How to understand tongue syndrome and what it says about your health
Ever look in the mirror while you’re brushing your teeth and notice your tongue looks, well, weird?Tongue syndromes can point to deeper issues in the body depending on the state of your energy flow. Your diet, hydration, and even mental state can influence your body’s inner workings, and depending what physical changes you see on your tongue, it can be a helpful indicator of your overall health.
The role of Traditional Chinese Medicine in tongue syndrome and oral health
If you’re familiar with principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), qi is the essential force that flows through our bodies, giving us energy to move, think, and be alive.[1,2] Sometimes that energy can be thrown off due to trauma, poor diet, lack of exercise, or other lifestyle imbalances. Depending on what state your qi is in–deficient, in excess, stagnated, etc.–you’ll notice your tongue trying to let you know what’s going on in other parts of your body, like your spleen, large intestine, liver, heart, kidneys, or stomach.
Next time you brush your teeth, pay attention to these three aspects of your tongue: color, coating, how it’s shaped, and the edges. Here’s a complete run-down on what your tongue might be saying and how to heed its warnings to create a healthier lifestyle.
What does a normal tongue look like?
When your body is balanced and at its best, your tongue should be a rosy pink color and smooth–no indentations, cracks, or otherwise uneven in texture or color. It should also fit in your mouth nicely, meaning it’s not swollen or shriveled.
More common tongue syndromes include a thick white coating, white webbing pattern, red tongue, or ridges. Check out this post to learn possible causes of these symptoms. Usually they’re cleared up with medication or simpler adjustments to your diet.
Now for the fun stuff…
What color is your tongue?
- If it sports a more deeply or brightly colored red than usual, it may indicate you have excess heat in your body. You might feel thirsty often, sweat a lot without much exertion, be constipated, or feel irritable. People with red tongue syndrome and excess heat sometimes exhibit poor skin quality (acne).[1,5]
- Purple tongue syndrome says your circulatory system is out of whack. It could mean there’s inflammation or an infection somewhere in your body, or a major injury is backing up your body’s ability to circulate blood.[1,5]
- Pale tongue syndrome tends to be common these days. With our hectic schedules and go-go lifestyles, people may feel fatigue, poor appetite, or find themselves overthinking and worrying.[1,5]
Does it have a coating?
- A thick white coating could mean a yeast infection or there’s too much cold energy in the body.[1,5]
- If you see a black or grey coating, go see your doctor. Incidentally, hairy black tongue syndrome is usually a normal occurrence. It sounds odd, but the little papillae–tiny hairs on your tongue–sometimes grow too long and trap bacteria that cause black spots to appear. Try brushing more often, replacing your toothbrush if it’s been a while, or focus on your tongue if you already brush at least twice daily.
- A yellow coating on your tongue typically means there’s an infection somewhere in the body.
How is it shaped?
- Bloated tongue syndrome means your body isn’t using or absorbing the nutrients you’re taking in.
- Thin tongue syndrome? Drink more water! However, if you’ve recently suffered from a chronic condition, a thin tongue could mean the body is depleted and trying to catch up. Be good to yourself and eat lots of nutrient dense foods that are easy for your system to digest.
What do the edges and tip look like?
- Scalloped indentations that look like teeth marks mean you’re qi deficient.[1,5] If you’ve been feeling fatigued, have poor appetite, or sweat spontaneously, take care to relax and focus on your breath.[1,5]
- A red tongue tip indicates qi stagnation.[1,5] Do you feel stressed most of the time (Honestly, who doesn’t?), or tend to be depressed or upset more often than others?[1,5] If so, it’s time to get your energy moving!
Are there other new or distinguishing characteristics?
Bumps, canker sores, painful patches, white spider-webby patterns are all cause to raise an eyebrow. Of course, always watch for new little things that pop up on your tongue. The best way to understand what’s going on in your body is to keep track of what’s normal for you. Here are more things to watch for from Dr. Allan and the Cleveland Clinic.
- Gently-cooked foods are easier for your body to digest. Eating a baked potato, soup, bone broth, or briefly steamed veggies put less stress on your GI tract and help your body preserve more energy to rest and rejuvenate.
- Drink kombucha or kefir, or eat kimchi for Candida. Fermented foods restore good bacteria in your body and help your digestion process by re-populating the beneficial flora and fauna in your colon (beer doesn’t count!).
- Add spices like ginger or cinnamon to your food. These help calm the stomach (ginger) and help create heat in the body and move your energy (cinnamon) if you have qi stagnation.
- Drink ginger tea 20 minutes before meals to aid digestion.
- Listen to your body’s hunger cues and eat slowly. If you eat too fast, your brain won’t catch up to your stomach for 20 minutes after you’ve eaten a big meal. Let yourself enjoy your food and stop when you’re 80% full. Your stomach and intestines will thank you!
- Meditate, do yoga, run, scream into a pillow, or practice any other (healthy!) stress-relieving activity to feel more zen.
Use tongue syndrome as a helpful tool to gauge and improve your overall health
Taking care of your dental health means caring for your whole body. TCM shows us that everything is connected, and we think that’s a good philosophy to live by. It teaches us moderation and to pay attention to our entire being, from what we eat and drink to how we think and talk, and helps us live happier, healthier lives. Now that’s something to smile about.
- Original tongue syndrome chart created by www.acumedic.com