Q & A: What Does Your Tongue Say About Your Health?


At some point, you might have looked in the mirror, inspected your tongue and noticed changes in color, texture or coating. But have you ever thought about examining your tongue for a glimpse into your overall health and well-being? Since ancient times, Chinese medical practitioners have looked at patients’ tongues to diagnose disease.

“The tongue provides information about every system in the body,” says Ryan Gauthier, DAOM, RAc, LMT, a doctor of acupuncture and oriental medicine with Henry Ford’s Center for Integrative Medicine. Whether you’re suffering from digestive symptoms, stress or challenges with fertility, features on your tongue can offer clues to help identify the root cause of conditions throughout your body.

Getting Under the Tongue

So what do changes in your tongue’s appearance mean? A qualified practitioner can help decode what you see in the mirror. Here, Dr. Gauthier explains what he looks for when he peers into a patient’s mouth.

Q: Why do you view patients’ tongues as part of your practice?

A: I use the tongue to gather information about a patient’s health and well-being. It’s a way to get clues about what’s going on in your body before it erupts. Take digestion as an example: The tongue can reveal an imbalance in the digestive system, although it doesn’t lead to a specific diagnosis, like irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease. It gives us a starting point for asking the patient the right questions, like, “Are you having any changes in bowel movements or appetite? ” Once we know what part of the body is affected, we use it as a starting point to select acupuncture points and herbal prescriptions to balance that system, or recommend a patient see their primary care doctor or a specialist.

Q: Are there certain signs that people can look for that indicate imbalance?

A: Yes. If you notice changes in your tongue’s body, color, coating, or if it becomes unusually moist or dry, check with your acupuncturist or your doctor. The use of tongue diagnosis is very individual to each patient. In general, if your tongue has the combination of being overly wet, pale and there’s a little bit of a quiver, that may indicate you’re coming down with a cold.

Q: What other insight does the tongue provide?

A: The tongue is just one area of the whole body that helps Chinese medical practitioners put the pieces of the puzzle together. It can offer clues about emotional and mental well-being, even in someone who is physically healthy. For example, if the tongue appears greasy, it may indicate that someone worries and overthinks, or it could mean that they’re eating a lot of processed foods. These are just some of the things that could come up during a tongue exam that can help boost your overall health — and you don’t have to be sick for it to show up.

Q: Do other regions of the body offer similar information?

A: Before lab tests were developed, doctors looked to the eyes, skin, tongue, pulse and other areas of the body for insight into a patient’s health. For eyes, they might assess whether they’re red, clear, dry, moist, and what areas of the eye these show up in. For skin, they might look for changes in color, moisture and texture. Even the way a person walks and talks can offer clues about their overall health and well-being.

Getting a Big Picture View

It’s important to look at the big picture when it comes to your health. Chinese medicine and complementary therapies can work alongside Western medicine. Each type of practice can inform the others and ultimately result in better outcomes for patients.

“If anything is out of the ordinary, it’s our job as practitioners to figure out why,” says Dr. Gauthier. “Looking at the body as a whole and then honing in on specific areas, such as the tongue, can help us spot a problem before it manifests and allows us to better diagnosis and treat the patient after they are already having symptoms.”

Just be forewarned: If you want your doctor or acupuncturist to get a window into your health through your tongue, don’t scrape it, brush it, eat colored candy or drink coffee before your visit. All of those actions can make tongue diagnosis a challenge, if not an impossibility.

Make an appointment with the Henry Ford Center for Integrative Medicine, which offers acupuncture, chiropractic care, therapeutic massage and functional medicine in support of one’s total health and wellness. Request an appointment online or by calling (248) 380-6201.

You can also read more health advice in our FeelWell section, so subscribe to get all the latest tips.

Dr. Ryan Gauthier specializes in acupuncture and oriental medicine, practicing at Henry Ford Medical Center – Novi, Henry Ford Medical Center – Cottage (in Grosse Pointe Farms) and the Henry Ford QuickCare Clinic on Woodward in Detroit.

Categories: FeelWell