How Your Tongue Helps You Stay Healthy and Tells When You're Sick
The Tongue is Bigger Than We Think
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
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
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.
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 as our tonsils. So the organ is part of a very rich and active immune barrier that circles the beginning of the throat.
As it moves, salivary glands underneath are stimulated to produce saliva so the food is moistened and digestion can begin (saliva contains the first digestive enzymes for carbohydrates). When taste bud receptors receive certain taste chemical substances, this also stimulates salivary glands in the mouth, as well as digestive juices in the stomach.
Some Tongues Have More Surface Than Others!
Sublingual - Medicines, Supplements and Vaccines Delivered Under the Tongue
On the underside is a rich blood supply that is very close to the surface. If you look under your own, you will see two blue veins on either side of the lingual frenulum, the strip of tissue that attaches the organ to the floor of the mouth. These surface veins work very well for quick delivery of certain medicines. Otherwise, the medicines would have to deal with stomach acid and their beneficial effect would have to wait for slower absorption via digestion.
If medicines and nutrients that are properly prepared to be absorbed into the blood supply are placed under the tongue, they will be absorbed into these two veins and will be in the bloodstream almost immediately. This absorption into the bloodstream via application underneath is known as sublingual absorption. The most commonly known sublingual application is placing a nitroglycerin pill underneath for chest pain in people with a heart condition. Some vitamins, minerals, and enzymes can also be administered in this way.
Vaccinations are being administered sublingually for some diseases now and may become the norm in the future. By placing vaccinations under the tongue and allowing them to be absorbed into the bloodstream the vaccines can enter them without the pain, additives, preservatives, and possible infection that are normal for an injection.
Sublingual administration is also being chosen as the delivery method when people are being given immunotherapy. For example, if a person is allergic to juniper pollen, a small bit of the allergen is placed under the tongue several times a week. This amount is not enough to cause a noticeable reaction, but enough to slowly, over time, reduce sensitivity to the juniper pollen. This is also an alternative to the current method of injecting immunotherapy allergens.
Not everyone believes that sublingual administration is as effective as injection. The pros and cons are being debated.
When the Doctor Looks at Your Tongue, Let's Hope it's Healthy
While we may have a vague idea that our doctors are looking for signs of health or illness when they want to look at ours, most of us don't know what doctors are looking for. The organ is a great indicator of both overall health and specific health conditions.
Yours should be a healthy pink or whitish pink, not smooth because you have taste buds, but without any growths or swellings on it.
It can be harmlessly stained by food to different colors, and it can even be turned black when you take Pepto-Bismol or other bismuth containing medicines.
It can also be stained by tobacco use, but, as it's also being exposed to carcinogens in the tobacco preparation, that's not harmless.
Do You Have a Burning or a Pale Tongue?
A tongue that is both pale and smooth can indicate that you are anemic or lacking in vitamin B12, or both. If yours, the insides of your eyelids and the bed of your fingernails are pale, you are very probably anemic, and you need iron.
If yours burns a lot at various times during the day, especially after meals, you could have acid reflux.
If you don't have acid reflux, burning tongue, or even burning in the mouth in general is, unfortunately, a pretty common problem. It mostly affects women who are post-menopausal, but it is also found in other people. The cause seems to be unknown. (However, see the note about the cause of geographic tongue below.) Drinking more liquids and chewing gum to keep the mouth moist does help.
If yours is frequently painful and red, but not always, it usually indicates that you are either eating or drinking something (or chewing gum) that irritates it, or you are using a product, such as a new toothpaste or mouthwash that is irritating.
If yours is red and painful constantly, it can indicate a lack of niacin or folic acid. If you are lacking in B vitamins, you might have a very poor diet, or a serious digestive problem that impairs your ability to absorb vitamins and other nutrients, such as undiagnosed celiac disease.
Black Hairy Tongue is Gross but Harmless
Yellow or Black Hairy Tongue is Caused by Bacteria
If the surface has a yellow coating, this is an early sign of a bacteria growing on it. It may progress to what's known as black, hairy tongue. The projections on the taste buds are made of keratin, the same substance as your hair, and some bacteria can encourage them to grow. If you are taking antibiotics, undergoing chemotherapy, or are otherwise immune-impaired, you may develop a bacterial imbalance in your mouth.
