What does the tongue actually do?
When it comes to the mouth, teeth are usually the main attraction. Even though we see teeth far more often, our tongues have a surprisingly varied skill set, it lets us taste all things sweet, sour, savoury, salty and bitter.
They also help us detect rot and poisonous plants to keep us from keeling over, I’d say that’s quite useful!
Without our tongues, we wouldn’t be able to speak, suck, swallow, spit nor any of the things we take for granted.
Essentially, our tongues are just a bunch of connective tissue with a mucous membrane coating that keeps it lubricated for mastication, more commonly known as chewing to you and me. The tongue is securely fastened to the base of the mouth by a web of tissue called the lingual frenulum.
Now here’s the interesting part, what does the tongue actually do?
The main function of the tongue is to help us eat food, unsurprisingly. The tongue’s muscly structure enables it to fold food into a ball-like structure known as a bolus, which can easily slide down our throat and thus facilitates the process of swallowing.
Additionally, it’s vital for babies to help them when breastfeeding because the tongue acts as a massager and stimulates milk production. The tongue also helps us with pronunciation, chewing, salivating, and ultimately protecting our bodies from bad bacteria.
Yes, the tongue really does all that!
Tasting is a surprisingly useful sense
Our tongues are covered in little bumps called papillae, which help us grip food while the teeth are busy chewing. Between these bumps are grooves, where roughly 2,000 to 4,000 taste buds are located.
Each taste bud is renewed after roughly two weeks so your sense of taste will always be up to scratch.
Within each taste bud, there are five cells that are able to receive information from the food you consume which can discern from a wide range of tastes. Contrary to popular belief, these buds are located all over your tongue so you can taste exactly the same at the tip of your tongue as you would at the back.
This is the reason why looking after your tongue is extremely important, losing your sense of taste would not only take the pleasure out of eating, but could potentially threaten your life.
What causes white tongues?
There are many reasons why you might have developed a white tongue, some are more serious than others but all of them should be addressed to make sure your oral health is in tip-top condition.
One of the most common reasons for developing white patches on your tongue is called leukoplakia.
A person with leukoplakia usually develops white patches on the tongue, cheeks, insides of the gums and the bottom of the mouth. Once developed, no amount of brushing can remove the patches.
According to the Mayo Clinic, leukoplakia remains a mystery to doctors but the main theory points to tobacco and alcohol being the culprits. Although light cases of leukoplakia aren’t serious and can go away on its own with time, more severe cases can be linked to oral cancer.
The condition usually affects men between the ages of 50 and 70 and thankfully is rarely painful. Should pain develop, it’s recommended to visit your doctor immediately as this could be an early indication of cancer.
To prevent Leukoplakia, you’ll need to implement lifestyle changes which can include:
- Stopping smoking/ chewing tobacco
- Reduce alcohol consumption
- Eat foods high in antioxidants such as broccoli, spinach and potatoes
A geographic tongue is a condition where white and pink patches of smooth skin appear on the tongue, much like eczema.
The lesions make a pattern across the surface of the tongue that resemble islands on a map, which is what gives it its name. It’s usual during this condition for the lesions to heal and migrate to different parts of the tongue, so don’t worry if you think they’re moving – because they are.
The condition may look worrisome, but it doesn’t cause health problems and is neither associated with cancers nor infections. The smooth lesions sometimes make eating foods that are spicy, sour or sweet uncomfortable to chew.
This condition goes away with time, so if this is something you suffer with then don’t worry.
Dehydration is a common issue, barely anyone drinks the recommended 4.3 litres of water a day so you’re not alone. There are so many factors that can contribute to dehydration, from not drinking enough to taking medications to living with certain health issues such as diabetes.
Each one of these can cause the tongue to go white.
Lacking proper hydration means the salivary glands can’t produce enough saliva to keep the mouth moist. Without this important function, you can’t rinse away bad bacteria, residue from food or keep your mouth lubricated. The tongue becoming white isn’t the only tell-tale sign of a dry mouth; other symptoms include halitosis (bad breath), and thickened saliva.
Funnily enough, the best solution for this problem is to drink more water. I bet you weren’t expecting that! Rehydration will thin out the saliva, re-moisten the tongue and lubricate all the passageways. Since bad breath is usually caused by bacteria, the only way to resolve this is to brush your teeth or use breath fresheners such as mints, gums or lozenges.
How to treat your tongue
Taking care of yourself is the best way to take care of your tongue, having a glossy sheen of saliva on your tongue is perfectly natural and healthy, it also helps you chew and swallow food.
The best suggestions for maintaining a healthy tongue are:
- Brushing between the teeth with floss or a water pick
- Incorporate a non-alcoholic mouthwash into your routine
- Use a tongue scraper
- Avoid sour, spicy and extremely hot food
- Most importantly, drink plenty of water!
Thinking of the wellbeing of your tongue isn’t at the forefront of your thought, it’s not at anyone’s, but it is at the forefront of your oral health!
When you brush your teeth, just be sure to take a quick look at your tongue to make sure there are no abnormalities. If there are, remember to brush, if the problem persists then book an appointment with your local GP.
Bringing it all together
To summise, the tongue is far more useful than anyone gives it credit for.
A functioning tongue has many benefits that we all take for granted, so the least we can do is make sure that it’s healthy and properly maintained. If there are any worrying issues, talk to your GP but otherwise make sure to scrape your tongue 2-3 times every time you brush.
Don’t forget to keep hydrated, the more you drink the healthier you’ll be!