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No longer tongue-tied: what the tongue says about your health


By Yin Yeping (Global Times, December 12, 2011)

If the eyes are the windows into your soul, then the tongue is the gateway into your inner body. At least this has always been the reasoning behind Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which sees the mouth as the entry point of both sickness and cure, and the tongue as the center of diagnosis. And now Western medicine is increasingly appreciating the significance of the tongue. So what exactly does your tongue say about your health? Lifestyle reveals some of the secrets that you may not know about this important muscular organ.

Lick of life

According to TCM, disease is explained by an imbalance of yin and yang and hot and cold in the body, with different zones of the tongue reflecting the condition of different organs. Therefore chronic imbalances in any area of the body will have an impact on the color and shape of the tongue body and coating. For instance, the tip of the tongue shows the condition of your heart, while the root of the tongue reflects your kidney. Even the edges of the tongue contain clues to what is going on elsewhere. "When the sides are purple, it most likely means that there are problems with your liver and gall," explained Shi Ming, a TCM doctor at a clinic in Shanghai. "Tongue diagnosis has been essential in TCM medical theory. It is just as important as diagnosing patients through feeling their pulse," Shi added.

The state of the tongue can not only highlight which part of the body is suffering an imbalance, but can be used to diagnose the specific problem. According to Shi, this is particularly the case with diabetes. People with diabetes often develop a little coating and a crack-like furrow in the middle of their tongue. "Although not all people who have diabetes have the same looking tongue, these signs are still a good indication," Shi added.

Lip service

While Western medicine might not recognize the existence of energy channels and the inherent interconnectedness of all the organs in the way that TCM does, more attention has been paid toward tongue diagnosis of late. It is now regarded as especially important when diagnosing nutritional deficiencies, such as anemia, as well as bacterial infections, dehydration and the likes.

Meanwhile, some doctors have observed that changes to the tongue can be a warning sign of the development of certain types of cancer, particularly colon cancer. Several research projects have shown that patients with cancer experience significant changes in the color, coating and texture of the tongue compared to those without.

Of course even non-experts can recognize that when the tongue changes color or texture something is usually up. Most would be familiar with a snowy or yellow tongue during a bad cold or flu, while when the body is working at its optimum, the tongue is usually smooth, pink, slightly moist and with a thin white coating.

Tongue twister

For the most part, keeping the tongue healthy is a matter of keeping the body healthy. However, it works both ways. Since bacteria often enters the body through the mouth, making the tongue and throat particularly vulnerable, there are some exercises that people can do specifically designed to keep the tongue strong, healthy and performing its functions to the max.

Things like licking your palate with the tip of your tongue and doing circles with it stimulates the secretion of saliva from glands in the mouth. In TCM, this saliva is believed to be very beneficial to the body, while in Western medicine it is understood that saliva, when swallowed, helps digest bacteria and minimize the risk of oral infections and bad breath.

"In addition, swallowing saliva can help strengthen the throat muscles and moving your tongue in general can enhance its agility, strength and sensitivity to tastes," Shi points out, adding that any exercises that increase the production of saliva or stretch the tongue are good ones to practice daily. Just make sure you don't stick out your tongue in public.

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