Oriental medicine is the oldest form of traditional medicine in the world, with its origin going back more than 3000 years. Until very recently, traditional Chinese practitioners didn’t have access to any modern medical equipment for their diagnosis, so they learnt to recognise evidence of pathological dysfunctions by other means.
From closely observing billions of sick patients over millennia, they became expert at interpreting the subtle changes in a person’s skin colour and texture, as well as variations in the tonality of their voice, their body smells, their emotions, and the quality of their pulse and their tongue. In piecing these clues together, the cause of their disorders would gradually be revealed. Nothing has changed after all these years, and today these ancient skills remain the foundation of Chinese medicine diagnosis.
According to the ancient classical texts of Chinese medicine, the tongue is the only internal organ that we can see. Each individual tongue is unique, as apparently there are no two identical human tongues on the planet.
In our oriental framework, the condition of the tongue mirrors the condition of the kidney, the spleen, the liver, the heart, and the lung. Each of these individual organs is represented in a specific area. The kidney region is at the back of the tongue, the spleen and digestive system are in the middle, the liver and gallbladder are on the lateral middle edges of the tongue, and the heart is at the centre of the tip, with the lung being represented on both sides next to it.
The first rule of tongue diagnosis is to distinguish between the true colour, which is an accurate reflection of the health of the whole body, and temporary discolorations caused by certain food, or medications. For example, a patient who has been sucking vitamin C lozenges will have an orange tint to his tongue, which is not related to his internal condition. In the same fashion, drinking milk will leave a white coating, eating beetroot a red coating, and so on.
Once this has been clarified, the tongue examination should be conducted in the best available light. The practitioner will differentiate between the body of the tongue and its coating. During illness, the body of the tongue will change according to the strength or weakness of the arterial or venous blood flow, lymphatic drainage and concentration of plasma proteins. Anatomically, the tongue is supplied in oxygenated blood by the carotid artery, while the venous drainage of deoxygenated blood is conducted by the lingual vein underneath the tongue. This can be useful for diagnosis. An oriental practitioner treating a patient with a lung condition will look for evidence of swelling or darkening in the colour of these lingual veins underneath the tongue to assess the degree of impairment of lung circulation.
A normal healthy tongue is light red, slightly wet, and covered with a thin white coating. From that point of reference, a lighter tongue colour will be interpreted as evidence of cold in the body and deficiency in blood supply – the lighter the colour, the stronger the level of deficiency. In contrast, a darker red colour will indicate an excess of internal heat in the organs. In the extreme case of life threatening conditions with high fever, the patient’s tongue can change from a light pink colour to tomato red, in a matter of weeks. The practitioner can also assess the level of recovery in a patient’s condition by the improvement in the tongue colour.
The shape of the tongue is another potential source of information. Patients with a weak spleen and stomach have a swollen tongue, which looks like it has been inflated. Additional ridges or “tooth marks” on the sides of the swollen tongue are evidence of excess cold in the digestive system, which is often due to a lack of warming foods in the diet.
A small, thin tongue is often seen with young students suffering from chronic insomnia or anxiety due to mental exhaustion. It indicates a depletion of Qi (energy) and blood circulation in both their heart and their spleen. If a red tongue has multiple cracks on its surface, it is a sign that excessive internal heat is drying up fluids – much like the parched soil of rural Australia after a long lasting drought!
Join me again next month for a more detailed look at the tongue with practical advice and dietary guidance you can use to improve your own health.
Olivier Lejus MHSc.BHsc. is a registered acupuncturist practising in Sydney.
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com