More than Miley Cyrus' favorite gesture or a silly expression, sticking out your tongue can actually be the key to finding balance in your wellness. The tongue is a powerful diagnostic tool in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and by looking at its color and coating, among other factors, you can identify both physical and emotional disruptions in your system. For Gabriel Sher, the director of acupuncture at Ora in New York City, each session begins with a tongue diagnosis. Even before asking the client about their diet, sleep, emotional health, and other bodily cycles, Sher will take a quick look at their tongue and be able to identify specific traits.
To understand the method of tongue diagnosis, a basic knowledge of qi (or chi), the energy flow that exists within the body, is necessary. Qi is the core principle of TCM and is believed to travel through the body via invisible pathways called meridians. “All the meridians go through the tongue,” Sher tells L’OFFICIEL. “All I have to do is look at someone’s tongue and I’ll know what’s going on.” The practice is often used in conjuction with a pulse diagnosis, but where a pulse diagnosis helps indicate "how you've been doing for the past day, the tongue tells you how you've been doing for the past week," Sher says.
Sher has over 20 years of experience as a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, and he admits that at the beginning of his education, he was skeptical of tongue diagnosis. Now, however, he sees it as an essential step in his practice. He jokes that when he goes on dates, “all I do is check out the girl’s tongue” because it will tell him more about them.
So what can the tongue exactly tell us about someone or ourselves? Well, it can indicate both physical and bodily qualities as well as someone’s temperament and emotions. When “reading” a tongue, there are five main sections: the liver, heart, lung, spleen/stomach, and kidney/bladder/gut. For tongue diagnosis, these don’t necessarily correlate with the actual function of those organs—for example, a noticeable trait on the heart section of the tongue doesn’t indicate a cardiac issue in the body—but rather what they represent in TCM.
The outer tongue, the heart and liver sections, are considered the emotional part. For these, color is the most important consideration. “If there's redness on the sides, which is the liver, that's going to show somebody has a lot of irritability or frustration,” Sher explains. “If the tip of your tongue is red (the heart section), that's someone who's more of an over-thinker, in their head, has more anxiety, usually someone who suffers from trouble sleeping or a lot of dreams.” He also notes that some people can have both, creating what he calls a “horseshoe tongue,” which shows redness all along its edges and indicates a very emotional person.
Besides color, the coating of the tongue is the other main factor to examine. “A perfect tongue is a lightly pink tongue with a thin white coating,” Sher says. “Once you start to eat poorly or drink too much alcohol, then your coating can become more thick, more yellow, fill up the whole tongue, and that will tell me how your digestion is.”
For example, if the middle of the tongue has a thicker, yellow coating, that can point towards excessive alcohol intake or an imbalanced diet with too much fried food or sugar. Thus, this type of tongue can also be a sign of someone who has issues like a yeast infection or man with athlete’s foot, which are often exacerbated of a poor diet.
One other manifestation of possible digestive issues is an enlarged tongue that gets teeth marks on its outer edges, also called scallops. Sher says this can be caused by eating too many uncooked, raw foods that are difficult for the body to digest. According to TCM, warm, cooked foods can help bring balance, creating body heat and stimulating circulation, and are especially beneficial during the cold winter months.
The tongue also holds some weight in Western medicine. While there are more serious medical conditions that can change the appearance of the tongue, variations of color, coating, and shape are proven to result from diet and hygeine habits. Similar to the connection between the tongue and the digestive system in TCM, doctors and dentists have cited the white coating as the result of alcohol use, eating certain types of foods, and dehydration, and a red tongue may be caused by vitamin deficiencies.
So once you've taken a good look at your tongue in the mirror—which Sher recomends doing before bed—you can use your tongue diagnosis to help inform your other areas of wellness, whether that means adjusting your diet, checking in with your emotions, or going in for an acupuncture appointment to get your qi flowing.