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What Your Tongue Is Telling You About Your Circulation, From An Acupuncturist

Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO
By Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth.
Image by mbg Creative
November 16, 2020

If you've ever had a session with a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner, chances are you've heard this before: "Let's take a look at your tongue." 

It's a pretty standard practice in the ancient healing philosophy. "We have whole classes on tongue diagnosis," says nationally board-certified acupuncturist Paige Bourassa, DACM, L.Ac., RHN, on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. The tongue, it turns out, can be a helpful tool that actually speaks to your health and well-being (more in a minute). A healthy tongue muscle, she notes, is typically bright pink, moist, and a little glistening. A pale, discolored tongue? Well, you may have an issue with blood flow and circulation. Here's how to tell, and what you can do about it.  

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First, how can your tongue clue you in to your health?

Tongue reading is not a new concept—as discussed, it's a TCM process that dates back centuries. And while it's not fully embraced by Western medicine, there are a few peer-reviewed studies to support its efficacy (read all about tongue reading here).  

From a TCM perspective, the shape, quality, texture, coating, and color of the tongue can shed light on any health and well-being issues underneath the surface. After all, "the tongue is the only muscle that you can see without skin on the body," Bourassa explains. (You can't exactly peel back the layers of skin on your neck, for instance, if you're feeling sore.) "It's giving your practitioner a relative indication as to the chi levels, like how much energy you have in your body, and the blood levels, if they're in stagnation." 

Specifically, there's a whole tongue map you can parse through, with each region connected to a different area of the body. "There are areas for the liver. There are areas for the heart, the stomach, the spleen, the kidneys," Bourassa notes. "You can see all of these different parts and diagnose by color." 

Now, let's chat about circulation. 

For the sake of this article, we'll stick to a pale, ashen tongue. (Again, find the whole tongue map and what it means for health over here.) According to Bourassa, a pale tongue goes hand in hand with blood flow. "If your perfect tongue is bright pink, no coat, moist, and a little glistening, a blood-deficient tongue will be a bit more pale." 

Sometimes it can even take on a grayish hue, says Bourassa. "Just like you would think about somebody not having enough blood—they [may] go pale in the face. It's the same thing with the tongue." We should note that this is different from a purplish or dark-colored tongue—in TCM, this could indicate circulation disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, according to research.

Of course, we can't say with utter conviction that if you have a pale tongue, you have poor blood flow. But if you're noticing some other sluggish symptoms (think low energy, cold hands, or digestive issues), a good, long look at your tongue can perhaps clue you in. The next step would be to consult a professional to help deal with these issues, whatever that may be. Remember: Tongue reading is a sign, not a solution—it's the first step toward identifying imbalances in your body, but then it's up to you to do the work. To follow the TCM route, look here for acupuncture, exercise, and food therapies to move stagnant energy and get your blood flowing. 

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The takeaway.  

According to ancient TCM practices, your tongue has a lot to say about your overall well-being. If your tongue color aligns with some poor symptoms you're feeling, it may be worth investigating further. Although, try not to jump into "pathology mentality," as Bourassa puts it; everyone's tongues come in different shapes, colors, and sizes, and that's totally fine! Try not to compare—just notice how yours changes over time, and stay attuned to what the muscle is trying to tell you.

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Jason Wachob
Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO

Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.