Owner's Manual: Listen to Your Tongue

Let's talk about the tongue, your body's unsung hero.

Listen to Your Tongue

All day long it helps you speak, taste, kiss, swipe that speck of lipstick off your teeth — and so much more. (You couldn't sing without it either!)

So, What Does Your Tongue Exactly Do?

It Protects: Taste buds at the back of the tongue are highly sensitive to bitter flavors—they alert you if that milk's gone bad before you swallow it.

It Grips: Bumps along your tongue's surface give it a rough texture that grabs onto food as you chew.

It Tastes: Your tongue and nose work together to help identify different flavors, from salty to sweet.

The Vitals

8: How many muscles intertwine to make up the tongue.

10,000: The approximate number of taste buds you're born with. (You lose some as you age.)

67: The percentage of women able to roll their tongue, per one study.

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Ice Cream Wouldn't Be the Same Without It

Those small bumps on your tongue? They're called papillae, and they're covered with thousands of teensy taste buds (only visible under a microscope). These buds can detect about 10,000 flavors; when they come into contact with food or drink, nerve cells send a signal to your brain (sweet! tart!) so you know what you're about to gulp down. As you age, the number of buds declines, which can dull your taste. That's why some older cooks may go heavy on the salt (often too heavy, if you ask their families).

Fun Fact: About 25 percent of people are supertasters. They may find the flavor of foods that are barely bitter to others (kale or coffee) too harsh to eat.

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It's a Window to Your Health

Say aah for a glimpse of your overall well-being. In traditional Chinese medicine, practitioners examine the tongue to spot problems with other areas of the body, notes Ka-Kit Hui, MD, director of the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine. You can also check it for:

  • An even surface and bright pink color — signs of a healthy tongue.
  • A thick white coating, which may mean you're dehydrated.
  • White patches, a potential sign of thrush, a fungal disease.

Fun Fact: The tongue is the only internal organ we can easily see, which is why it's a crucial part of a patient's exam in traditional Chinese medicine, says Hui.

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No Signs of Slowing Down

The tongue is amazingly acrobatic, thanks to muscle fibers that run in every direction, allowing it to twist and transform into dozens of shapes. This flexibility plays a role when we gab: Out of the 44 sounds in the English language, the tongue is needed for 38 of them, says Maureen Stone, PhD, a speech science professor at the University of Maryland Dental School. Just try saying "delicate" without moving it! And it's an all-day athlete — when was the last time your tongue felt tired? Many fibers in the human tongue are the slow-twitch kind, which give you endurance. That's why it'll last through a long night of karaoke.

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Did It Take a Licking?

Ouch, that hurt! The tongue is terrifically tender, so treat it right if you happen to nip or nick it.

You burn your tongue: A scalding sip can damage the papillae on the tongue's surface, similar to a burn you'd get on your hand after touching a piping hot kettle.

How to heal: Papillae regenerate fairly quickly, so the ouch shouldn't last more than a couple of days. In the meantime, suck on an ice pop (or cube) to soothe things.

You get a painful bump: Even the smallest injury, like a microcut from licking an envelope, can lead to a sore spot or inflammation as the body works to repair the damage.

How to heal: The organ's excellent blood supply makes for quite a speedy recovery. For temporary relief, pop an aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen.

You bite your tongue: It gets caught occasionally, though our bodies have developed an innate ability to protect the tongue from our chompers when we chew.

How to heal: Thankfully, the throb of a bitten tongue often peters out in a few minutes; until then, help ease irritation by swishing with a saltwater solution.

This story originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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