In this article, we’re going to explore the often-overlooked oral hygiene habit of cleaning the tongue as well as the important role that tongue cleaning plays in supporting greater oral and whole-body health.
We often emphasize that the health of the mouth plays a central role in the health of the whole body, so it’s important to balance our oral flora by being good conductors of the symphony of microbes in our mouths. In essence, a critical step in navigating the path to greater whole-body health is to establish and maintain a healthy microbial balance at the beginning of the digestive tract: our mouth.
So, let’s start by exploring why cleaning the tongue plays such a big part in any holistic oral hygiene routine and how it can impact our whole-body health.
Scientists have found that the mouth may function as a reservoir for microbes that can cause gut inflammation.
Why is this so important?
Well, like Hippocrates said around 2500 years ago, “All disease begins in the gut.” So, if our gut is unhealthy, it’s impossible for the body to be healthy.
Research suggests that common oral microbes may perpetuate and aggravate gut inflammation. If left unchecked, this could result in, or at least contribute to, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and leaky gut.
The mouth is the beginning…
The digestive tract actually begins in the mouth.
The mouth chews food, breaking it down into smaller pieces and mixing it with our saliva (which contains digestive enzymes), and then the masticated food travels down the throat and into the stomach. Then the stomach, spleen, and pancreas create fuel for our systems by digesting the food, the small intestine absorbs nutrients from that digested food, and the remaining food waste is eliminated through the colon (large intestine).
The big point here, the digestive tract is also home to 80% of our immune system and the mouth is the beginning of this whole system.
This is why holistic oral health strategies like oil pulling go a long way toward helping us have a healthy gut microbiome.
You see, we swallow a lot of oral microbes every day with our saliva. If the mouth is healthy and has a balanced oral flora, bathing the digestive tract with saliva definitely supports our overall health.
However, if the mouth is out of balance and ‘thug bugs’ are running the show, everything ‘downstream’ can suffer from this imbalanced mouth ecology.
For example, overpopulation of the bacteria klebsiella in the mouth can wind up causing problems in the gut. Remember, as we swallow, the bacteria hitch a ride through the rest of our digestive tract. Research has found that when strains of klebsiella populated the gut, they caused a strong inflammatory immune response in some of the test subjects.
How does this relate to cleaning the tongue?
Well, klebsiella is facultative anaerobic bacteria. That means that while they can live in environments with regular levels of oxygen, they really thrive in low-oxygen environments.
And where is the most prolific low oxygen environment located in the mouth?
Yep. When the tongue isn’t cleaned regularly, it creates a low-oxygen environment where bacteria like Klebsiella can thrive. In fact, the majority of the microbes in our mouths live on our tongues.
As we’ve shared before, the first strategy for balancing our oral flora is to maintain thin biofilms in the mouth.
Thick biofilms create low-oxygen environments, which enables thug bugs like klebsiella to build their numbers.
However, using oral hygiene techniques to maintain thin biofilms on our teeth and tongue creates an oxygen-rich environment, which discourages thug bugs while simultaneously encouraging health-giving microbes to thrive.
How to clean the tongue…
Cleaning the tongue is really simple, but it involves a little more than just brushing your tongue.
Step one is to get the ‘gunk’ (biofilm) off of our tongue in order to remove the low-oxygen environment. And brushing the tongue simply doesn’t remove the gunk.
Our preferred device for step one is a tongue cleaner, and oral hygiene tool that’s been used for centuries in the traditional Indian medicine practice called, ‘Ayurveda’.
Take your tongue cleaner (or spoon, with the bowl facing downwards, towards your tongue) and reach as far back on your tongue as is comfortable. Then, using gentle pressure, drag your tool down your tongue from the back (near your throat) to the front (towards the tip of your tongue). Then rinse the gunk off your tongue cleaner or spoon.
If you’ve never done this before, please, go do it right now.
You’ll never stop cleaning your tongue once you see the sheer volume of biofilm that comes off a tongue that hasn’t been scraped regularly.
Do this quick scrape 3-4 times and then spit and rinse. Not only will your mouth be healthier, but many people also find that this increases their ability to taste subtle flavors in foods.