is a major cause of disease and dysfunction in modern society, accounts for at least 50% of chronic complaints, as confirmed by laboratory tests.
“In LGS, the epithelium on the villi of the small intestine becomes inflamed and irritated, which allows metabolic and microbial toxins of the small intestines to flood into the blood stream. This event compromises the liver, the lymphatic system, and the immune response including the endocrine system.
“… It is often the primary cause of the following common conditions: asthma, food allergies, chronic sinusitis, eczema, urticaria, migraine, irritable bowel, fungal disorders, fibromyalgia, and inflammatory joint disorders including rheumatoid arthritis are just a few of the diseases that can originate with leaky gut. It also contributes to PMS, uterine fibroid, and breast fibroid.
“Leaky Gut Syndrome is often the real basis for chronic fatigue syndrome and pediatric immune deficiencies.”
I’ve presented so much information on Leaky Gut Syndrome and autoimmune problems because they’ve become epidemic and they underlie so many of our health difficulties, including the topic at hand: those dark under-eye circles.
PHYSIOLOGICAL ROUTES TO DARK CIRCLES
FOOD AND OTHER ALLERGIES
Among food allergy people, dark circles under the eyes are often referred to as ‘allergy shiners’. People with seasonal and environmental allergies often develop these dark circles too. Allergies cause congestion, which increases blood flow to the nose. This increased blood flow produces enlarged blood vessels around the eyes, creating a purple tint in the delicate, thin skin under the eyes. (Reilly, 2011)
People with allergies often also sleep poorly and have adrenal fatigue, both of which contribute to the creation of those dark circles.
The adrenals are tiny but very important glands sitting right on top of the kidneys. They produce a variety of hormones (cortisol or hydrocortisone, corticosterone, aldosterone, adrenaline or epinephrine, norepinephrine, DHEA, testosterone, dopamine, and others). The adrenals are known as our ‘flight or fight’ glands. A primary indicator of adrenal fatigue is dark circles under the eyes. Most of us live in a fairly constant ‘flight or fight’ state in reaction to constant stress and sensory over-stimulation, accompanied by a lack of knowledge about how to calm ourselves down. Our adrenals work too hard and become fatigued. (Reilly, 2011) When the adrenals are forced to work too hard, hormones in the body become disrupted. (Wilson, 2014)
LACK OF SLEEP
There’s a known interaction among sleep quality, immune functioning, inflammation, and gastrointestinal disorders. Chronic disturbances in the gut microbiome lead to Leaky Gut Syndrome, an overly active immune system, and chronic inflammation in the gut. In turn, sleep deprivation brought on by GI diseases such as irritable bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastro-esophageal reflux (GERD), liver disorders, and colorectal cancer aggravate the severity of these same diseases, creating a vicious circle. (Tauseef, 2013)
The three main causes of anemia (iron poor blood) are blood loss, lack of red blood cell production, and high rates of red blood cell destruction. In anemia, the blood doesn’t contain enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. The body requires iron to make hemoglobin, an iron-rich protein that gives blood its red color. (Reilly, 2011)
Both anemia and pernicious anemia (vitamin B-12 anemia) can be considered gastroenterological conditions: about a third of people with inflammatory bowel disease also have recurrent anemia. (Gasche et al, 2004)
The question underlying anemia is what ‘s causing low iron and/or vitamin B-12 levels in the blood. People with IBS and other digestive problems have damaged gut mucosal linings, making it difficult for them to absorb nutrients properly. Healing the gut allows proper absorption of all the nutrients in the food, including iron, as they pass through the intestinal tract. (IBS Treatment Center, 2006)
BTW, the image of the eye in the graphic above demonstrates one of several self-tests that will let you know if you’re possibly anemic and should have your blood tested:
- Check your eyelids. Look in the mirror, and get up close to it so you can see your face very well. Quickly pull your lower eyelid down and look at the skin inside that eyelid. It will start off a very pale whitish color and then become more pink (close to the color of raw chicken). The switch to pink should happen very quickly. If it takes a few seconds – or seems not to be happening at all – chances are, you’re anemic. Yes, this tip works for people of all races, as the inner eyelid goes through the same process in everyone. (SnappyLiving.com, 2014)
See How to Tell If You Have Anemia to read about two other self-tests.
