You’ve heard the expression. When everyone’s lost in the details, and nobody’s paying attention to the main thing, what do we say? “Everyone’s ignoring the 800-lb. gorilla in the room.” That’s kind of like how it is with tongue care. Not that our teeth are mere details, far from it. The doctors who care for teeth are, after all, called “dentists”, not tongue-ists. And for good reason. Still, there it is, a big, pink, fleshy thing in the mouth. Surrounded, like a king, by an honor guard of little pearly whites. With a little thought, it’s easy to see why tongue care is a part of oral health.
WHAT IS IT, ANYWAY?
Take a look at your own tongue in a mirror. Stick it out and say “aaaahhh”. Well. What in the world is it? There’s surely nothing else remotely like it in the human body. Is it an organ? A muscle? An appendage, like some kind of strange finger? The tongue is a funny thing.
The human tongue is, in fact, a muscular organ. The ways we can move it and change its shape can only be done with muscles. Eight muscles, to be precise. These eight muscles intertwine forming a structure a lot like an elephant’s trunk. Or an octopus’s tentacle. Hence, the tongue’s amazing strength and versatility.
Soft but tough tissues secure the tongue in place. The back is anchored to the aptly-named lingual bone. This “tongue bone” is peculiar. Unlike other bones, it doesn’t really form a joint with any other bone. Muscles from in front of it, behind it, and below it attach it to the floor of the mouth, the epiglottis and pharynx, and larynx, respectively.
Many people used to believe that the tongue is the strongest muscle in the body. That’s not a such a silly idea. If you think about it, your tongue never gets tired unless there’s something wrong. This, in spite of the fact that it’s in action pretty much all the while. The tongue does have incredible stamina. Scientists, though, have put the “strongest muscle in the body” to bed with careful measurements. The tongue is strong, but definitely not the strongest muscle in the body. The glutes, heart, and jaw muscle beat it with ease. We sure owe a great debt to modern science for clearing that up!
WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?
Okay, so the human tongue is a muscular organ. We’ve discussed the muscular aspect. What makes it an organ? What does the tongue do for us, besides help make hilarious faces and consume ice cream cones?
THE POWER OF SPEECH
Our tongues help us speak, of course. And speaking of expressions, what do we ask when someone is silent? “Cat got your tongue?” The tongue is essential to speech. “Tongue”, as a matter of fact, is a synonym of “language”. “Language” is from the Latin “lingua”, or tongue. The position and shape of the tongue control the flow of air through the mouth. This, in turn, alters the sounds we produce in speaking. The mobility of the tongue really shines here. It can change shape and position so fast we can speak up to 90 words per minute. Where would society be without this ability? How could announcers deliver those disclaimers at the end of radio commercials?
Unlike those radio commercial disclaimers, our tongues themselves are in good taste. Or, rather, they enable us to taste well. It’s probably old news to most people, but there are really only five kinds of tastes. These are salty, sweet, sour, savory, and bitter. When we say the mystery meat “tastes like chicken”, we’re mostly talking about what it smells like. Those five tastes are the only tastes we taste. The rest is through the sense of smell, from food molecules drifting from the mouth up through the throat to the nasal passages.
Don’t underrate the importance of taste, though. While it doesn’t much help tell the ’82 from the ’88 Chateau Foufou, it sure helped our ancestors stay alive. Those five taste sensations are very good detectors of nutrition and of poison in nature’s bounty. Scientists have recently been finding evidence of the tongue’s fat-detecting abilities. Today, of course, a lot of us try to avoid eating fats. We suffer from abundance, not from scarcity. But in the old days, when food was scarce, fat was golden. Nutritionally dense. A little goes a long way.
Having found something edible and identified it as good eats, we must then consume it. Here, our teeth come into their own. Chew, chew, chew. Chewing is a key part of the digestive process. It turns big chunks of food into smaller and smaller chunks. At the same time, our saliva works some chemistry on it. The tongue is sort of the conductor of this orchestra. It’s the tongue that manipulates food into position for teeth to grind it and stirs in saliva. Imagine trying to chew your food without your tongue. If you’ve tried eating with a numb tongue after a dental procedure, you get it. Finally, the tongue rolls the ground up food mush into a nice, smooth, streamlined shape perfect for swallowing. It then neatly inserts this bolus into the esophagus and shoves it down the tube, stomach-bound.
All very interesting, you think. It’s easy to see that one should take care not to lose one’s tongue. It’s very useful, even essential. But this being a post about dental health, what’s this got to do with the price of tea in China? Beyond keeping one’s tongue whole and unharmed, what care does it need?
Consider the neighborhood it lives in. The mouth. Think of the tongue’s roommates, the little pearly whites. This post is sponsored by professionals who devote their lives to caring for the health of those teeth. It’s a constant struggle. Well, the tongue, not surprisingly, is subject to very similar kinds of assault as teeth are. And so, a similar approach to care is in order.
Bacteria, that’s the thing. Turns out some of the same strains of bacteria that cause tooth decay and gum disease find very agreeable lodging on the tongue. These are bacteria that produce charming volatile sulfur compounds (VSCs). You’re familiar with these. Not through taste, but through smell. They stink. Badly. That really, really bad breath is largely thanks to VSCs. Hence, getting rid of these bacteria is a prime goal of tongue care, as with caring for teeth.
CLEANING THE TONGUE
Knowing that bacteria that live on the tongue can cause tooth decay and gum disease, it’s tempting to think the worst. What good is brushing teeth if the tongue keeps supplying replacements for the bacteria we’ve brushed away? Shouldn’t we brush our tongues, then, too? Will it work? Can we brush our tongues clean? The answers are “yes” and “maybe”.
Yes, we should brush (or scrape) our tongues whenever we brush our teeth. Research shows tongue brushing and scraping effectively remove bacteria and plaque from the tongue. Scraping may be more effective than brushing. The evidence also shows cleaning the tongue reduces VSC levels by as much as 75%. That’s good news, inarguably, for fans of fresh breath.
Maybe, maybe keeping the tongue brushed clean translates to better health for teeth and gums. One would think so. However, evidence of “migration” of bad bacteria from tongue to teeth, or tongue to gums, is still pretty thin. It’s been difficult for researchers to find a connection between tongue cleaning and less tooth decay.
WELL, WHY NOT?
All that said, the American Dental Association (ADA) now does recommend using a brush or scraper to keep our tongues clean. Their focus is on preventing bad breath. That said, the ADA is (and should be) very cautious about making statements about health absent hard evidence. Researchers have not yet proven a connection between tongue hygiene, tooth decay, and gum disease. That doesn’t mean a connection isn’t there.
Weigh the question. Is fresher breath worth an extra 10-20 seconds of your time and effort twice a day? Undoubtedly. Toss in a theoretical benefit in terms of dental and gum health, and it’s truly a no-brainer. If in doubt, ask your Royal Palm Beach dentist. Seriously, not tongue-in-cheek.