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Your Tongue Can Tell You About Your Digestion

Imagine a health-care system, in which health-care professionals are paid when their patients are well instead of being paid when their patients are sick. How might our health and health-care expenses be different?

We are a society focused on sick care. Nearly all health-care providers get paid when they provide care for sick people.

Furthermore, pharmaceutical companies hit the jackpot by selling medications to sick people.

At times those medications are quite necessary, but there are plenty of times when many medications can be avoided by choosing a different route of care, or even better, by preventing the disease in the first place.

What is preventative medicine?

The American College of Preventative Medicine defines it is as focusing on the health of individuals, communities and defined populations with the goal of protecting, promoting and maintaining health and well-being and to prevent disease, disability and death.

I like that definition. My issue is that typical allopathic preventative measures do not reach deep enough into the root causes of disease. While things like mammograms, blood draws and annual exams may be helpful, too often the search into the cause of disease stops there.

This is where my appreciation and deep sense of respect for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) comes in. Despite being shoved into a society where most folks seek care when they are sick, TCM is rooted in the concept of true preventative medicine.

I celebrate when a patient comes to see me when he or she is well, knowing that through pulse taking and looking at the patient’s tongue, along with a review of systems, I can pick up on lurking imbalances and correct them before the patient becomes symptomatic.

Pulse taking and tongue reading can provide objective clues, but the true beauty of taking advantage of TCM in terms of preventative care is the fact that TCM recognizes multiple and complex relationships between physiological system functions, our emotions and our environment.

As an example, consider some of the potential factors associated with negatively affecting the digestive system from a TCM perspective:

■ Emotions — pensiveness and worrying depletes digestive function.

■ Excessive stress causes TCM “liver” qi (pronounced ‘chee’) stagnation, which backs up and overacts on the digestive system.

■ The TCM “kidneys” are the root source of energy, and they provide the digestive fire necessary for proper absorption of nutrients. When a person is exhausted — for example, with adrenal fatigue — the fire is out and the digestion suffers accordingly.

■ Excessive intake of foods considered “damp” (inflammatory) in TCM, like sugar, artificial sweeteners, cow’s milk, processed grains, soy and alcohol cause the digestive function to become sluggish.

■ Toxins from heavy metals, smoking, alcohol, frequent use of antibiotics and some environmental toxins also lead to “dampness” in the digestive system, disabling its ability to assimilate nutrients properly.

As a fun exercise (OK, maybe fun if you are me) look at your tongue in the mirror. Notice its shape and color and the nature of the tongue coating.

Ideally, our tongues would be pink with a thin white coat. Any deviations from that gives your TCM practitioner clues about underlying factors going on with your general health.

There are many other possibilities for the tongue’s appearance, though here are two of the most common presentations related to digestive health:

1. Is your tongue puffy, slightly pale and perhaps purple, with a thick tongue coat? Does it have scallops from teeth marks on the side?

If so, you definitely have a digestive weakness, which may or may not be showing up symptomatically yet. I highly encourage you to seek care to find the root of the problem before more serious diseases come knocking.

2. Do you have digestive symptoms but your tongue looks differently than described above? Is it red, with no tongue coat and not swollen at all? Or is it red with a thick and dark-colored tongue coat?

If so, it is likely your body still has digestive weakness but the disease process has moved to a more serious level.

It is advisable for you to seek care from a practitioner who considers the true mind/body/emotion/environment connection immediately.

Demonstrating the web of connections associated with digestive health is an example to show that complex connections, beyond what can be demonstrated by blood work or imaging studies, can be mapped out for each system of the body.

In terms of digestive health, TCM aims to address digestive distress before it becomes diagnosable as diseases such as acid reflux, gallbladder disease, idiopathic stomach pain, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis and more.

By correcting digestive imbalances, other diseases from autoimmune to mental illness to hormone imbalances to chronic pain can be prevented. By looking at your health from this integrative and truly preventative perspective, you gain the power to achieve your best health.

Dr. April L. Schulte-Barclay is a doctor of acupuncture and oriental medicine and a licensed acupuncturist. She has been practicing in Grand Junction since 2004 and is an expert and leader in integrative and collaborative medicine.

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