In Chinese medicine, dark circles under the eyes indicate a deficiency or problem in kidney functioning. This is a story related by naturopathic physician and health educator Pamela Reilly:
“When I started using electrodermal screening (EDS) in my practice, my husband volunteered to be a test subject. His kidneys tested poorly, so I recommended a kidney support supplement. Within a few months, the dark circles under his eyes began to disappear to the point that people commented on it. The transformation was amazing. The supplement I recommended and which tested very positively for him on the EDS unit was Premier Research Lab’s Kidney Complex.” (Reilly, 2011)
Kidney disease is the ninth leading cause of death in the US. CDC statistics indicate that about 17% of adults 20 years and older have some sort of chronic kidney disease. Consuming probiotics and fermented foods helps the intestines flush nitrogenous waste products efficiently, encouraging even more waste to get extracted from the bloodstream and into the intestines, and then get excreted in bowel movements. If this doesn’t happen in the gut, the kidneys have to work too hard to accomplish the task, become impaired, and can fail. (Gates, 2015)
Research has found further evidence of the important interrelationship between the gut microbiome and the kidneys: Chronic kidney disease has been shown to alter the composition of the gut microbiome, markedly increasing some strains and decreasing others. There’s that vicious cycle. (Vaziri et al, 2013)
INSUFFICIENT STOMACH ACID
Perhaps this is contributing to dark circles under your eyes.
Hypochlorhydria is a state in which the stomach produces insufficient hydrochloric acid. Without enough HCl, food passing through the GI tract gets fermented instead of properly digested.
“The stomach is lined with cells that are proton pumps – that is to say they pump hydrogen ions from the blood stream into the lumen of the stomach. Stomach acid is simply concentrated hydrogen ions. There is a natural tendency for these hydrogen ions to diffuse back from where they came but this is prevented by very tight junctions between stomach wall cells. However, if the gut becomes inflamed for whatever reason, there is leaky gut and hydrogen ions leak back out.” (Myhill, 2015)
Symptoms of insufficient stomach acid include (Myhill, 2015) (Webb, 2015) (Wright, undated):
Wind, gas, bloating, or nausea after eating – because food is being fermented instead of properly digested
Allergies: from the development of Leaky Gut Syndrome
Gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Accelerated aging due to malabsorption of proteins and other nutrients
Iron deficiency anemia
Low stomach acid is linked to quite a few diseases – asthma, celiac disease, irritable bowel disease (IBD), rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and stomach cancer among them. (Myhill, 2015) (Webb, 2014) All these are now considered autoimmune diseases, resulting from Leaky Gut Syndrome.
The body’s failure to produce enough stomach acid makes it quite difficult to obtain the level of nourishment it requires since the necessary amounts of nutrients can’t be absorbed during digestion. Chronic levels of insufficient stomach acid cause the membranes of the GI tract to continue allowing undigested proteins to pass into the blood stream, perpetuating the problematic cycle. (Webb, 2015)
Compromised liver functioning is another, related cause of dark circles under the eyes.
The liver is our largest internal organ and the largest gland in the human body, weighing about 3 – 3.5 pounds. Its job is to filter toxins from the body, one of the ways the body defends itself from harmful invaders. If the liver stops functioning well, it stops protecting us from these invaders. (Webb, 2015)
When we’ve developed Leaky Gut Syndrome, the liver can’t do its job adequately and symptoms of liver dysfunction develop (Naturopath Connect, 2011):
Bad LDL cholesterol increases
Good HDL cholesterol decreases
Triglycerides (blood fats) increase
Abnormal regulation of fats leads to other problems: weight gain and difficulty losing weight, sluggish metabolism, abnormal accumulation of fat in other areas (eg, cellulite and fatty liver). Extreme symptoms include atherosclerosis (build up of cholesterol along artery walls, creating artery blockages), heart attack, and stroke.
The liver’s production of bile becomes abnormal, leading to gallstones, intolerance of fatty foods and alcohol, abdominal bloating, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, and stomach pain.
When the liver isn’t functioning properly, it’s unable to convert nutrients into their bio-available forms. This means many nutrients pass through the body without ever being absorbed.
If you’re taking nutritional supplements, make sure they’re high quality, bio-available ones. Many, perhaps most, supplements contain non-active forms of vitamins that simply pass through the body without getting absorbed.
BLOOD SUGAR PROBLEMS:
The liver is a key regulator of insulin, glucose, and glycogen so a dysfunctional liver can cause unstable blood sugar levels, a precursor to insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes – an autoimmune disease.
The brain won’t receive the nutrients it requires to function correctly if food isn’t being metabolized efficiently by a dysfunctional liver. A brain deprived of key nutrients develops symptoms like “brain fog,” poor concentration, poor memory, depression, and poor anger control.
WEAKENED IMMUNE SYSTEM:
One of the liver’s tasks is to help fight off infections. A chronically overtaxed, improperly functioning liver is unable to handle the toxic load. Symptoms include allergies, food intolerances, chemical sensitivities, skin rashes and inflammations, and increased risk of autoimmune diseases such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.
