In traditional Chinese health practice, it is believed each area of the tongue corresponds to different organs of the body. The front of the tongue is directed to the lungs and heart; the middle, to the spleen and stomach; the sides, to the liver and gall bladder; and the back, to the kidneys, small intestine, and the colon. Working like a mirror to the digestive system, the tongue can indicate nutritional deficiencies, show food sensitivities, and reveal the health of our organs.
Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese (TCM) healing modalities have been using the tongue as a diagnostic tool for thousands of years, and the practise is becoming popular in Western naturopathic practice. Whilst it is best to check with your healthcare provider, such as a GP or naturopath, you can look at your tongue and observe the shape, colour, and coating, to get an idea of what your tongue may be saying about your health.
1. A pale tongue:
Any change in the colour of the tongue may indicate an issue with the circulation of the blood and internal temperature, often related to the thyroid and metabolism. A pale or whitish tongue could be indicative of poor circulation, cold temperature, and a lack of healthy red blood cells. A pale tongue may signal nutritional deficiencies including iron, folate, and vitamin B12. If you are suffering from a lack of energy, fatigue, dizziness, and brain fog, your red blood cells may need support.
2. A beefy, red tongue:
A healthy tongue is rosy/pink in colour, however if your tongue is red you may need to pay extra attention. A red tongue can suggest heat and an exaggerated immune response in the body, and, like a pale tongue, can indicate a lack of iron and reduced circulation. A purple tongue indicates blood stasis, or an extreme lack of circulation. Common nutritional deficiencies found with a beefy, red tongue include iron, folate, and vitamin B12; and if your tongue is burning, this indicates you need more zinc. A beefy red tongue is where your tongue appears swollen and often smooth. This can be triggered by several health conditions, so check with your GP if you have a continually swollen tongue.
3. Teeth impressions:
Teeth marks are often found where the teeth are literally pressing against the tongue, because it is too swollen for the oral cavity. In TCM tongue diagnosis, teeth marks reflect the dysfunction of liver, spleen, and kidney. Teeth marks can also be an indication of poor nutrient absorption and assimilation, which may lead to exhaustion, poor digestion, and even waste accumulation in the digestive tract. It is essential to absorb nutrients from food for the maintenance of good health. Support your digestive system with glutamine for healthy growth and repair of the intestinal lining, pre-and-probiotics to replenish stores of good bacteria and support immune health, and apple cider vinegar to increase stomach acid for better digestion. A liver or kidney tonic may help, as can addressing any issues with your spleen.
4. A white coating:
A white coating is the most common discoloration of the tongue. In TCM theory, it is believed that tongue coating can reflect the condition of the body’s zang-fu (internal organs), qi-xue (energy and blood), and jinye (fluids), as well as the nature and severity of disease. The ideal is to have a thin, white coat on your tongue. This indicates a healthy gut flora and a normal, well-functioning gut wall and mucosa. Sluggish digestion appears as a thick tongue coat. A yellow tongue coating indicates a “heat” condition in the digestive tract, whereas a thick white coating indicates “cold”. A thick coating in the centre of the tongue is a common sign of an overloaded digestive system. You may find you are feeling heavy or lethargic, and that your digestive system needs a good dose of friendly pre-and-probiotics. A thick coating may also be indicative of the fungal issues. If this is you, probiotics may be helpful.
5. A shaky tongue:
A shaky tongue is commonly found when people are suffering from stress and an inability to relax. You may be unable to sleep, feel stressed, and worried, and have a restless mind, yet feel exhausted. A shaky tongue can be supported by taking calming herbs to nourish the nervous system, as well as magnesium to support relaxation and sleep, and release muscle tension.
6. A cracked tongue:
Grooves, cracks, or fissures along the surface of the tongue surface may be due to an iron, biotin, or vitamin B12 deficiency, as these nutrients are required to mature the tongue’s papillae. It is important to look out for fungal overgrowth in the fissures of the tongue and take a pre-and-probiotic, as a preventative. No coating, or a peeled/cracked tongue coat, indicates insufficient lining or flora in the digestive system.
7. A deep line through the tongue:
A deep, prominent mark in the middle of the tongue can be a result of malnutrition. However, more often than not, it is indicative of emotion or stress being held in the spine. The top of the spine correlates to the tip of the tongue, and the lower spine, to the back of the tongue. If you have a deep line, you may want to explore what is causing such a deep emotional response. If you are having any spinal issues, it may be worth getting them checked by an osteopath or chiropractor.
8. A geographic tongue:
When patches of the tongue are missing, papillae form over the tongue in a map-like (geographic) appearance. Symptoms may appear for a few days then disappear, or the location of the “maps” may move. A vitamin B deficiency can cause swelling and many tongue symptoms, especially a geographic tongue. If patches appear on the sides of the tongue, your liver may need extra support through detoxification and liver specific herbs. If the patches appear on the middle of the tongue, support your digestive system with pre-and-probiotics and apple cider vinegar.
Your body is always dropping clues about your health, and you can learn a lot by opening your mouth. The health of your teeth, gums, tongue, and digestive system is inextricably linked to your overall health. The microbiome of the mouth is key. You can prevent many tongue problems by practicing gentle oral hygiene such as flossing and using a tongue scraper. Avoiding tobacco and alcohol, drinking plenty of water and eating a nutrient-rich diet can do wonders for your oral hygiene and help to flush out microbial debris from your whole digestive system. It is important to regularly check your tongue to recognise any changes and notice what you may not be able to feel. Check your tongue in the mirror each morning, notify your healthcare provider if you’re worried, and stay on top your health.
What can the tongue tell us about someone’s health?
The tongue can provide valuable insights into someone’s health by revealing indicators such as colour, coating, and texture, which traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic practices associate with different organs and potential nutritional deficiencies. Changes in the tongue, such as a pale or red colour, cracks, or a white coating, may signal issues with circulation, immune response, or nutrient absorption, offering clues about overall well-being.
What is a geographic tongue, and how can its appearance provide health insights?
A geographic tongue involves patches forming over the tongue in a map-like appearance. The location of patches may indicate things like nutrient deficiencies or suggest the need for organ or digestive system support.