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What Your Tongue Can Reveal About Your Health

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Woman sticking her tongue out

Long before the advent of modern medicine, healthcare providers relied primarily on their senses to evaluate patients. Diagnoses were often made by simply looking at and listening to the patient. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), observation of the tongue in particular was – and still is – an especially useful diagnostic tool. So, what can your tongue tell you about your health?

Look and Learn: A Visual Exam of the Tongue

“The tongue can provide vital clues about your overall health and be an early indicator of certain diseases or deficiencies,” says Jacob Wolf, ND, LAc, a naturopathic doctor at University Hospitals Connor Whole Health. “Healthcare providers including TCM practitioners examine and take note of the color, size and texture of the tongue to assist them in making a diagnosis. We also look for any unusual coatings on the tongue,” adds Dr. Wolf.

The following characteristics of the tongue are considered during the visual exam:

  • Color. Healthy tongues can range in color from pale pink to reddish-pink. Extreme variations from the normal color palette may be an early warning sign of certain diseases, vitamin deficiencies or infections. For example, a bright red tongue might indicate an infection or conditions like anxiety or insomnia, a tongue with a bluish tint could suggest poor circulation, and a very pale tongue can be a sign of nutrient deficiency.
  • Size. Although there is no standard size for a tongue, it should rest comfortably in your mouth. If the tongue is enlarged and swollen, this can be an indicator of allergies, digestive disturbances or blood sugar issues like diabetes.
  • Texture. Tiny bumps called papillae cover the surface of the tongue, giving it a rough texture. A very smooth tongue surface may indicate a condition called atrophic glossitis in which some or all of the papillae are missing. If any new lesions, masses, discolorations or irregular patches are noted on the tongue’s surface, they may be signs of a bacterial or fungal infection, an immune deficiency or even a pre-cancerous condition.
  • Coating. Tongue coating is complex because it can change based on diet. However, coating discolorations and their location on the tongue are noted and considered in the diagnostic process.

The information from a visual exam of the tongue can help your healthcare provider determine which body systems are dysfunctional or out of balance and help to guide treatment. “If you are being cared for by an acupuncturist, the clues provided by the tongue’s appearance can help us choose the appropriate acupuncture points and guide the selection of an herbal formula if indicated,” says Christine Kaiser, LAc, DACM, clinical manager of acupuncture at University Hospitals Connor Whole Health.

Tips to Keep Your Tongue Healthy

  • Practice good oral hygiene. Brush your teeth and tongue at least twice a day. Consider using a tongue scraper.
  • Stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of water is important for your tongue and your overall health.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking is a leading cause of oral cancers including cancers of the tongue.
  • Eat a healthy diet. A tongue-healthy diet includes probiotics like yogurt, leafy greens, brightly colored fruits, and vegetables and iron-rich foods like spinach and shellfish.
  • Get regular dental checkups. In addition to caring for your teeth, dentists routinely examine the entire mouth and tongue for signs of disease.

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At UH Connor Whole Health, we take the whole person into account, addressing the full range of physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual and environmental influences that affect an individual’s health. Our diagnostic and therapeutic healthcare services include acupuncture, massage therapy, chiropractic and lifestyle medicine consultations.

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