The liver is a key regulator of the body’s hormones. A chronically malfunctioning liver can result in abnormal levels of estrogen and testosterone. Symptoms for women may include severe PMS and menopause symptoms. In both sexes, abnormal male and female hormone levels can greatly increase the risk of heart attack. Failure of the liver to regulate thyroid hormones and insulin can produce hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, insulin resistance, and Type 2 diabetes – all autoimmune diseases.
Liver dysfunction can also cause bad breath, skin rashes, itchy skin, offensive body odor, dark circles under the eyes, yellow discoloration of the whites of the eyes, red swollen itchy eyes, acne, rosacea, liver spots on the skin, red palms and soles which may also be itchy and inflamed, and flushed facial appearance.
CHEMOTHERAPY AND OTHER DRUG THERAPIES
Chemotherapy and other extreme drug therapies can also lead to dark circles under the eyes. (Reilly, 2011) My guess is this happens because chemo drugs and many other pharmaceuticals degrade the gut microbiome.
You’ll notice that the common thread among all these causes of dark circles leads back to the gut microbiome. When our intestinal microflora becomes chronically out of balance, our bodies produce symptoms – dark circles under the eyes among them.
I now can use the darkness of the circles under my eyes to gauge my gut’s and overall body’s health. When I’m feeding my gut the nutrition it needs (foods as well as high quality bio-available nutritional supplements) and handling stress well, the circles are almost non-existent. In this state, I feel well and no autoimmune markers for Hashimoto’s thyroiditis show up in my blood work. When the circles are noticeable, I’m having GI and other inflammatory difficulties. But since I’ve come to understand what the masseur in Costa Rica meant, the circles have never been as omnipresent and dark as they were back then.
Examples of charming dark under-eye areas – not the kind we humans have:
Axe, J. (2015). 4 Steps to Heal Leaky Gut and Autoimmune Disease. See: http://draxe.com/4-steps-to-heal-leaky-gut-and-autoimmune-disease/
Gasche, C. et al. (2004). Iron, anaemia, and inflammatory bowel diseases. Gut , 53, 1190-1197. See: http://gut.bmj.com/content/53/8/1190.full
Gates, D. (2015). Preventing Kidney Disease: 2 Quick Tips to Support Kidney Health. Body Ecology. See: http://bodyecology.com/articles/preventing-kidney-disease-2-quick-tips-to-support-kidney-health
Grisanti, R. (2015). Leaky Gut: Can This Be Destroying Your Health?. See: http://www.functionalmedicineuniversity.com/public/Leaky-Gut.cfm
IBS Treatment Center. (2006). How IBS Can Cause Iron Deficiency and Anemia. See: http://ibstreatmentcenter.com/Newsletters/MidFeb2007.pdf
Medline Plus. (2015). Autoimmune disorders. U.S. National Library of Medicine, N.I.H. See: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000816.htm
Myhill, S. (2015). Hypochlorhydria – lack of stomach acid – can cause lots of problems. See: http://drmyhill.co.uk/wiki/hypochlorhydria_-_lack_of_stomach_acid_-_can_cause_lots_of_problems
Naturopath Connect (2011). Liver Dysfunction: Common Symptoms. See: http://naturopathconnect.com/articles/liver-dysfunction-symptoms/
Reilly, P. (2011). Dark Circles Under the Eyes: Causes and Solutions. See: http://goodworkswellness.com/dark-circles-under-the-eyes-causes-solutions/
SnappyLiving.com. (2014). How to tell if you have anemia. See: http://snappyliving.com/how-to-tell-if-you-have-anemia/
Tauseef, A. et al. (2013). Sleep, immunity and inflammation in gastrointestinal disorders. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 19:48, 9231–9239. See: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3882397/
Vaziri, N.D. et al. (2013). Chronic kidney disease alters intestinal microbial flora. Kidney International, 83, 308-315. See: http://www.nature.com/ki/journal/v83/n2/full/ki2012345a.html
Webb, B. (2015). The Cause of Dark Under Eye Circles. See: http://www.rootedblessings.com/the-cause-of-dark-under-eye-circles/
Wilson, D. (2014). 5 Clues That Leaky Gut May Be at the Root of Your Health Issues. See: http://doctordoni.com/2014/08/5-clues-that-leaky-gut-may-be-at-the-root-of-your-health-issues.html
Wright, S. (undated). Hypochlorhydria: 3 Common Signs of Low Stomach Acid. See: http://scdlifestyle.com/2012/06/hypochlorhydria-3-common-signs-of-low-stomach-acid/
© Copyright 2015 Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.
DISCLAIMER: Nothing on this site or blog is intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.