Unless your immune system is very seriously impaired, a little oral hygiene that includes using a scraper to clean yours will usually make this condition disappear over time.
Cute, Cuddly and Canker Sore
Canker Sores and Swollen Taste Buds Happen Occasionally
A canker sore is a small surface ulcer in the mouth. It can be on the inside of the upper or lower lip, on a cheek, on the tongue, or in the roof of the mouth. It may show as a bump or blister before the blister breaks. It's very uncomfortable when chewing or talking.
If you have a canker sore or swollen taste bud, both of these happen occasionally to most people. Some families are even prone to sore tongues and canker sores. However, if the canker sore or swollen taste bud does not go away in about 10 days, see a doctor. It could be a sign of other problems.
Aside from a family tendency to canker sores, other causes of canker sores include; anxiety or stress, loss of sleep, hormonal changes (some women experience them at a specific part of the menstrual cycle), food allergies and sensitivities, using toothpaste that contains sodium lauryl sulfate, or oral trauma, such as injury to the mouth, a rough filling or braces that need adjusting.
Some people confuse canker sores with cold sores and assume that they are both a form of herpes virus. That's not the case. Cold sores are a form of herpes virus, but canker sores are an inflammation that indicates trouble either in the mouth or in other parts of the digestive tract or immune system. Frequent canker sores might indicate other infections, usually bacterial.
More serious causes for recurring canker sores can be a flare-up of Celiac or Crohn disease or a stomach infection of Helicobacter pylori bacteria, which can also cause stomach ulcers and other serious health problems. Antibiotics are used to treat the infection, and as soon as the bacterial infection is cleared up the canker sores will be resolved.
Drugs such as ibuprofen and beta blockers can stimulate canker sores. People with AIDS can tend to get canker sores, because chronic canker sores can also indicate problems with the immune system.
You can also get several canker sores when you quit smoking, because your immune system is still in hyper-drive from having to deal with tobacco toxins for so long.
Other Conditions can be the Cause of Whitish Spots or a White Film
Several other whitish spots or or a white film can appear on the organ. A very thin, white film may appear often on the top of your taste buds, and can be brushed away or removed with a scraper, which should be a normal part of oral health. This usually indicates a dry mouth, or that you have slept with your mouth open. The dry mouth can be also be caused by breathing through the mouth or by taking certain medications.
However, a more persistent white film that is not only on the organ, but may also be on the inside of the cheeks may be Thrush, a fungal infection. While a person who practices good dental health and who is not immune compromised doesn't usually get Thrush, occasionally taking antibiotics may disrupt the balance of beneficial organisms in the mouth and allow Thrush to thrive. Babies and people who have compromised immune systems are more prone to thrush, even with good oral hygiene.
If you have a persistent white patch on the side or underneath, especially if you either smoke or use smokeless tobacco, you should have the white patch examined by a doctor. It could be a sign of early mouth cancer. It is especially important to have suspect patches in the mouth checked, as the organ is so closely involved with the immune system, and oral cancer could spread easily.
What Causes Geographic Tongue?
This condition means the organ has some areas that are red and tender, at the same time that certain other areas are whitish.
The red and white patches seem to migrate around. This is because it renews it's tissue about every 7-10 days, and while it's healing one spot, another bad spot is developing. Modern medicine considers this to have an unknown cause. (However, my opinion is that the person should be looking at allergies, sensitivities and autoimmune reactions caused by diet. Just my opinion, considering the bad record modern medicine has regarding health problems caused by diet.)
The Tongue Talks When Your Health is Losing Ground
There are other conditions, but these are the most common.
Some conditions can be avoided by practicing good oral hygiene, which includes using a scraper at least once daily. The organ is an indicator that your body is either healthy or unhealthy, and will show you that you are missing nutrients, under excessive stress, exhausted, or have a medical condition.
It is the canary in your coal mine, but this canary sings when things are going wrong.
How to Use a Tongue Scraper
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.