Checking up on your health doesn't have to be expensive and time-consuming. Of course, getting a full medical workup with lab tests and imaging is important if you need it, but for the average person who just wants to get a sense of how well she digested last night's dinner or how well his body is handling the stress of working overtime, there's a simple self-check that you can do in your own bathroom mirror. Just stick out your tongue.
Within a few seconds, it's possible to get the inside scoop on what's going on with your body just by looking at your tongue. And while it takes years of practice to be able to read tongues in a clinical setting like I do, you can start checking in on your own body at home by looking for these three key signs:
1. Red Tip
The tip of the tongue corresponds to the "Heart" organ system in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The heart governs not only your physical heart but also the mind and emotions. Redness at the tip of the tongue indicates that there is too much "heat" in this system, and often correlates with symptoms like insomnia, nervousness, heart palpitations, and an unquiet mind.
If your tongue tip is red, it's a sign that you need more cooling and calming practices in your life. Try incorporating meditation, yin yoga or progressive muscle relaxation into your daily routine.
2. Thick Coating
The coating of your tongue is said to be like the steam that rises from the digestive process. Healthy digestion "burns clean" and produces a light, white, evenly distributed coating. If the coating is thick, especially toward the back of the tongue, this is a signal that your digestion isn't performing at peak efficiency.
Try adjusting your diet with the help of a practitioner, or adding herbs and spices to your food to support your digestion. A sudden change in the coating of your tongue can also be a sign that you're fighting off an infection, like a cold or the flu.
3. Teeth Marks
Teeth marks on the sides of your tongue can happen for one of two reasons. Either you're pushing your tongue forward against your teeth during the night, or your tongue itself is slightly swollen. If you grind your teeth, chances are good that you're also pushing your tongue forward and creating teeth marks.
If this is you, make sure you're getting enough exercise during the day, and do some self-massage of your hip and upper back muscles with a tennis ball before bed. And see a practitioner who specializes in TMJD!
If you don't grind your teeth, this sign often points to a pattern that we call Spleen Qi Deficiency in TCM. This pattern is an underlying source of sugar cravings, low energy, sluggish digestion, loose stools, mental rumination and weight gain. Try adding cinnamon and ginger to your food (or sipping these herbs in tea form) and make sure to get up and walk at least 100 steps after meals.
How to Read Your Tongue:
1. Avoid eating or drinking for at least 30 minutes beforehand. Also, don't scrape your tongue before you read it!
2. Be in a source of natural light, if at all possible.
3. Stick your tongue out in the way that feels most natural. Look at your tongue for up to 15 seconds at a time; if you keep it out longer than that, the color of your tongue will start to change and this will distort your reading.
4. Look for these three signs:
- Red tongue tip
- Thick tongue coating
- Teeth marks on the sides of your tongue
5. Be kind to your tongue and to yourself. It's very common for people to feel embarrassed about their tongues, but there's no need to be hard on yourself. This is just a "printout" of the current state of your body, and being kind to and accepting of what you see on your tongue is a way to practice kindness and acceptance of your whole body and everything it does for you.
6. Follow up with a practitioner if you have any questions or concerns about signs you see on your tongue, and remember not to use tongue reading as a substitute for medical diagnosis.
Most importantly, take action on what you learn by looking at your tongue. Let your tongue reading inspire you to make the necessary shifts so that you can thrive. Then, enjoy watching your tongue change in response to your new healthy habits!
Melanie St. Ours is an author and clinical herbalist living in the Baltimore, Maryland area, who specializes in both women's and mental health. Her first book, The Simple Guide to Natural Health was published in 2018. St. Ours trained extensively in the U.S. and at Longhua Hospital in Shanghai. She has a bachelor's in drama from NYU, and has been featured in Reader's Digest, Vice, and Parade. She works with clients from all over the world through her private practice, Psyche & Soma.