The Science of Sunning or Without Light There Is No Vision

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People often ask me why sunning your eyes is so beneficial? The short answer is that our cone cells need light to see colors and details, and sunlight is the healthiest source of light out there. If you want to know more about sunning your eyes, read on.

Have you ever been in a pitch black room without any light? Have you noticed that you don’t seem to see anything? However,  if there’s even the slightest bit of light, your eyes will adjust and give you some vision, although it’s black and white and rather grainy.

The word “Photo” literally means “light,” and the cells in our retina are called photoreceptor cells because without light, they don’t function. Looking at this anatomically, there are two basic type of cells, the rods and the cones. The rods are the ones that give you the black and white, grainy, soft focus night vision, and they’re also the ones providing most of your peripheral vision. This is the reason that peripheral vision at the outer edges doesn’t produce color, but you do see movement, and without that, we probably wouldn’t have survived as a species.

The other photoreceptors, the cone cells, are responsible for color and detail (or sharp focus) vision. The center of the retina, the macula, is packed with cone cells only, and therefore produces clear, sharp vision. They only work when there’s light, and they work best in detecting accurate colors when the light is bright, as sunlight is. Without light, they would slowly deteriorate.

Yet we have been told by the media, the optical industry and most optometrists (who sells sunglasses too) that we will damage our eyes or, even worse, become blind if we don’t shield our eyes from the sun. Now I’m not talking about extreme conditions such as a polar expedition, climbing in the Himalayas or piloting a plane at 30,000 ft. I’m talking about our daily lives which are spent mostly indoors, working in some type of building with often tinted windows and artificial light sources. We then walk to our cars or the train station and sit inside again, shielded from the sun. Maybe we hike or bike on the weekends, or even drive to the beach or lake. But often we run errands that require being indoors again other than the part of getting there.

And how many now immediately put sunglasses on if there is even the slightest ray of sunshine coming from above? People often say they do this because they are so light sensitive. Is that any wonder if their eyes are never exposed to natural sunlight?

Do a simple test to see if you are truly light sensitive. Go outside into the sun.  You might not be able to look straight ahead if it’s a bright day and want to put your sunglasses on. Instead put your hand parallel to the ground at the level of your eyebrows as if you wore a baseball cap or hat.  Is it still too bright? Or did the shield do the trick? The reality is that it’s not so much the light itself that is too bright but the angle of the sunlight hitting the eye. Additionally, the overall brightness of the environment affects how strongly we perceive the light, due to the reflective properties of the environment. White reflects the most light, whereas black reflects the least.

Wearing a hat or cap is a much better option for your eyes than wearing sunglasses
Wearing a hat or cap is a much better option for your eyes than wearing sunglasses

Unless you have an eye disease such as macular degeneration, a second occurrence of cataracts, uveitis, conjunctivitis, corneal abrasion (e.g. through Lasik), a viral infection or another illness that makes you more light sensitive (e.g. migraine), or are taking medications that produce light sensitivity, you probably aren’t photophobic (light sensitive). If you do suffer from MD or secondary cataracts, do not do sunning.

Sensitivity to light is also common in most visual disorders, especially myopia and astigmatism. Wearing tinted glasses (the ones that get darker with more light) not only make the light sensitivity worse but often the refractive error as well, since the amount of light available has a big effect on clarity when vision is not perfect to begin with. So in addition to increasing light sensitivity, these tinted prescription glasses also decrease visual acuity in the long run and will often result in the need for stronger glasses. Just what the optometrist ordered.

If you are so light sensitive that you cannot gaze at the horizon line on even an overcast day, you will need to reverse the light sensitivity first before being able to improve your myopia or astigmatism.

Knowing that the cone cells are needed to produce the clear vision that we all want, it would make sense to do anything to keep them healthy. Light is like a vitamin for them. So shutting light exposure down by sitting in dark offices and wearing sunglasses outside is depriving those cells. Not only do we need sunlight to generate Vitamin D, but it’s also been shown that increasing exposure to this type of lightmake us happier. If you are still light sensitive, wear a hat or cap when you go out in the middle of day to prevent any strain which might cause you to squint your eyes.

Sunning is the important thing you can do to eliminate light sensitivity and allow you to improve your vision. Therefore it’s one of the core eye relaxation and improvement techniques of the Bates Method. You can do it anywhere, and anytime, but it’s best if you do it outside when the sun shines, and without the barrier of a glass window between the sun and your eyes. If you live in a part of the world where the sun tends to be elusive, especially during the winter months, you can do it inside, using a high wattage white infrared lamp, like the ones used in bathrooms and in the food catering industry, as they emit a nice amount of heat in addition to bright light. More on that further down.

 

How to do basic sunning

Go outside and face the sun. If you are just starting out and are used to wearing sunglasses whenever outside, do it in the early morning or late afternoon hours when the sun is lowest. Otherwise any time of day is fine.

Gently close your eyes and feel the warmth and light of the sun on your closed eyelids. Closing the eyes helps relax them, especially when there’s still some light sensitivity present. It also helps to turn the visual “faucet” off to let the mind truly relax. Think of this as a mini spa treatment for your eyes and brain. Let your mind drift to pleasant thoughts to further the relaxation.

Now slowly and deeply inhale and turn your head to the left side. Feel the gentle stretch in the neck and notice that your left eye is now shaded by your nose. Be aware of the difference in light strength. Exhale and turn your head to the right, noticing your right eye now being in the shade and your left eye receiving more light and warmth. Also be aware of the center when both eyes get an equal amount of light. Your head movement will look as if you are saying “no”.  Do it slowly and gently, breathing deeply. Let the breath initiate the turns of the head.

