Anyone visiting a traditional acupuncturist will know we ask you to stick your tongue out for a few seconds. We do this because the tongue gives us clues about what is happening inside your body. Skin can moisturised, hair can be conditioned and natural body odors are often masked with perfumes – luckily for us, the tongue is still an unadulterated part of your insides that we can easily see.
The tongue of course is part of the digestive system and holds many clues to your digestive health, however within Chinese medicine the tongue also tells us how the body as a whole is nourishing itself through observation of this small part.
Firstly we look at the colour of the tongue – hopefully it is some sort of red or pink. Dark and full redness usually indicates heat or inflammation. A pale tongue would cause us to question the quality of someones diet / absorbtion of food or perhaps their general vitality.
We look carefully at the coating of the tongue – and this is very useful at understanding your digestion. A thin white coating is perfectly normal and healthy. A thick greasy white or yellow coat, or even no coat at all shows an acupuncturist something is out of balance.
We look at the moisture around the tongue – there should be some of course, and we look at any markings on the tongue. This is to see how hydrated and efficient in fluid metabolism the body is. When we see horizontal cracks we liken it to an empty river bed, cracked and dry in the midday sun.
The tongue is further divided into zones – as a rule the tip of the tongue represents the top of the body and the chest. The middle and sides of the tongue represent the digestive organs and the back of the tongue is the pelvis and lower limbs. So as well as looking for spots of all colours, cracks and markings – we are also looking at where they occur on the tongue.
For example it is very common to see menopausal women with bright red tips and a cracked body further back. The cracked body shows the dryness and lack of Yin in the body, whereas the red tip shows us heat is rising up to the chest and heat. Vegetarians often present with pale tongues – in Chinese medicine this equates to ‘blood xu’ which translates as meaning the quality of the blood and it’s ability to moisten and nourish tissues is weak.
Your tongue like everything else in your body, relies on good circulation and good supply of nutrients for cell growth and function. Some common examples of the tongue showing serious illness can be seen with iron deficiency where the tongue can become abnormally smooth and shiny. In vitamin B-12 deficiency the tongue can become swollen and red causing it to be called ‘beef steak’ tongue. The next time you are ill with a respiratory cold have a look at the coating on your tongue to see what colour it is!
Start right now – don’t brush your tongue fur in the morning! Stick it out in front of a mirror and spend a few minutes really going over all the different areas of the tongue. Even better, see how it compares to your partner, child or friend. When you start looking you soon realise quite how different every tongue is!