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How Your Tongue Helps You Stay Healthy and Tells When You're Sick

Karla has always had medium-sized dogs, but she now shares her home with a lovely little Dachshund.

The Tongue is Bigger Than We Think

The tongue is bigger than we think, and goes part way down the throat.

The tongue is bigger than we think, and goes part way down the throat.

The Anatomy of the Tongue Is Unusual

The tongue is an important but unsung part of the body. It works hard for us every day—every time we speak and every time we eat. It also protects us from bacteria and viruses that may enter our mouths.

It is the only part of the body that has three-dimensional musculature—the muscles run from the sides to the middle, from the front to the back, and from the top to the bottom. They are covered with a thick layer of connective tissue, covered with sensitive papillae, and the surface is protected by a mucous membrane.

The organ has a rich blood supply and is a vital part of the immune system. It is attached to several bones including the lower jawbone, the temporal lobes, and the hyoid bone in the throat. The base does not stop at the mouth but continues part of the way down the throat.

The same set of muscles that anchor the organ also help to keep the hyoid bone suspended, making it the only bone in the body that doesn't touch another bone. The hyoid bone has the tongue and muscles in the throat attached to it. The muscles coordinate together for movements like swallowing and speaking by using the hyoid bone as a firm saddle structure.

Parrots Can Talk Because Their Tongues Are Limber

Parrots use theirs almost as an extra hand, moving food around while the beak removes husks and shells.

Parrots use theirs almost as an extra hand, moving food around while the beak removes husks and shells.

The Tongue Has Many Functions

It works with the throat, teeth, and cheeks to form words. (The reason a parrot can talk even though it has a very different mouth structure is that theirs is limber like ours.) When a person has a slight stroke, it may only show in a temporary slurring of speech, because the nerve signals to the muscles have been impaired. It is so necessary to speech that its name is substituted for language in many phrases, such as "mother tongue" and "tongue-tied".

Where the muscles work very strongly to chew and swallow food, they must be very dexterous, and also make the more delicate movements to perform the sounds of speech.

The organ is more sensitive than the fingertips for touch. Why? Because it gathers information about foods and drinks that we're about to allow into our bodies. That requires a good sense of touch. While you may think that the gag reflex in the back is the most sensitive, the tip is actually the most sensitive to touch.

It not only feels very small particles that may harm us in our food, but it can tell when a small particle is caught in the teeth, and it is limber enough to clean most particles from the teeth. (This may not seem to be the case, but we only really notice particles that it can't clear from our teeth; we don't notice the unconscious work that it does after every meal.)

Of course, the abundant joys that can be derived during intimacy, when the sensitivity is utilized, were discovered long ago - probably before it ever occurred to us to talk or to come in out of the rain by living in caves.

The Taste Buds Are Where You Think They Are

The taste "buds" are mostly in the folds between the papillae

The taste "buds" are mostly in the folds between the papillae

Papillae Have Several Functions

The surface of the organ is rough, partially because the papillae, or bumps, are needed to make surface contact with our food. While we think of the bumps as taste buds, they are really there to help provide friction between the tongue and food, like bumps on a glove are used for gripping. They may have taste sensors on them, but most of the taste sensors are really in the spaces between the papillae and are depressions. The irregular surface area also allows more taste sensors to be in contact with food. This is not only important for pleasure while eating to help maintain the appetite, but it protects us from eating many poisonous or slightly rotten foods.

There are also mechanical papillae, which could be called texture buds because they sense the form and texture of our food. They also anchor the mucus membrane that covers the organ.

While some people have a much stronger sense of taste than others, almost everyone can taste sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory (also known as umami). Some scientists say that fat is the sixth taste that we know.

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It used to be thought that certain areas were responsible for detecting certain tastes, but that has been mostly disproven. However, the sides and the tip do have more taste sensation than the middle area.

The organ is also involved in the first round of immune system defense for the body. It is covered with a mucous membrane that protects the mouth. The very back is where the defense cells are located. They are called the lingual tonsil. (The lingual tonsil is not what you think of as the tonsils.

If you stick yours out and look at the back of it next to the throat, the big bumps on the top are together called the lingual tonsil. They are rich in immune cells and are part of the lymphatic tonsillar ring which is made up of the lingual tonsil, the adenoids (also called the pharyngeal tonsils) and the palatine tonsils - what we know