The Tongue, Untied.
Exploring why and how your tongue matters for oral health.
Your tongue is an expressive organ and perhaps one of the most playful parts of the human body. It articulates your words, picks up flavors, and transforms food into sustenance. The tongue also carries cultural significance beyond its anatomy, spanning from dialect to diagnosis. However, we often take our tongue for granted when it comes to caring for and understanding it. Don't hold your tongue—embrace it!
Your tongue is covered with pink tissue called mucosa and little bumps called papillae. Your taste buds sit on top of the papillae and relay messages to your brain around what you like, don’t like, or can’t decide quite yet. That’s why the tongue has a rough texture. It’s a peculiar part of the human body, but it determines so much of why we take pleasure in umami and why a crispy preparation makes a dish taste more dynamic. Thousands of receptors, along with glands, work together in clusters on the tip, sides, and back of your tongue to engage in the act of tasting, which also changes over time. So if you weren’t a fan of broccoli as a kid but can’t wait to roast a bunch now, it’s because your taste buds have matured to appreciate more complex flavors than just indulging your sweet tooth—or rather, sweet tongue.
“It’s a peculiar part of the human body, but it determines so much of why we take pleasure in umami and why a crispy preparation makes a dish taste more dynamic.”
The tongue’s biomechanics is another thing that develops with age. The ability to move your tongue to chew, swallow, and speak as an adult is way more dimensional and flexible. That means it’s totally possible to train it to successfully knot a cherry stem, just as you would learning a new language that requires more fluid linguistics. There are four intrinsic muscles that give it shape and aren’t attached to a bone; and four extrinsic muscles that keep it anchored and offer range of movement. It’s a uniquely agile appendage designed to be configured in endless ways and to never really tire. So keep rolling, flipping, and exploring with your tongue—it’s good for you.
While the tongue is strong without any bones to support it, it’s not going to outperform your bicep curls. However, it does have an edge when it comes to revealing what’s going on inside of your body. Similar to how the acne on your face can signal gut or hormonal health, the tongue is viewed as a map of the body by Ayurvedic practitioners and healers. Abnormalities or patterns on your tongue can indicate a systemic imbalance in certain organs or types of emotional stress, like grief or depression. This holistic approach to the tongue can be adapted into your everyday care by monitoring its reaction to certain foods and your moods.
“Abnormalities or patterns on your tongue can indicate a systemic imbalance in certain organs or types of emotional stress, like grief or depression.”
Other ways to look after your tongue include incorporating a tongue cleaner (brushing your tongue won’t do the trick) into your routine and mouth rinse to expel bacteria that may have extended their stay after a brush. Because good oral hygiene also means good tongue health—and not just to kick out the bad breath.
Our tongue allows us to enjoy the food we eat, mean the words we say, and, of course, to slide across our teeth for any spinach that might have gotten stuck. It lets our personality shine through, so show it the love it deserves.
Written by Audrey Kim