If you’ve ever had acupuncture, you know that looking at the tongue is one of the primary ways that acupuncturists diagnose their patients. That’s because your tongue reveals a lot about what’s going on with you. Changes in your physical and even emotional health are reflected in the color, shape and coating of your tongue.
Tongue diagnosis is a technique that acupuncturists develop over many years of practice, but there are some basic guidelines that you can use to understand what may be happening inside your body.
The ideal tongue color is medium pink, not too bright and not too pale. Picture a baby’s tongue—that’s the ideal state. Alas, most adults don’t have baby tongues, and some changes in color are common as our bodies experience various imbalances.
An overly pale tongue usually indicates some kind of deficiency. “People with pale tongues often report symptoms of fatigue, coldness, and poor appetite and memory,” says Sara Calabro, a licensed acupuncturist and the founder of AcuTake. “Avoiding cold, raw foods is a good idea if you have this color tongue.”
If you notice your tongue looking more red than pink, it could be a sign of heat in the body. “Insomnia, skin irritations and anxiety can all be indications of heat,” Calabro says. “Kidney 1 is a great point for self-acupressure if you’re feeling anxious or having a hard time sleeping.”
A purplish tongue suggests some kind of stagnation. You might also notice that your limbs get cold or that you have headaches and body pain. “Exercise is one of the best ways to improve stagnation symptoms,” says Calabro.
Does your tongue look puffy, maybe with some tooth-marked indentations along the sides? This is a very common tongue presentation in people with digestive issues, including bloating and irritable bowel syndrome. Emotionally, they may be prone to overthinking or worrying.
“In acupuncture, this tongue shape is common when there are issues in the stomach and spleen systems,” Calabro explains. “Some simple techniques like chewing your food more slowly and sitting down to eat can really help with bringing these systems back into balance.”
A thin, uniform coating on your tongue is normal. However, if you see a noticeable white coating, it may indicate coldness. A yellow coating can mean heat. The quality of the coating is telling as well. A thick coat can indicate excess, while a wet or greasy-looking coat suggests what acupuncturists refer to as dampness.
“Dampness can show up as digestive issues such as bloating, or it can manifest as a phlegmy cough or sinus infection,” says Calabro. “If you think you have dampness, try eliminating dairy from your diet and cutting back on sweets.”
Don’t Be Fooled by These Tongue Signs
It’s best to check your tongue as soon as you wake up, before you brush your teeth or eat anything, to get the most accurate reading. As the day goes on, your tongue can develop some misleading signs.
Certain foods and drinks can stain your tongue—coffee and tea, for example, turn most tongues yellow. Medications can do all sorts of things to your tongue. Antibiotics often cause a white coating to appear on your tongue, and Pepto-Bismol will turn your tongue black! If you check your tongue later in the day and notice a change in the color or coat, think through what you consumed that day before jumping to conclusions.