Every person’s tongue is unique, with distinct characteristics that reflect their inner health. Ever been to a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) doctor or an acupuncturist and been asked to stick out your tongue? There is a reason for this. TCM believes the tongue is a microcosm of the entire body and will reflect its excesses and deficiencies. The shape, colour, coating, and texture of the tongue can all indicate digestive issues and body imbalances.
The gold standard: A normal healthy tongue is pink in color, has a light white tongue coating on it, and is proportionate in size to the mouth.
So, what can your tongue tell you about your health?
- A red tongue may indicate heat in the body, such as a fever or a hormonal imbalance that is leading to hot flashes or temperature changes.
- A purple tongue is a sign that the circulatory system is backed up, perhaps from a major injury or pain condition. There may also be inflammation or infection.
- A pale tongue is a sign of a deficiency or a lack of energy. This is common with anemia or after a long-standing disease where the immune system is weak.
- A thick coating reflects a more serious condition and poor gut health.
- A thin coating is normal, but a very thin or absent tongue coating means a lack of body fluids, or it could be a sign that the body is being taxed greatly.
- A yellow coating signals heat and/or infection in the body.
- A grey or black coating indicates that something is very wrong with the body’s health.
- A thick white coating means there is cold in the body, likely poor circulation to the extremities and possibly Candida, a yeast infection.
- If the tongue is puffy with teeth marks/scalloped edges, it indicates a lack of nutrient absorption; there could be blood stagnation and toxic buildup in the body as well.
- A very thin tongue could indicate dehydration or that a chronic condition has left the body severely depleted.
- A bump on top of the tongue could be a warning of bacterial or viral infection or of an allergic reaction to a food or medication.
- Canker sores more often pop up on the underside of the tongue, and can be identified by a round, red border and yellow or white centre.
- A white or gray lesion with a hard surface that feels thick and raised from the tongue could be leukoplakia, a disorder of the mucous membranes caused by irritation from dentures, crowns, fillings, or tobacco use.
- Hairy leukoplakia, which occurs in people with weakened immune systems due to illnesses like HIV or the Epstein-Barr virus, appears as a fuzzy, white lesion that usually crops up on the side of the tongue.
- Map-like patches: If you spot patchy lesions on the tongue that seem to change location from day to day, you may have a harmless but sometimes uncomfortable condition called geographic tongue.
- Wrinkled: A tongue that bears grooves, wrinkles, or furrows could be scrotal tongue, a harmless condition that can make it difficult to keep the tongue properly clean.
- A sore or lump on one side of the tongue could be a sign of cancer and needs to be checked by a doctor.
- Any burning, intense pain, loss of sensation, or inability to move the tongue properly should be looked at by a doctor as soon as possible.
Tongue areas correspond to internal organs in Chinese Medicine; much like reflexology, different parts of the tongue correspond to different organs. As a mirror of the body’s digestive system, the tongue can reflect the toxicity level in the gut, show potential food sensitivities or a weak digestion, point to malabsorption of nutrients, and reveal the health of other organs in the body.
You can use these helpful tips to improve your digestion and thus the appearance of your tongue:
- Eat fermented foods and drink probiotic beverages to bring your system back into balance.
- Eat only until you are 80% full and eat whole foods that are as natural as possible.
- Warm up your digestion with cooked foods.
- Add herbs and spices to improve digestion.
- Drink warm ginger tea 20 minutes before a meal to benefit digestion and relieve nausea.
- Take digestive enzymes to increase mineral absorption.
Note that it’s always best to see a practitioner familiar with the practice of tongue diagnosis, and keep in mind that in TCM, it is one of a number of areas examined with patients, to make a proper diagnosis and determine the correct treatment. Here is a helpful graphic to assist.