Keep going back and forth, turning your head sideways as far as your neck allows you. If your chin doesn’t go all the way to the shoulder for a 180 degree head turn, do not force it. With daily sunning, your tight neck and shoulder muscles will also relax and release tension, which will in turn improve blood flow to the brain and help you to improve your vision. Tight neck and shoulder muscles are a big contributor to tension in the eyes and vision problems.

If you notice a lot of tension in the neck, you can also do a few “yes” movements with your head, tilting the head slightly back as you inhale and moving the chin toward your chest as you exhale. Keep the shoulder blades relaxed and the trapezius muscle away from the ears as you move your head. Let your eyes come along for the ride, and they should feel as relaxed as a kid on a swing that is being pushed by a parent. The eyes do not initiate any movement when sunning.

Sun for five to ten minutes or however long you can. You can stand or sit. If in public, you can turn your head even slower and take full breaths between sides, so it’s more inconspicuous and nobody will notice that your eyes are at the spa!

If you are at work and see the sun breaking through the clouds, do it at your office window right then and there, even if just for a minute or two. Anything is better than nothing. And if the sun is shy and barely shows itself, don’t wait for a specific time, since the sun might be gone for the rest of the day.

Sunning should always be followed by palming, ideally twice as long as you did the sunning. If that is not an option, palm at least until any potential after images or colors have faded and your visual field with eyes closed is dark again.

 

Additional benefits of sunning

In addition to reducing any light sensitivity and supporting relaxation of eyes and mind, sunning has these benefits:

  • The shift from shadow to light when turning the head will slightly open and close the pupils which strengthens the pupillary reflex
  • The pupillary reaction will gently massage the lens capsule and stimulate the photoreceptor cells in the retina without the need for sharp focus
  • The warmth of the sunlight and the movement of the head will release tension and it improves blood flow to the neck and shoulder muscles which consequently relaxes the facial muscles (all these muscles are connected and tension in the neck and shoulders often carries over to the face including the eyes)
  • The deep breathing improves flow of oxygen to the brain which the eyes are a part of. The brain uses 25% of all oxygen while only weighing about 2% of your body weight,  and 1.5 pints of blood circulate through the brain every single minute! Consider this and breathe deeply.
  • Sunning is so enjoyable and restful that you are more likely to take little breaks from the computer that don’t habitually involve smoking or eating unhealthy snacks. It might also help to take your tea or coffee break outside and combine it with some sunning and palming.
  • Sun exposure is the only natural way for the body to get enough vitamin D, which is needed to absorb calcium to keep bones strong and healthy. A lack of vitamin D has also been linked with cognitive impairment.

 

Sunning reactions or discomforts

Sunning should feel really nice on your eyes, neck and shoulders. If you feel any discomfort, it’s most likely due to tension in those areas. If  the neck hurts when turning your head, turn it less in the beginning and do not tilt the head back as much. Maybe you could even get a massage to release any deeper muscle tension.

Should your eyes get watery, itchy or start to twitch, it’s usually a symptom of the intense strain you’re carrying in your eyes. Continue to do the sunning in a relaxed way, and it will slowly melt that tension away. Maybe do it for shorter periods or only with the morning or evening sun until the worst strain is released.

If facing the sun with closed eyes is too strong even in the morning or late afternoon hours, start practicing on an overcast day or stand with your back to the sun, and work from there (once that feels comfortable you can proceed by facing the sun).

Remember, always palm after sunning for double the amount of time, or until any afterimages have dissolved.

 

Making your own sun

If the real sun is not shining, you can fake it by using a 250W heat light, also called white infrared bulb. They are sold at hardware stores or online, and are usually used in bathrooms or for food catering to light the food and keep it warm.

You’ll need to use a lamp that can handle those high wattage light bulbs though, so check your lamp beforehand. The cheapest option is to buy a metal clamp lamp like the one pictured. It’s very inexpensive and available at hardware stores in the construction aisles.

The sunning itself is done exactly like outdoors. Depending on where you mount or place your heat lamp, you will either stand or sit when doing the sunning indoors. Distance should be about 3 ft / 1 m,  but this depends on your personal comfort. You’ll want to feel the warmth and the light but not end up with red skin from the heat.

Make sure to keep your head level when turning side to side. The head should only tilt back when you do the up and down motion instead of moving from side to side.

When traveling you can also use a strong flashlight and just move it back and forth over one eye, then the other. Hold it as close to your eye lids as feels good. Do three sets with palming in between. Flashlights won’t emit that much heat, but the light in and of itself is very beneficial, especially in the darker winter months.

 

Advanced sunning techniques

Once your eyes get used to sunning, you can deepen the technique in following ways:

  • Open your eyes when your head is turned to the sides,  blinking rapidly when eyes are open (start this in an environment that doesn’t have extremely bright objects such as white houses on your sides).
  • Hold your hands in front of your eyes with your fingers spread and rapidly move them in opposite directions, while turning your head side to side with your eyes open, and blink rapidly. The fingers provide a filter that will allow some sun to enter our eyes without being too strong (see picture).
An advanced technique has the eyes open while your hands are moving rapidly in opposite directions, creating a sun filter.
An advanced technique has the eyes open while your hands are moving rapidly in opposite directions, creating a sun filter.

 

There are further techniques beyond this, but this has to be taught in a lesson where the teacher can observe the student and make sure there is no strain involved. If you are interested in a session, please contact me at 310.462.2462 or email me at claudia (at) batesvision.com (and this can be done via Skype, FaceTime, Google hangouts or other modern video technologies if you are not able to come in person).