What your tongue shows about your health

Tongues are amazing.

They help us speak, eat, keep the mouth and lips moist and, by its condition, inform us on the state of our health.

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), examining the tongue is one of the primary diagnostic tools. Yet in Western medicine, it is largely ignored.  In fact, it’s customary for the physician to use a depressor to hold it down so he can look past the tongue and at the throat.

Your tongue could reveal surprising secrets about your health. From anemia… to autoimmune diseases… to food allergies, the tongue can sometimes be a good indicator of your overall health. Check out these common tongue-related health conditions to see if your mouth might hold the secret to what’s bothering you.

TCM and the tongue

The tongue offers TCM practitioners a way in which they can learn various things about the state of your organs, blood and interior body. It displays clues on its surface that reflect various things, such as relative degrees of blood movement, qi (energy) strength, dampness, heat, toxicity and so on.

These things manifest on the tongue because the tongue first comes into contact with the food we eat, and this food changes our bodies on daily basis. The tongue, according to TCM theory, is also “the outlet of the heart.” As such the color of the tongue is related to the state of the blood. For example, a pale-colored tongue can indicate a basic blood deficiency or anemia.

When a TCM practitioner examines the tongue, they are looking at such things as body color, texture, coating, cracks, lines, teeth marks and relative moisture or lack thereof.

Following are examples of 10 different TCM syndromes, the tongues they manifest, what they mean and what symptoms may be present…

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Normal — A normal tongue is pink in color, is moist, has no deep cracks or lines and perhaps a thin white coating or no coating at all.

Blood stasis — A person experiencing blood stasis may experience such symptoms as cold limbs, varicose veins, painful legs, headaches, chest pain and liver spots and their skin may lack its normal luster. Their tongue body color will be purple and may have black spots on it.

Blood deficiency — A person experiencing blood deficiency may experience symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue, palpitations, poor concentration and memory, insomnia and women’s health issues. Their tongue will be pale and have very little, if any, coating.

Qi deficiency — A person who is experiencing qi deficiency may have such symptoms as fatigue, poor appetite, spontaneous sweating, shortness of breath, over-thinking or worrying. Their tongue body will be pale, have a few red dots on it, a thin white coating and have teeth marks on its edges.

Qi stagnation — A person experiencing qi stagnation may be stressed, have a tendency to be depressed or upset, have a general unstable emotional state and experience premenstrual tension syndrome. Their tongue will have a thin white coating and its tip will be red.

Damp retention — A person experiencing damp retention may have such symptoms as bloating, feeling of fullness in the chest, abdominal fullness and a feeling of being heavy or lethargic. Their tongue will be pink and swollen and the center will have a greasy white coating.

Heat — A person experiencing heat will feel hot, sweat easily, be thirsty, constipated, irritable, bad tempered and have skin problems. Their tongue body will be red and they will have a thin yellow coating on it.

Damp heat — A person experiencing damp heat will usually have skin problems, urinary tract infections, clammy skin and be angry and uncomfortable. Their tongue will be red with a greasy yellow coating.

Yang deficiency — A person with yang deficiency may easily feel cold, tend to need warming up, have a pale complexion, back pain, may panic easily, have low emotional feelings and possibly be impotent or infertile.

Yin deficiency — A person experiencing a yin deficiency may have hot flashes, night sweats (as in menopause), insomnia, irritability, ringing in the ears and irregular menstruation. Their tongue will be red, have many cracks in it and have little or no coating at all.

Western medicine and the tongue

In terms of mainstream Western medicine, there are signs that show on the tongue that could mean certain health conditions are present.

Bald, red tongue This is caused by an inflammatory condition causing the papillae to shed and leave behind a hairless, shiny, bald (or scalloped) tongue. It could mean that there is a deficiency in folic acid (iron) and vitamin B12. Vegetarians who don’t take B supplements might find this to be their common tongue color. It could also be a sign of celiac disease or Sjögren’s syndrome, and so you will want to have this looked at.

White patches under the tongue — These white patches are painless and the result of excessive cell growth often caused by smoking or the teeth irritating the tongue. There is a chance that these patches (known as leukoplakia) can develop into cancer, so you need to have a biopsy to be safe.

Red lesions on the tongue — These could be oral herpes or cold sores, in which case they are painful but usually go away in a few weeks. These are related to a virus and usually trigger when you are under prolonged stress. However, red lesions that remain longer might be a sign of cancer or the HPV virus. The earlier you get this checked, the greater the chances of preventing the issue from becoming life-threatening.

White lesions on the tongue  If you have a solid white lesion or small circle on the tongue, lips or inside of the cheeks, it is known as an aphthous ulcer. These are painful and could be caused by biting down on the tongue or related to celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease or simply a vitamin deficiency. It is a good idea to have this looked at.

What now?

Now that you have a basic idea of the ways in which various health issues manifest on your tongue, have a look at it. I examine mine in a mirror every morning to decide how my body is doing and what I should eat for breakfast and lunch.

My tongue tells me a lot about myself. What does yours say about you?

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Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.