I could lie to your face and tell you that I’m the perfect picture of health. I could say that, because I’m a Chinese medicine practitioner, I take all the preventative measures needed to ensure a disease-free, balanced life. I could tell you that I didn’t sneak some of my daughter’s Halloween candy this year, but my tongue doesn’t lie. You would be able to see the evidence in my tongue coating, what we refer to as the “fur”. It was a little bit thicker the day after I indulged.
Nope, my tongue doesn’t lie. Neither does yours, which is why we spend time looking at it every visit before determining your treatment plan?
Which leads me to frequently asked question #1 in a treatment session: ”So, what did you see?”
This question comes up after asking a patient to stick out their tongue, an odd request for anyone who hasn’t held rank as kindergarten bully or who hasn’t grown up with Chinese medicine.
You may think your tongue is nothing special…that a tongue is a tongue is a tongue is a tongue. On the contrary, if you were to line up a group of people and ask them to stick out their tongues, you would see for yourself just how unique each tongue is from the next.
Try lining up your co-workers, or maybe even your family at Thanksgiving and asking them to do this for you. I’m sure they won’t think you’re strange AT ALL.
The truth is that your tongue contains a wealth of information, even more than what we may think to ask you during an intake. It’s like a snapshot of your unique internal constitution. By observing the color and shape of your tongue, and the coating and moisture level of your tongue body, we can infer a few things about the state of your internal organs.
A perfectly healthy individual with no constitutional imbalances whatsoever would have a pale-red tongue body color with a thin, slightly white coating. I have seen thousands of tongues at this point in my relatively short career, and I’ve perhaps come across two that fit that description. For this reason, I hesitate to call this picture “normal,” but having a baseline is helpful for spotting features that give us clues about your internal organs.
Although tongue diagnosis can be very involved, there are a few aspects of the tongue that are easy to recognize. For example, a relatively common tongue phenomenon that we see is referred to as “scallops” or teeth marks along the edges of the tongue body (see the center photo below). This tells us that there’s an aspect of your digestive system “qi” (or energy) that is weak.
Another straightforward aspect of the tongue to notice is the color. Is your tongue especially pale in color? This may indicate a lack of “Qi” or energy in your body. Does your tongue have a lavender or purplish hue to it? That could indicate a type of stagnation or sluggishness in your body: if this stagnation is emotional, you might be feeling angry or irritated. If it’s physical, you might be in pain.
Perhaps your tongue has a thicker coating on the top of it, which we refer to as the “fur.” No idea what I’m talking about? Fortunately, Miley Cyrus has volunteered to show us her tongue so you can better understand the concept of fur.
If your tongue fur is thicker like Miley’s, this could indicate some imbalances in your digestion, or the presence of “dampness” in your system. We can hone in even further by taking the color of the fur into account: if it’s white, this indicates a “cold” pattern. If it’s yellow, there is a “heat” pattern present in the body. Miley’s tongue fur appears to be a dingy yellow, which suggests that her diet may not have been all too great in the days leading up to this performance. Perhaps she overindulged in Halloween candy like myself. This type of tongue coating can be seen in those who are taking certain medications such as antibiotics. It can also indicate an overgrowth of candida in your system. In order to narrow it down, we’d have to ask Miley some questions and feel her pulse.
Changes in your tongue
The tongue is an invaluable diagnostic tool in Chinese medicine. It can give us information about what’s going on internally BEFORE you start to become symptomatic. It also can indicate the progress we’re making in treatment overtime.
Want to see this phenomenon for yourself? Get to know your tongue really well. Look at it in the mirror every day before brushing your teeth, and you’ll be able to notice changes, especially when you’re hit with an acute situation like an upper respiratory infection or a stomach virus.
And speaking of brushing your teeth, if you happen to be a tongue-brusher during your daily hygiene ritual, remember this: don’t brush your tongue on the day of your acupuncture appointment! If you do, you’re brushing away valuable information that could help us understand to how best treat you.
My family is charging through a couple of busy weeks in both our business and personal lives. Sometimes I’m able to convince myself that I’m thriving in the midst of all this movement and activity…that I don’t need a break and my health won’t be affected. I just looked at my tongue in the mirror and it’s showing signs of fatigue: a slightly pale body with noticeable scallops.
So I could lie and tell you I’m the perfect picture of health, but the truth is in my tongue. It’s time for me to get an acupuncture treatment. And that’s no lie.
P.S. If you’re interested in seeing just how many aspects of the tongue we’re looking at when we ask you to stick yours out, there’s a great overview of tongue diagnosis on the Sacred Lotus website.