We use our tongues in many ways. We stick them out to express disapproval with someone or to playfully flirt with the camera. We rely on them to express ourselves and to enjoy the taste of our favorite foods. One of the most critical functions of this incredible organ, however, is often overlooked. The tongue is a window into the state of our health and wellbeing.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the tongue is part of a four-pillar diagnostic system—looking, listening, touching, and asking. On the surface, this practice may seem fairly straightforward. An acupuncturist asks a few questions, checks your pulse, and inserts strategically placed needles around your body. But, in reality, TCM is a much more complicated system of diagnosis and care.
Dating back more than two thousand years, TCM diagnosis is an intricate puzzle. To determine what’s ailing you, a TCM practitioner pieces together the information they glean from your scent, sounds, pulse, and yes, tongue. “The tongue is a wonderful diagnostic tool that reflects the health of your organs,” says Meghan Mabe, Chinese medicine practitioner with Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) Bloomington Clinic. “Abnormal findings on different parts of the tongue point to dysfunction in the related organs. Basically, the tongue acts as a roadmap for balancing and, ultimately, healing your body.”
The Roadmap to Wellness
TCM practitioners believe the body’s organs support and balance each other. Without that balance, optimal health is likely unattainable. According to Chinese medicine wisdom, the body’s meridians, or energy pathways, connect each organ system to the tongue, mirroring the corresponding system’s health status. TCM breaks the tongue into three regions, each representing different groups of organs. The back corresponds to the kidney, bladder and intestines, while the middle and sides reflect the digestive system. The front relates to the lungs and the heart.
When examining each section, practitioners keep an eye out for specific characteristics. “We look at the tongue’s color, shape and the location and moisture of its coating,” says Barbara Gosse, an NWHSU clinician. “Together, these indicators tell us a lot about metabolism and digestion, the type of diet and how well the body is using what the patient eats.” Once a practitioner completes the four-pillar diagnostic, they recommend such treatments as acupuncture, herbal medicines, massage or dietary changes.
Color plays a vital role in determining how well your organs are functioning. When your tongue’s hue is light red or pink, your vital energy (or qi) is balanced and healthy. When deeper or paler shades appear, you could be suffering from a chronic condition or disease. For example, anxiety can manifest as a red tip of the tongue, which reflects the heart. A tongue that’s crimson red reveals the presence of heat, which could translate to hypertension or acute infection.
Examination of the tongue’s shape involves looking at its consistency, texture and flexibility. A normal tongue is neither too thin nor too thick and tapers toward the tip. Its texture is smooth, with no cracks on the surface, and it can extend easily out of the mouth. “The shape changes when you have a persistent health problem,” says Mabe. “We can gain an understanding of a condition’s severity and chronicity by analyzing the shape.” For instance, a thin tongue could mean dehydration, while a thick one could indicate fluid accumulation.
The Ever-Changing Coat
The coating on your tongue should appear thin, white, and slightly wet. By looking for coating changes—in location, quantity, quality, color, and moisture level—practitioners can track disease progress and depth. Variations in these areas reflect the issues with your organs and fluid balance. When women enter perimenopause, for example, their tongue coating begins to dry up for the same reason they experience other fluid imbalances during this life-stage change.
The tongue can speak volumes about your health, providing clues about what your body needs to heal. When considered in conjunction with findings from the remaining three pillars, this information is a powerful tool in your wellness toolbox. “In Chinese medicine, we determine the root cause of sickness and then stimulate the body to heal itself,” says Mabe. “I tell my patients that we do twenty percent of the work and their body takes care of the rest.”
So, the next time you pass by your bathroom mirror, stick out that tongue and take a look. It might reveal a few clues about your health and wellbeing.
Located in Bloomington, Northwestern Health Sciences University is a pioneer in integrative natural health care education, offering degree programs in chiropractic, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, massage therapy, medical assisting, medical laboratory programs, post-bac/pre-health, radiation therapy, and B.S. completion. Its Bloomington Clinic is open to the public and provides chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, massage therapy, naturopathic medicine, and cupping.
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