The practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is always aware of the tongue. For him or her, the tongue’s role as a sense organ is only a small aspect of what it plays in both health and disease.
According to TCM theory, the tongue is a mirror of the state of the internal organs. A pink slightly moist tongue with a thin white coating (photograph 1) is the reflection of perfect organ function. Any deviation from this ideal standard immediately alerts the practitioner to a potential disharmonic state.
READING THE TONGUE
The nuances to reading the tongue are numerous. Great importance is placed on the color, texture, and coating. For example, a red tongue with a yellow coating indicates the presence of heat in the body. This can appear as a result of inflammation, infection, or excessive dryness. The tongue in photograph 2 is that of a horse with anhidrosis. The tongue is both dry and red, indicating excessive heat in the body as well as an inability to produce moisture.
On the other end of the color spectrum are the colors of white and blue. These hues reflect the presence of internal cold. This usually means there is a hypo-function of one of the organ systems of the body, such as congestive heart failure, a sluggish digestive system or premature aging. A pale white tongue can also indicate a blood deficiency, particularly when the tongue is dry (photograph 3). A purple or blue tongue can also indicate the presence of what the Chinese call “stagnation” which is another word for chronic pain (photograph 4).
Table 1 summarizes the various indications for the changes seen in the tongue.
FIVE ELEMENT APPLICATION
Another aspect of Chinese medicine revolves around a universal pattern called the five elements. According to this theory, the world and its contents can be divided into one of five categories: fire, earth, metal, water or wood. Each of these elements represents a separate organ system. In addition, there are unique correspondences that reflect the state of these systems (see table 2). For example, the color yellow represents the quality of the element earth, which is analogous to the digestive system. A yellow tongue, therefore, can indicate problems with digestion.
These five element organ systems are also represented by different sections of the tongue. Photograph 5 shows that the heart and lung are reflected at the tip of the tongue, while the liver resides on the sides and the stomach lies in the middle section.
The five element system theorizes that each sense organ is associated with a particular organ. As shown in table 2, the tongue is a reflection of the heart. In Chinese medicine, the heart represents much more than simply the function of the organ. The heart also houses the spirit or “shen” as the Chinese would say. This actually refers to our personality and emotional state. When the heart system is out of balance, a horse can demonstrate behavior that ranges from depression to hysteria. Interestingly, many shen disturbed horses display bizarre behaviors such as tongue lolling (photograph 6) which often indicates an imbalance in the heart system.
So next time you are grooming your horse, take a minute to open his mouth and take a glimpse at his tongue. What you find might amaze you, and at the very least open your eyes to a new level of awareness in understanding your beloved friend.
Table 1: TCM Diagnosis of the Tongue
Character of tongue Indications
Pink with thin white coat
Red with thin white coat
Excessive dryness, False heat (feeling hot without a temp)
Red with yellow coat
Excessive heat in the body. Infection and inflammation
Pale and dry
Purple and swollen
Pain and stagnation
Pale and swollen
Edema, hypofunction of digestive system, exhaustion
Table 2: Correspondences of the Five Elements
Growth and development
Climate (good and bad)
Ears, anus, vagina, urethra
Sense organ controlled
Sour, like vinegar