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In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the tongue is believed to be connected to the organs of the body through meridians, or energy pathways. TCM practitioners therefore treat it as a “mirror” of one’s health.
That’s why one of the first things you might end up doing at a TCM consult is saying “Ahh”.
Use this guide to figure out what your tongue reveals about your health.
A map to your health
The tongue is divided into regions associated with different internal organs. The location of a change in color or texture, for example, could indicate a problem in or around the corresponding organ.
Color: In the pink of health
Pink: A normal, healthy tongue.
Pale: Indicates qi or blood deficiency or a deficiency in yang energy. You might appear pallid, tire easily, feel breathless or easily experience cold limbs.
Purple: Indicates qi stagnation and blood stasis. You might experience sharp and persistent localized pains or find palpable masses beneath the skin of the abdominal region.
Red: Indicates excess heat in the body or a yin deficiency. You might feel feverish, restless and experience constipation. You may also have a dry throat and rapid pulse. You may have a preference for cold drinks
Deep Red (Crimson): Indicates intense internal heat or fire syndrome due to a yin deficiency. You may also have a fever, constipation, dry mouth, a strong and rapid pulse, and experience night sweats.
Coating (appearance): Your digestive health
The moss covering your tongue lends clues to your digestive health.
Thin coating: A thin white coating is normal.
Thick coating: Indicates excess dampness in the body.
Greasy coating: Suggests a build-up of dampness and phlegm, which blocks yang-qi circulation.
No coating: Indicates that the stomach qi is deficient and/or damaged
Coating (color): The state of yang
The color of the tongue’s coating is linked to the state of the yang organs, and the stomach in particular.
White: While a thin white coat is normal, a powder-like coat indicates external pathogenic cold. Without treatment, it can progress to a yellow color. A snow-like coat, meanwhile, indicates exhaustion of the spleen yang with damp-cold in the middle jiao (spleen and stomach).
Yellow coat: A slightly yellow coat indicates wind-heat. The more intense the yellow, the more severe the heat. Be aware that the color may be affected by coffee, tea or smoking.
Dirty yellow coat: Indicates damp-heat in the stomach and intestines.
White and yellow coat: Indicates both heat and cold, or cold turning to heat. A coat that is half white and half yellow longitudinally, indicates heat in the liver and gallbladder.
Grey-black coat: A grey-black coat occurs when an illness is advanced or prolonged. A dry coat suggests excess heat internally while a moist coat suggests cold and damp stagnation. When the coat is completely black, it indicates that the cold or heat has become extreme. In combination with a pale tongue, it this could mean excessive cold due to a yang deficiency.
Tips before you say aah!
- Early insights: The best time to inspect your tongue is before breakfast.
- Spare the brush: Brush only your teeth and not the tongue so you get a proper read of the coating.
- No coffee, tea or sweets: Avoid drinking or eating anything that might stain your tongue.
- Sunlight is the best light: If you’re inspecting your own tongue, do it in natural light for a more accurate diagnosis.
- Be quick: Don’t stick out your tongue for more than 15 seconds. The longer your tongue is out of your mouth, the darker it appears. To “reset” the color, just pull your tongue back into your mouth for a few moments.