Serena Norr
Written by Serena Norr

Reviewed by Dr Jessica Gunawan

What Does a Healthy Tongue Look Like?

A healthy tongue can indicate your overall health and wellness. Look in the mirror, check our the color of your tongue, and find out what this means for your health.

A woman stick her healthy tongue out for an examination performed by a doctor

Do you ever think about your tongue? Probably not. A healthy tongue is something to pay attention to because it is seen as a representative of a person’s good health. Usually, your doctor or dentist will look at your tongue to notice any changes. However, it is also important to understand what the various colors and textures mean. And doing so is very easy! All you have to do is stick out your tongue and observe.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), observing the tongue is based on the notion that it is connected to the organs in the body through energy pathways called meridians. A tongue reading given by a TCM practitioner assesses its shape, color, size, and coating. A diagnosis can then be made for your specific case.

Below, we are sharing a guide on what a healthy tongue looks like and what the other colors mean.

Understanding Your Tongue Color

First, let’s understand the tongue and its makeup. Its primary function is for speech, taste, and the swallowing of food and drinks.

Structurally, it is divided into individual regions that are linked to different internal organs. This includes small bumps on the top and bottom called papillae. A healthy tongue appears pink, which can vary in shades. Finally, a change in this color or texture can demonstrate an underlying health issue associated with a specific organ. In an instance, you will learn more changes in tongue color and what TCM says could be some underlying issues.

A pink-colored tongue

Illustration of a person sticking out a pink tongue
A pink tongue represents good health.

The normal tongue color is pink. This is a characteristic of good health.

A white/pale tongue

Illustration of a person sticking out a pale tongue
A pale tongue is indicative of blood, qi or yang energy deficiencies.

A white tongue could indicate a fungal or yeast infection. This occurs when there is a candida, also called a fungal infection, in the body. White patches might indicate leukoplakia, a condition caused by smoking.

Particularly in TCM, this indicates blood, qi, or yang energy deficiency. Some symptoms include a pale appearance, breathlessness, fatigue, emotionally depressed, low libido, thyroid issues (usually hypothyroid), and frequent coldness in the limbs. 

For relief, consume a traditional Chinese remedy with ‘cracked’ Lingzhi spores to replenish qi and blood in the body. This can regulate the immune system and improve a cough. 

A yellow tongue

An illustration of yellow colored tongue
Don’t forget to clean your tongue! Poor dental hygiene can make your tongue look yellowish.

A yellow tongue can indicate bacterial overgrowth or buildup of skin cells. This is the result of poor dental hygiene, smoking, psoriasis, or in rare cases, jaundice. While in TCM, this indicates damp heat which is often seen in those who experience chronic inflammatory conditions such as IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease), skin eruptions (acne, psoriasis, eczema).

A purple or blue tongue

Illustration of a person sticking out a purple-coloured tongue
Poor blood circulation oxygen flow can cause a purple or blue tinge on a person’s tongue.

A purple or blue tongue could suggest that your blood is not delivering enough oxygen. This could indicate that you have cyanosis, a condition that occurs from poor circulation.

In TCM, this suggests qi stagnation and blood stasis — improper circulation of blood in the body. The symptoms of qi stagnation and blood stasis include sharp pain or palpable masses underneath the skin of the abdominal region. 

Drinking a herbal soup prepared with red dates, Chinese Angelica root, goji berries, and root of the Chinese fleece flower can promote healthy blood circulation and improve conditions like anemia or cold hands and feet.

A gray colored tongue

An illustration of a gray colored tongue
Smoking can cause your tongue color to turn gray.

A gray tongue could indicate that you have a geographic tongue (benign migratory glossitis), a rare disease with reddish patches surrounded by white borders. The red areas are missing the tiny bumps that naturally appear on the surface of the tongue. It causes spots and patches on the tongue or different sizes and shapes. It can be triggered by the result of spicy or acidic foods, smoking, and even mouthwash.

A red-colored tongue

Illustration of a person sticking out a dark, red-coloured tongue
High body heat causes a person’s tongue to appear crimson red.

According to TCM, a tongue that appears red describes a yin deficiency or excess heat in the body. This deficiency can cause a person to feel feverish, restless, experience constipation, dry throat, or have a rapid pulse. 

In addition, a red tongue may also indicate that you have vitamin B12, folic acid, or an iron deficiency. It could also be related to inflammation, infection, or in severe cases, scarlet fever (Streptococcus infection) or Kawasaki disease.

Interestingly, a red tongue also describes the intense internal heat from a yin deficiency. This can cause a person to experience dry mouth, constipation, fever, night sweats, and a rapid pulse. A health supplement formulated with sea salt, Strychnine tree, and wild yam extracts helps relieve bloating, bowel disorders, and constipation. 

A black/hairy tongue

A black or hairy tongue is usually due to bacterial overgrowth or a buildup of the protein keratin on the tongue’s surface. This might be from prolonged use of antibiotics, poor oral hygiene, smoking, diabetes, a yeast infection, or the result of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Bumps or ridges on the tongue

The tongue might also have bumps on it that are swollen, enlarged, or red. This could be related to a variety of factors such as the effects of smoking, herpes, mouth ulcers, a sign of oral cancer, or the indication of trauma.

Additionally, some people have ridges on their tongues. This is related to teeth pressing on the tongue at night. A dentist can alter this condition.

Taking Care of Your Tongue

A man cleaning his tongue with toothbrush and toothpaste in the bathroom
Brushing your teeth and tongue should be a part of your oral care regime.

Maintaining good oral health is important for your teeth and your tongue. See your dentist regularly, floss every day, use mouthwash, and brush twice a day, including your tongue. It is important to avoid sugar, limit dark-colored drinks like coffee or soda, and avoid smoking cigarettes. Should you notice a change in your tongue color or texture or feel any pain, see your doctor right away.

As you can see, it is important to observe your tongue. You want to make sure that your tongue is pink, which is a sign of a healthy person. Any changes in this should alert you to see your doctor. Additionally, TCM practices can regulate your qi levels and balance your yin and yang. This helps to prevent health disorders related to excessive heat or cold in the body. However, before you visit your TCM physician, remember not to brush your tongue or consume any food and drinks that may change the color of your tongue.

References

  1. Cleveland Clinic. 2019. What Your Tongue Can Tell You About Your Health. [Accessed on December 16, 2021]
  2. UPMC HealthBeat. 2015. Infographic: What Does Your Tongue Say About Your Health?. [Accessed on December 16, 2021]
  3. Medical News Today. 2020. What do different tongue colors mean?. [Accessed on December 16, 2021]
  4. Mayo Clinic. 2020. Geographic tongue. [Accessed on December 16, 2021]
  5. National Library of Medicine. 2003. The tongue: structure and function relevant to disease and oral health. [Accessed on December 16, 2021]

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