What It Is
A set of muscles covered by a mucous membrane (a smooth surface lubricated by glands and cells within) and small bumps called papillae, between which sit taste buds linked by nerves to the brain.
What It Does
Senses flavors, aids swallowing, forms words -- and brings kissing to the next level.
Why It's Important
As the most readily visible portion of the inside of the body, the tongue can provide a sneak peek at what's going on deeper below the surface.
1000: the number of taste buds on an average tongue -- that's how many blueberries you'll find in 34 pints!
Is Your Tongue Trying to Tell You Something?
Practitioners of both Eastern and Western medicine recognize the tongue's diagnostic power. Be on the lookout for:
A glossy, bump-free tongue often points to autoimmune disorders, in which the body's defense system attacks healthy tissue (like the oral salivary glands), says Dr. Ayesha Khalid, an otology and laryngology instructor at Harvard Medical School.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, which posits that the tongue mirrors disharmony in the body, a healthy tongue should be pink. "Purple may point to a blockage of energy or blood, suggesting a liver or gallbladder problem," says Mao Shing Ni, Ph.D., the founder of Tao of Wellness, in Santa Monica, California.
A Thick Coating
A thin coat on the tongue is normal. A thick one? Not so much. "A yellowbrown coating," says Ni, "may indicate an acute infection."
3 Ways to Keep It Healthy
Follow these steps to avoid getting tongue-tied:
Get Plenty of Vitamin B12
Found in beef, milk, and clams, it can ward off various tongue issues, including canker sores, says Khalid. A study in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine showed that patients who took 1,000 mcg of B12 a day for six months had significant reductions in the painfulness, duration, and number of sores.
Use Nonalcoholic Mouthwash
"There's research looking into an association between the regular use of drying, alcoholic mouthwashes and an increased risk of oral cancer," says Khalid. Try Crest Pro-Health Rinse (drugstore.com).
Don't Scrub, Spritz
Brushing your tongue helps remove bad-breath bacteria, but going at it too aggressively can lead to irritation and pain. "An oral irrigator is a lot gentler," says Khalid. Use a tongue cleaner attachment, and gently rake it over your tongue while the water flows. We like the Waterpik Traveler (waterpik.com) for its portability.