In Tibet, sticking out your tongue serves as a greeting. Maori warriors use it to intimidate during the Haka dance and in the case of Miley Cyrus, it can be used to convey anything from pleasure to a wider comment on the socio-political orientation of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.
But flagrant protrusions aside, our tongues can also offer a unique insight into our physical and mental wellbeing and whilst your breath may be minty fresh, your mouth could be saying otherwise.
“Your tongue is a barometer of your health in many ways, functioning as a kind of performance map of your internal organs,” says celebrated acupuncturist, Ross Barr. “You can tell a lot about the inner state of an individual by their tongue, such as whether they have an excess of body fluids, heat in their digestive system or if they’re anaemic and it’s often used alongside pulse reading for diagnosis in Eastern Medicine.”
Wellness guru and Ayurveda devotee Jasmine Hemsley agrees; “In Ayurveda, overall health begins with a healthy mouth, as this promotes optimal digestion, which in turn makes you feel at your most balanced and energised.” But whilst both Chinese medicine and Ayurveda use tongue diagnosis to reveal the functioning of internal organs (the front third relates to the heart and lungs for example), Hemsley points out that you don’t have to be an expert in the (often complex) doctrine of tongue mapping; “It’s relatively easy to recognise when your tongue is or isn’t in good health. If it’s swollen, red, cracked, fuzzy, pale or has teeth marks, this is a good kicker to take better care of yourself.”
What your tongue can tell you about your health (including iron deficiency and herpes)
Cue her nifty ‘’, £10. “Tongue tingling (or tongue scraping) is the first thing I do every morning (well before eating, drinking, having a conversation or even snogging someone!) and has become an essential part of my routine. On the most basic level it helps you get rid of bad breath and taste your food better but it also helps to prevent infections and provides a way of understanding your body on a day to day basis.”
Simply draw the rounded end gently down your tongue, rinsing off the white residue after each stroke. “This residue is known as “Ama” in Ayurveda and builds up on the tongue during a night’s sleep as your body naturally detoxes itself. If you don’t scrape your tongue, this build up hangs around until it is reabsorbed by the body,” warns Hemsley.
But it’s not just ancient medicines that pay lip synch to our tongues as markers of good health as new studies have found that the mouth microbiome is integral in our quest for looking and feeling great. And this goes way beyond a bout of bad breath as some research has shown that the balance of good and bad bacteria in our mouths can even be responsible for diseases like meningitis. It seems that we’re finally cottoning on to the idea that our mouths have their own delicate ecosystems that need to be nurtured and protected and brands are taking note.
Take , £5.99, which contains natural enzymes and proteins to reflect those found in saliva rather than attempting to wipe out all the bacteria in the mouth.
“Looking at a patient’s tongue often offers up clues as to their general health and can sometimes be the first indication that something is awry,” says award-winning Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon at London Bridge and Guy’s Hospital, Mr Alastair Fry. “It’s a great way of spotting the early signs of conditions such as anaemia and for someone with a special interest in mouth cancers, it’s a good way of detecting pre-cancers (likened to an abnormal smear test, these are pre-cancerous cells that if left could turn into cancer).”
How to read your tongue according to Mr Fry:
Smooth, pale tongue:
“A smooth tongue can be a sign of a nutritional deficiency. If it’s on the pale side it can point to anaemia or lack of B Vitamins”
“If your tongue has a white coating that leaves a raw patch when you try and remove it, it tends to indicate a fungal infection such as candida. This can happen when you’re feeling run down but is often the result of having taken antibiotics which are very effective at killing off bacteria including the good bacteria that keep fungal infections in check. Eating natural yoghurt is a good way to improve the natural flora in the mouth.”
White patches over the surface:
“White patches that don’t rub off can point to pre-cancerous cells so it’s always worth getting your doctor to take a look.”
White patches at the sides:
“Otherwise known as frictional keratosis, this is usually where someone grinds their teeth at night which rubs against the tongue and is often a sign that the patient is stressed.”
“It’s perfectly normal to get mouth ulcers from time to time but conditions such as coeliac disease can often show up on the tongue first. Ulcers that persist for longer than two weeks should always be checked out as mouth cancers tend to present as ulcers in the early stages.”