If you’ve ever gone to an acupuncturist or herbalist, you’ve probably been asked to stick out your tongue. This can seem like a very strange request, and you’re usually left to wonder what they saw there.
This article will demystify what your practitioner sees on your tongue by clearly explaining the basics of tongue analysis, and will also show you how you can use that information to make dietary choices to benefit your overall well-being.
Basically, your tongue is a reflection of what’s happening inside your body. Natural medicine tries to find balance in your whole body.
Along with your pulse and symptom presentation, your tongue is an easily accessible way to find out what your inner landscape looks like, and can help you know what will bring you further into, or out of balance.
What To Look For
Is your tongue thin and pointy, or is it more thick and flabby with tooth-marks around the edges? Is it quivery? Is some of it swollen while another part looks depressed? Is it long or can you barely stick it out? Are there cracks?
Is it bright red? Is it pale? Or maybe it’s almost purple? Is one part of the tongue a different color than the rest.
Is it thick and white? Does it look greasy and yellow? Does it seem particularly dry, or even stripped of a coating? Or is it especially moist? Is the coat even throughout, or are there differences in different parts of the tongue?
Common Tongue Presentations
A pale tongue that is swollen with scalloped edges indicates dampness within the body.
This tongue is often associated with symptoms like loose stools, bloating, fatigue, cold, and excess worry.
What to eat: If this is what your tongue looks like, you should emphasize warming foods and herbs (such as soup, lamb, beef, leeks, nuts, fresh ginger, rosemary, and cinnamon.)
You can also incorporate moderate amounts of wild and basmati rice, corn, buckwheat, rye, and amaranth to drain dampness from your system.
What to avoid: Foods that enhance cold in the body.
These are foods that are eaten straight from the refrigerator, greasy/fried/creamy foods, crunchy foods, cucumbers, ice-cream, bananas, cold drinks, clams, crab, grapefruit, watermelon, radishes, green tea, sour food, and raw vegetables.
This tongue presentation is often associated with what we call “deficiency heat” in Chinese medicine.
Symptoms associated with this tongue often resemble menopause, including hot-flashes, night-sweats, insomnia, ringing in the ears, and dry skin and lips.
What to eat: To nourish yourself, incorporate berries and seeds, naturally sweet foods (like honey, yams, and squash,) congee, spelt, quinoa, rice, sour foods, parsley, and sea vegetables.
What to avoid: If this is what your tongue looks like, and you’re experiencing similar symptoms, you’re going to want to avoid salty foods, as well as overly pungent or spicy foods, fried foods, sugar, and alcohol.
Red Tongue-Body, Yellow Greasy Coating
This kind of tongue indicates heat, and is associated with symptoms such as irritability, rashes or pimples, easy sweating, thirst, and dry constipation.
What to avoid: If this is what your tongue looks like you should avoid spicy, rich, and greasy foods, alcohol, sugar, and limit your meat consumption.
What to eat: Instead of foods that add heat to the body, incorporate more fish, steamed vegetables, salads, seaweed, millet, wild rice, and fruit into your diet.
Also, it might be wise to bitter foods and herbs like dandelion, burdock root, and lettuce to drain the heat in your system.
Quivery Tongue with a Red Tip
Both a quivery tongue as well as a red-tipped tongue are symptoms associated with stress, adrenal fatigue, depression, and insomnia.
What to do: If this is what your tongue looks like you need to take extra time to take care of yourself. It would be wise to begin some sort of practice into your before-bed-routine, such as qigong, gentle yoga, or meditation.
You might also find herbal teas with passionflower, chamomile, lemon-balm, or California poppy to be beneficial.
In tincture form, you can try taking 1-2 dropper-fulls of ashwaghanda, angelica, or rhodiola 2-3 times per day for six weeks and then re-evaluate if your symptoms have improved.
*PLEASE NOTE: The herbs listed in tea form here are safe for extended use, but ashwaghanda, angelica, and rhodiola are somewhat stronger and shouldn’t be used excessively without consultation.
One Part of the Tongue Looks Different than the Rest
In Chinese medicine the tongue is considered a microsystem for the rest of the body. This means that different parts of the tongue relate to different organs and phase-elements.
For example, if there is a dent in the center of the tongue it could be an indication of Spleen/Stomach Earth deficiency, meaning the individual is probably having digestive issues at the moment.
Or perhaps there is an even coating throughout the tongue body, but there is a patch on the far left side that looks like it is stripped. This could indicate something going on with the Liver/Gallbladder function.
Or if there is a thicker, yellow coating, but it’s just in the back of the tongue, this indicates heat and might correspond with something like a UTI.
Because the organ-network is fairy complicated, making these observations at home is not as effective as seeing a practitioner, so for our purposes here it’s really just interesting to note.
Average Shape, Pink Body, Thin White Coating
This tongue is considered normal. Congratulations! Keep doing what you’re doing.
These are just the most common examples of tongue presentations, and are meant to give you a very general understanding of tongue diagnosis.
Most cases are not so clear-cut. Sometimes the symptoms don’t correspond or there are additional features that complicate the picture.
If you are curious to learn more about tongue diagnosis, I have listed a few resources below that can help you expand your understanding.
The best thing to do, however, would be to make an appointment with a local Chinese medicine practitioner or herbalist and ask them for recommendations specific to you.
*Please note that I do not do diagnosis online. If you would like your tongue analyzed, please come see me or another Chinese medicine practitioner in clinic.
Some more resources to check out: