The tongue is one of the most important muscles in our body, making eating, swallowing and speaking possible. Because this muscle is so important for our survival, we should be taking good care of it!
Brushing and scraping your tongue is an effective way to keep it clean, minimizing bacteria and food debris. We should be cleaning our tongue twice daily with light pressure to improve oral health and our overall health.
But before we can talk about how often we should be cleaning our tongue, we need to know why it’s important and how we should be doing it.
I always find that when we understand why we should be doing something, it gives it meaning and we will want to do it. It makes the task rewarding because we know we are doing it for a good reason, and not just because we know we should be doing it.
Anatomy of the tongue
The tongue has many different unique parts and plays a vital role in our core bodily functions.
The top of the tongue is where the papillae are, which are small projections making the tongue have a hairy/furry carpet-like texture. The taste buds are found inside some of these papillae and send the taste signals to the brain.
There are four different papillae that can be found on the tongue; filiform, fungiform, circumvallate, and foliate. The latter two, circumvallate and foliate are the only papillae that contain taste buds.
The taste buds let us distinguish sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami tastes. And contrary to what people believe, there is no “taste map” of taste buds. Sweet foods aren’t just confined to the tip of the tongue. The taste buds are distributed all over the top of the tongue.
The bottom of the tongue is smooth and does not have any taste buds but this is where a lot of the muscles attach the tongue to the bone and anchor it.
Why you should be cleaning your tongue 2 times a day
To remove bacteria and food debris
The way I describe the tongue to my patients is; imagine your tongue as a shaggy carpet. Immediately after I say that I can see it their eyes that they get it. Everything gets stuck in between the papillae on the tongue, meaning the bacteria have quite the feast when food gets trapped.
Bacteria never stop multiplying and feeding off of the food debris and sugar left in our mouth after we eat. Because the multiplying never stops, you need to interrupt their cycle so they have to start all over again.
Imagine the bacteria in your mouth building an apartment building, and once the building gets to 10 stories it starts to break down the gum and bone tissue.
Every time you clean your mouth, they have to start constructing that apartment building all over again. The goal to maintain good oral health is to make sure you’re always breaking down the apartment building before it can get to 10 stories tall.
Prevent gum disease and decay
There are many different types of bacteria in our mouths, over 700 species to be more specific. Some of these species are important for our health (good bacteria) and some are not so good bacteria that are responsible for cavities and gum disease. These bad bacteria are also found on the tongue, making it more imperative to clean your tongue.
Optimum oral health can be achieved by reducing the number of bacteria in the mouth. So don’t stop cleaning that tongue!
Prevent bad breath
To go back to what I was talking about before, because you’re removing both bacteria and food debris from the tongue when you clean it, it reduces the number of smelly bacteria that makes our breath smell.
Tongue cleaning is just a temporary fix for bad breath, as the bacteria are constantly multiplying and we do have to eat and drink to survive.
One important thing to note is that bad breath is usually caused by some other underlying issues in the mouth. So if you find that your bad breath isn’t improving it may be time to investigate other things for the cause.
Tongue cleaning can also make your tongue look better. When we talk we can often see the tongue. If people have a really white-coated tongue, self-confidence may go down. By consistently cleaning the debris off the tongue, a nice light pink tongue should appear.
Improve oral health and overall health
The mouth is the gateway to the rest of our bodies, and when our mouth isn’t healthy, the rest of our body is not healthy.
The same bad bacteria found on our tongue and other surfaces of our mouth have been linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and respiratory illness including; pneumonia, bronchitis and even CPOD and emphysema. You can read more about this in this document.
For a woman who is pregnant, bad oral health can contribute to low birth weight, and even premature birth. And for her, it can speed up the process of gum disease. Ever heard the old wives tale of “I’ve lost a tooth for every child” or “gain a child, lose a tooth”? Gum disease that progresses eventually leads to tooth loss.
Cleaning the tongue has another benefit, improving taste.
By removing most of the food debris and bacteria, it allows your taste buds to be more receptive because there isn’t as much stuff on the tongue blocking them. In this study, it showed that taste improved after 2 weeks of consistent tongue cleaning.
Good bacteria vs. bad bacteria
Bad bacteria in your mouth can cause decay, bad breath and gum disease (I probably sound like a broken record saying that). But when their numbers are kept to a minimum they do the least amount of damage.
This is why I am not the biggest fan of mouthwash. Because it kills a lot of bacteria in your mouth, it can’t distinguish between good and bad bacteria. It can disrupt the flora in your mouth and in turn your gut flora.
We need good bacteria to help with digesting and maintaining proper gut flora because when the gut is out of order, autoimmune and digestive issues can occur.
In this study, they identified that regular mouthwash use contributes to the development of pre-diabetes and diabetes.
How you should clean your tongue
The first thing to keep in mind is the amount of pressure that you use when cleaning your tongue.
If too much pressure is used, it can damage the tongue over time, so just like brushing your teeth and gums… ease up on the pressure.
