by Frank Ervolino, N.D., L. Ac
The tongue is a truly versatile part of your body. It helps you communicate with the outside world, maintain the integrity and health of the mouth and, of course, it helps you nourish yourself. The tongue also holds information about your physical and emotional health, which it keeps secret to those who take it for granted.
Simple knowledge of the tongue can give you a few clues on how your diet, lifestyle and environment can affect your health. By learning a few simple aspects of the tongue and how it relates to the rest of the body, you cannot only learn secrets about yourself, but also about others! In fact, talking to people may never be the same.
Tongue Anatomy 101
The tongue is a muscular organ. It is covered with a moist and pink tissue called the mucosa. The tiny bumps on the surface of the tongue are called papillae. Embedded within the papillae are several thousand taste buds that are responsible for detecting sweet, salty, bitter and sour tastes. Interestingly, there is also a fifth taste, called umami, which can detect glutamate-type of tastes, such as those found in green tea.
The tongue is a unique part of the body in that it is composed of all three of the embryonic layers of the body: endoderm, ectoderm and mesoderm. It also has its origins in the four embryonic arches of the fetus, which make up much of the components of the ears, head, neck, throat as well as fetal cartilage, nerves, muscles and arteries.
This means the tongue represents a large part of the various tissues of the body. There has been research showing that parts of the body, which come from the same origin, can communicate with each other even when they exist in separate regions of the body! From this, one can conclude that the tongue is able to communicate with regions of the head, neck and upper torso. That’s not to say that the tongue is “talking” per se to other areas within the body. Rather, it suggests that what happens in one part of the body may be reflected in another related part of the body.
This makes for some very interesting possibilities. For example, the thyroid, which is in the throat, could have some pathology, such as a hyperthyroid storm as seen in Hashimoto’s disease, and by looking at the tongue, you may be able to see the state of the thyroid tissue reflected in the tongue even before the thyroid symptoms become a clinical symptom.
Reading the Tongue
In addition to expressing and nourishing us, our tongues can provide us meaningful and fascinating information about our state of health.
The bulk of knowledge about the diagnostic aspects of the tongue comes from ancient Chinese medicine, which clinically observed the tongue for over a thousand years. (And most of us would agree that 1,000 years is a luxury few medical systems have to reach a conclusion.)
Chinese medicine uses three main factors when “reading” the tongue: tongue coating, tongue color and tongue shape.
The tongue has a coating, which represents the state of digestive function in your body. The coating of the tongue is actually made up of bacteria that reside on the tongue. It is interesting in that most people think they can scrape the coating off of the tongue. In fact, scraping the coating does very little and the bacteria will grow back immediately.
The fact that there are bacteria on the tongue should not be surprising in light of the fact that bacteria reside throughout our entire digestive tract. As such, you cannot actually remove the bacteria from your tongue just by scraping it.
The ideal tongue coating consists of a thin, white film on the surface of the tongue. A thin, white coating indicates that the stomach and digestive system is healthy and functioning in the process of transforming and digesting food.
In Chinese medicine, the white coating represents the residue leftover from indigestion, so a thin, white coating is considered normal and healthy.
If there is a thick coating on the tongue then there is an imbalance to the point where it has impacted the body’s physiology. This imbalance could be pathophysiological or it can be due to other factors such as lifestyle choices or aging.
A thicker, white coat means there is a predominance of cold in the body. Cold is the Chinese term that describes a weakness of physiological function in the body, so a heavy white coat would mean that some system in the body is not able to perform its physiological role in maintaining health, or may represent a viral infection.
A thick, yellow coating on the tongue indicates a predominance of heat in the body. This could correspond to inflammation or a bacterial infection.
A geographic tongue is one where the coating is peeled in areas and easily removed. This type of coating indicates a person who has pushed their body to the brink of exhaustion. This type of tongue is also associated with allergic disorders and autoimmune diseases, but these are severe manifestations. If you have a geographic tongue, it is a sign to slow down and regain your health.
Tongue color takes a long time to change and therefore reflects the state of one’s health over a longer period of time.
The ideal color of a healthy tongue should be pale-red, which indicates good circulation of blood in the body. This is because, in Chinese medicine, the tongue is an extension of the heart and the color of the tongue is said to represent the health of the blood. Since the blood is what nourishes and maintains the body, the tongue color also shows the overall health of the body and its organs.
A tongue that is nearly white or extremely pale can be a sign of a problem. An extremely pale, “wet” tongue indicates a weakness in the digestive system. This can be accompanied by loose stools, extremity coldness, heavy fatigue and abdominal distention.
An extremely pale, dry tongue can also indicate a blood deficiency, which can affect women more than men, and is frequently marked by anxiety, dizziness, impaired memory, insomnia, chapped lips and eventually anemia.
A bright red tongue almost always indicates a pathological condition. In acute situations, the red tongue will indicate an infection. At the start of the infection, only the tip will be red. As the condition progresses, the redness will advance to eventually cover the whole tongue body.
The tip of the tongue is also known as the heart area. Given this, a red tongue tip without any signs of illness can indicate emotional turmoil.
If there is a red tongue with a yellow coating, there is a chronic inflammatory condition in the body.
A red, shiny tongue with no coating usually indicates a loss of the body’s ability to regulate and offset thermogenic hormones in the body. This is often seen in women who start menopause and men who use Lupron®.
Red dots can also appear on the tongue. These indicate heat or inflammation in the blood. In children this can represent an immune response to infection. In adults, this can indicate what is called heart fire, which can result in insomnia and anxiety.
If only the sides are red, this is called liver fire and can be the result of long-standing anger or resentment. This can also be aggravated by over-consumption of spicy or greasy foods and alcohol. A tongue with red sides can also be seen in people with irritable bowel syndrome.
A tongue with a purple hue indicates long-standing inflammation. This color can be seen in women who have very difficult menstrual cycles or in people who are experiencing chronic pain.
Tongue shape addresses a Chinese medicine concept of deficiency or excess, which addresses physiological strength of the systems or processes of the human body. Take the immune system for example. If there is a deficiency of immune response, such as that seen in mononucleosis, there will be increased illness. If there is an excess of immune response, then there could be asthma, allergies or autoimmune disease.
The ideal shape of the healthy tongue is full, yet not so full as to press on the teeth and leave a serrated edge. There should be no cracks in the tongue body.
A tongue that is thin and pale indicates a deficiency of blood or fluids. Anemia, fatigue, dry skin and lips are often seen here.
A swollen tongue indicates general overall weakness and an inability to recover from this state. Basically it means the body is weak and losing ground. It is an indicator of gradually worsening overall health.
If the tongue gets so swollen as to have a serrated outside edge to it, this indicates that your energy is getting so low that the tongue will rest against the teeth. This is often a sign of a digestive disorder.
When it comes to cracks in the tongue, this could be a sign of a yeast infection, as well as a biotin deficiency. A cracked tongue is also a symptom of Sjögren’s syndrome. This would be accompanied by a dry mouth, fatigue, joint pain and burning or itching of the eyes.
Healthy Tongue, Healthy You
As you can see, your tongue does so much more than just help you chew your food or lick a stamp. It can be a roadmap to what is going on in your body. You just need to know how to read the signs.