It can detect the tartness in a glass of lemonade, the sweetness of a ripe peach and the saltiness in a slice of anchovy pizza.
This same body part, which spends its life marinating in saliva, bedews lips, slithers between teeth to loosen lodged food particles, sends sustenance toward the throat and sculpts sounds into words.
Without a tongue, most people would find the most fundamental of acts difficult, if not impossible. Communication would be severely compromised and eating could only be accomplished through a tube.
Still, despite its myriad uses, the human tongue remains shrouded in mystery.
The tongue is made up almost entirely of groups of muscles that run in different directions to carry out all of its important jobs, according to Ronald B. Low, chairman of the department of otolaryngology at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.
The front part is very flexible and can move around quite freely, working with the teeth to create different types of words. This portion also helps one to eat by moving food around the mouth as chewing occurs. The tongue then pushes the food to the back teeth so they can grind it up. That’s when the back of the tongue takes control. Once the food is all ground up and mixed with saliva, these muscles start to work — pushing a manageable amount of food and saliva into the esophagus.
Just as important as eating is speaking.
Along with the mouth, jaw and lips, the tongue helps control the vibrating air that produces speech sounds.
Maureen Stone, a professor in the department of biomedical sciences and orthodontics and director of the Vocal Tract Visualization Lab at the University of Maryland’s Dental School, said some languages contain more than 150 sounds. English has a total of 44.
“Most speech sounds are made primarily by changing the shape of the tongue,” she said.
And just in case you’ve ever wondered how it is you’ve never swallowed that appendage, rest assured said Dow. The body part remains well-anchored thanks to a membrane know as the frenulum, which connects the muscular organ to the bottom of the mouth. In fact, the whole base of the tongue is firmly planted in the bottom of your mouth, making it difficult to swallow.
Your tongue accurately reflects the state of your digestive system from rectum to esophagus, including the stomach, small intestines, colon (large intestine), pancreas, spleen, liver and gallbladder. Like each particular area of the body, the tongue can be used to evaluate one’s overall physical condition.
It’s various coatings can be white, yellow, red, pale, dark, gray, black and even greasy, while its body can run the gamut from red, blue, purple and black.
The following is what physicians at Albany’s St. Peter’s Hospital tell patients about tongue anomalies with regard to appearance.
— Dark red: indicates inflammation; lesions or ulceration; and sometimes a degeneration of the organ. It can also indicate certain nutritional deficiencies — especially a lack of niacin — a condition known as pellagra. Other nutritional issues can also cause this odd coloring. Anemia or a diet lacking in folic acid and vitamin B12 may be to blame.
– White: indicates stagnation of blood; fat and mucus deposits; or a weakness in the blood leading to such conditions as anemia.
This can also indicate that there’s some sort of infection present, such as a bacterial overgrowth or an autoimmune-related inflammatory disease. One possible cause: Thrush, which is an overgrowth of yeast.
— Yellow: indicates a disorder of the liver and gallbladder, resulting in an excess secretion of bile; deposits of animal fats, especially in the middle organs of the body; and possible inflammation. A yellowish tint could also likely be a clue that there is some sort of fungal or bacterial infection in the mouth. Another possible cause is gastric reflux. It is believed the acid rearranges the mouth’s normal bacterial flora, giving some of it a yellow tinge.
— Blue or Purple: indicates stagnation of blood circulation and a serious weakening of the part of the digestive system that corresponds to the area of the tongue where the color appears.
You might call the little knobs dotting the surface of your tongue as taste buds, but you’d be wrong. They are actually papillae, and there are four kinds: fungiform and filiform on the front half, foliate and vallate on the back. The actual taste buds cluster together in packs of two to 250 within the papillae.
Lisa Galati, an otolaryngologist at Albany Medical Center, said nerves from the tongue receive chemical stimulation from food in solution that gives the sensation of taste. There are four fundamental taste sensations that derive from receptors that have specific topographical distribution: salt and sweet at the tip of the tongue, bitter at the base, and acid or sour along the borders. A fifth has recently been observed. This taste is called umami. It is a taste that occurs when foods with glutamate — like MSG — are eaten.
The total flavor of a food comes from the combination of taste, smell, touch, texture or consistency, and temperature sensations.
The average person has about 10,000 taste buds, and they’re replaced every two weeks or so. But as a person ages, some of those taste cells don’t get replaced. An older person may only have 5,000 working taste buds. That’s why you may recall certain foods packing more of a flavor punch when you were younger.
Your tongue even helps keep you from getting sick. The back section contains something called the lingual tonsil. The tonsils are small masses of tissue that contain cells to help filter out harmful germs that could cause an infection in the body.
But when you have tonsillitis, it’s not your lingual tonsil that’s infected. Tonsilitis affects the palatine tonsils, which are two balls of tissue on either side of the tongue.
What’s more, in a significant finding about the body’s natural defenses, scientists have discovered the tongue actually harbors natural antibiotic substances to protect cuts to the muscle from being infected by the billions of microbes infesting the mouth.
The finding was made in the tongues of cows and may hold true of humans and other animals, too.
The cow tongue antibiotic is a short protein known as a peptide. Similar peptides have been found in insects and other invertebrates, indicating they evolved early in the genesis of the immune system.
The tongue is one of the more common parts of the human anatomy subjected to piercing and modification, a phenomenon sometimes associated with certain subcultures or demographics.
Tongue-piercing has appeared historically in many ancient civilizations and is increasingly mainstream in modern society, particularly in youth culture.
Some thrill seekers and rebels have even gone so far as to get their tongues forked — giving them a more serpentine appearance.
But neither practice is condoned in the medical community.
Piercing the tongue is dangerous enough; splitting it is even more so and has the added disadvantage of being almost impossible to reverse. The major risks are infection and uncontrolled bleeding. There’s also the slight inconvenience of having to learn how to talk all over again.
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