You will want to only have 2 fingers holding the brush or scraper. This prevents the white knuckle “death grip” that leads to damage.
- Start at the back of your tongue and brush/scrape forward to the tip of your tongue. You can stick your tongue out or keep it in your mouth and go by feel.
- Go over each section 1-2 times always in a forward motion.
- Once you are done, make sure to clean the brush/scraper well. You can do this with warm soapy water if using a scraper, or just rinse the brush under the tap.
- Repeat 2 x daily, after you are done flossing and brushing.
Best tools to clean the tongue
The best tool for the job is the one specifically designed for that job. In this case, scrapers are more effective than using a toothbrush.
Related Post: Should You Brush or Scrape Your Tongue? Which is better?
But don’t give up cleaning your tongue if you don’t have a scraper. Brushing is still very effective at cleaning the tongue.
What if you have a gag reflex?
Cleaning your tongue may activate your gag reflex, which can discourage you from ever doing it.
When I have patients who say they can’t clean their tongue due to their gag reflex I recommend that they do it after flossing and brushing. Because if you do it before it can trigger the gag reflex so bad that you won’t even be able to floss or brush.
Another tip is to rinse with really cold water beforehand as it distracts your mind.
Other things that can distract the mind are; rinsing with mouthwash first, putting a little pinch of salt on your tongue and closing your mouth taste it, and even cleaning it later in the day. For some reason, the gag reflex can be stronger in the morning.
I also recommend my patients to only clean what they can. Even if they can only clean ⅓ or ½ of their tongue it’s better than nothing.
Other ways to improve oral health
I think this one is a little bit obvious and again I sound like a broken record, but flossing and brushing are so important for maintaining oral health and keeping those pearly whites white.
Eat a healthy diet that has limited sugar. The bacteria in the mouth feed on the bacteria and produce acid. And when there is more sugar to thrive on in the mouth, the bacteria will proliferate more.
And the downward cycle continues.
Electric toothbrushes are incredibly more effective than manual toothbrushes in removing bacteria and food debris.
They also stimulate the gum tissue improving blood flow and tissue healing, but also fluid movement between the teeth to aid in rinsing away the food debris and bacteria.
Tongue issues/conditions that will not go away with tongue cleaning
Almost like the tongue is split, the deep grooves in the tongue can harbour food debris and bacteria. It is often painless, but sometimes it can be associated with a burning tongue sensation.
Burning tongue syndrome
Unfortunately, the cause for this isn’t known. But there are speculations that oral thrush, geographic tongue, vitamin deficiency, medications, and a few other things may cause the burning sensation.
Oral Thrush (yeast infection in the mouth)
This can happen when the flora in the mouth is disrupted, due to medications, antibiotics, inhalers, and steroid use. White “cheezy” looking patches can form on the tongue, and spread to the palate, and down the throat. When the white coating is removed, a red inflamed tissue will be exposed, and if more serious, bleeding can occur.
This is an inflammatory condition affecting the top of the tongue. Irregular patches of red/shiny bald areas are surrounded by a white border. Over time the areas affected can move around and change. Its appearance resembles the irregularities of landmass on a globe – hence the name.
The cells on the tongue shed as normal skin does, but when that shedding doe not happen, the papillae on the tongue start to get longer. These longer papillae have a hair-like appearance, and the bacteria/yeast that is on the surface can take on a darker appearance. But also pigment can be absorbed into the papillae itself. This can result in the tongue looking like it has black hair on it. Sometimes this can be resolved with good oral hygiene, but often there is an underlying cause.
White patches or areas that cannot be rubbed off. It doesn’t have a known cause except for chronic irritation from tobacco products, sharp edges on teeth or dentures and even alcohol use over a long period of time. People who have oral leukoplakia are at a higher risk of developing oral cancer. You can read more about it here.
You will want to seek a dental professionals guidance in these situations as an in-person physical exam is needed to determine these issues, and how they can be resolved.
Maintain regular visits to the dentist and dental hygienist.
This is so important because sometimes things in the mouth for example; white patches on the tongue, may need immediate intervention. Sometimes benign issues can be treated quickly like thrush. An overgrowth of yeast in the mouth if left alone can become quite painful.
Regular dental cleanings keep the number of pathogenic (bad) bacteria down to a reasonable level that your mouth can maintain a healthy state.
But if cleanings are put off and not done regularly, the pathogenic (bad) bacteria continue to multiply and become too much for your mouth to handle and gum disease ensues.
Read Now: How Dental Hygienist’s Clean Your Teeth
Here are some of the best cleaning devices that I recommend to my patients
- Medical Grade stainless steel tongue scraper (2 pack); This eco-friendly product is made of high-quality materials and is the perfect addition to your oral health routine.
- Oral-B electric toothbrush; If you don’t already have an electric toothbrush you should make it a priority to get one. The toothbrush I linked to is the one that I use. Electric toothbrushes are a game-changer for oral health. They remove far more bacteria and food debris than a manual toothbrush.