I’ve been thanking my tongue a lot lately. Yes, that sounds weird, but I find that practicing gratitude works best for me when I recognize the ways that small, everyday, and even silly things make my life better. And where would I be without my tongue to help me talk and taste, which are two of my greatest pleasures?
The tongue, it turns out, is an amazing sense organ that can also tell us a great deal about our overall health. And in Ayurvedic medicine, in particular, it holds a special place. “The tongue is a unique organ to study as it lies between the interior and exterior world, plus has a direct connection to the inner dynamic of the digestive system as well as with the three doshas in the stomach, small intestines, and the large intestines,” says Kathy Jo Staheli, AD, doctor of Ayurvedic medicine and founder of Purusha Ayurveda Wellness Center. The result: “The tongue can tell us a lot about what is happening internally,” she says.
In case you haven’t been paying close attention to the state of your tongue, Staheli ticks off the key physical characteristics of a healthy one. “When your tongue is reflecting all the energetic harmony of the body, it should be pale red, but have luster and shine and a thin white coating that’s uneven or patchy,” says Staheli. “It should also be slightly moist, supple, free of cracks, and not quiver or tremble.”
Now that you’re sure to be saying “ahhh” in the mirror more often, here are a few clues your tongue can provide to your overall health.
Bright red, smooth tongue
It might not sound alarming, but a bright red, smooth tongue can signal vitamin deficiencies, especially B-12 and folate. “The tongue, in this case, is brighter and smoother than normal,” says Daniel Allen, MD, a family practitioner at the Cleveland Clinic. “The papillae, the round structures on the surface of the tongue, fail to mature when there’s a deficiency and the result is a smoother, brighter surface.”
Very bright or spotty red coloration is also a red flag for Ayurvedic doctors. “This could mean there is an excess amount of heat in the body and a vibrant red tip may indicate persistent emotional problems,” says Staheli.
If you experience a burning sensation on your tongue after brushing your teeth, don’t worry—it’s a fairly common issue that’s easy to deal with. “You can use the same toothpaste your whole life and then develop a sensitivity to sodium lauryl sulfate,” says Dr. Allan. The ingredient makes toothpaste foam (it’s also on the Dirty Dozen list and a reason to break your Cetaphil habit, stat), and can cause irritation with regular use. Dr. Allan suggests switching to Sensodyne or a natural toothpaste brand.
A healthy tongue should be slightly rough with no major bumps or cracks. Not what you see? There’s a slew of potential reasons why. “Organ congestions, caused by them either over performing or underperforming, are revealed by cracks, depressions, or bumps,” says Staheli. Plus, “malabsorption of nutrients is shown by teeth indentions on the side of the tongue,” she says. What else to watch for: Cracks or fissures down the center line could signal back problems, a deep line down the middle shows nervous energy, and repressed emotions and chronic disorders may be revealed by extreme cracks and depressions of bumps allover.
Don’t freak out just yet though. Some small irregularities can be a normal part of the aging process, if you can believe it. “Sometimes you do see fissures because the tongue can get wrinkles as we get older,” says Dr. Allan. (No body part is safe!) If you’re concerned that there’s more to what you see, schedule an appointment with your general practitioner so they can take a look.
It’s normal and actually desirable to have a thin, uneven whitish coating on your tongue. But a thick, pasty white can indicate problems, the most common of which is thrush, says. Dr. Allan. Thrush is an oral overgrowth of candida (basically a yeast infection in your mouth), which will require a trip to the doctor. The presence of candida can tell you a lot about your gut health, and Staheli says that a thick white coating on the tongue is often associated with a feeling of heaviness in the abdomen or bloating, difficulty waking up in the morning, depression, joint pain, and digestive issues.
It’s totally possible that an otherwise healthy tongue can get irritated and develop small sores or lesions. Why? Perhaps you accidentally bit into it, burned it on something hot, or have been really hitting the citrus (sometimes the acidity can really annoy the inside of your mouth, tongue included). However, it could be a sign of something more serious. Cancers of the mouth associated with HPV are on the rise (other oral cancer risk factors include smoking and excessive drinking). According to Dr. Allan, if you have a sore in your mouth for more than a couple weeks, get it checked out. “Not all cancers hurt,” he says. “Just because it doesn’t hurt, that doesn’t mean it’s benign.”