If you’ve ever looked at your tongue and been aghast to see a thick, furry, greasy looking coat on it, then you may have been tempted to try scraping it off. Boots the Chemist even sells handy little gadgets that will help you to do this, claiming that the presence of the coating is causing you to have bad breath.
Well, you may save yourself the bother and expense: the bad breathe comes from bacteria on your teeth or the state of your stomach and intestines, and the coating will inevitably be back in a few hours.
Why is that?
Practitioners of Chinese medicine take a great interest in the condition of their patients’ tongues and as soon as we see a thick furry coating, we think ‘Damp’, or even ‘Phlegm’. And if the colour of the tongue itself shows pronounced redness then we think ‘Heat’. Together they are Damp-Heat: the colour of the coat will be yellow and somewhere in the body there will be mucous, discharge or swelling, and odour such as bad breath.
These signs on a tongue give us two strong clues about what, and how much, the individual is eating and drinking, and how well their digestive system is coping with it. So we then ask specific questions about the patient’s symptoms and lifestyle, starting with their food and drink intake, appetite, energy levels, urination and bowel movements.
But what are Damp and Heat?
Besides the coating on your tongue, the presence of Dampness in your body (or its more severe manifestation, Phlegm) can take many forms, ranging from catarrh in your nose and sinuses, soft or loose stools, swollen joints, or fluid that seeps out from patches of eczema. It builds up in our bodies to cause these symptoms when we are consuming too much dairy, sugary foods or alcohol, and/or our body is not able to cope with it. It can also be caused by eating or drinking too much in one go (binging), which overloads the digestive system. The best way to understand it is to think about leaving a hot shower running (continuously eating and drinking the wrong foods) without opening a window in the shower room or having the Expelair on (a weak digestive system) – fairly quickly the room will fill with steam (Damp), condense and run down the surfaces in little rivers. Eventually, black mould (Phlegm) will start growing – not good!
As for Heat, this is (very broadly) associated with irritation, inflammation and infection, and it can arise anywhere in the body causing symptoms such as burning pain, insomnia, constipation, or rashes/skin conditions characterised by redness. Again, it is very often caused, or exacerbated, by too much of the wrong food and drink. Heat is also commonly caused by too much stress – think about all those terms we have to describe stress such as ‘hot under the collar’, ‘incandescent with rage’, ‘fuming (or boiling) mad’ etc. They all imply the generation of considerable heat! Heat looks red, and if the causes are sustained, sooner or later the tongue will take on the appearance of redness all over, on the sides, or around the tip. If there is Heat in the stomach and intestines then the redness will appear as a patch in the centre of the tongue. The most likely causes are too much coffee, or alcohol, or too many acidic foods (e.g. citrus fruits). More rarely, stress or bacterial infections such as Helicobacter Pylori, will cause a red patch in the centre of the tongue.
And so, to conclude this crash course in the basics of Chinese tongue diagnosis, here is a picture of a tongue belonging to a 32 year old man whose main complaint was a sore back, and yet the practitioner was able to ‘see’ all the other things that were going on his body and emotional life by looking at his tongue:
So what can you do about that greasy looking coating and the redness?
To cut the story short, don’t waste your money on tongue scrapers and don’t tell your practitioner that you never touch dairy, sugar, coffee or alcohol (unless, of course, you really don’t).
If you have a thick tongue coating, cut out all sugary foods and drinks, including alcohol, for a week and see if you notice an improvement in the coating and other symptoms that you may have, such as poor energy and concentration, loose stools, or sinusitis. Don’t eliminate dairy because you need some in your diet in order to obtain calcium, but avoid ‘extras’ ice cream or whole pizzas covered in cheese.
If your tongue has red sides or tip, or it’s red all over, or has a red centre, then take action to reduce stress in your life, and cut out or drastically reduce your coffee and alcohol intake. Again, you may notice a reduction in symptoms such as insomnia or irritability, pain above the umbilicus, bleeding gums, constipation, or a red complexion.
(N.B. Those of you who are paying attention to this article will note that alcohol appears to be a cause of both Damp and Heat; sadly, it’s true!)
And if none of the above works, come and see me!