What Does Ayurveda Say
In the Charaka Samhita, an early Ayurvedic medical text, it says that by cleaning the tongue, “(this) removes foul smell, tastelessness … and by taking out dirt coated on the tongue, teeth and mouth brings relish immediately.” No doubt, people who clean their tongue on a daily basis, myself included, can validate the cleansing and invigorating effects this practice has. According to Ayurveda, this simple practice is a direct way of removing toxicity from your physiology. Scraping the tongue daily removes any build-up which, if left untreated, can lead to bad breath and may house a significant number of bacteria. This coating can result from improper eating, poor digestion, or a reflection of an imbalance somewhere in the gastrointestinal system.
In addition, from an Ayurvedic perspective, by removing this coating you improve your ability to taste your food, which makes it more satisfying. By increasing your taste reception, not only do you eat less, but you also eliminate the need to add more sugar, salt, or strong spice to the food to make it more flavorful which, in excess, can lead to health issues. In fact, the results of one study confirmed that tongue cleaning increased the perceived salt taste intensity, therefore could help people reduce the overuse of salt in their food.
Also, many of the beneficial phytonutrients and “body signaling molecules” that your food contains are first interpreted by the mind-body upon contact with receptors on the tongue. Ayurveda acknowledges this intercommunication that is necessary for a properly functioning system. With this in mind, you would want to improve this communication between your food and your body by removing any coating that is interfering with that connection. Also, many herbs possess beneficial effects felt from the initial contact with receptors on the tongue. Hence, you need a clear tongue to receive this healthy information and relay signals to the rest of the body.
As a Western-trained MD, I find that these traditional practices offer an easy path to create a preventive lifestyle. According to the American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology (AAOMP), a coated or hairy tongue is a sign of an imbalance of keratin on the tongue. Keratin is a protective layer of cells on the tongue and is usually kept in balance by being removed when we swallow and eat food that has some texture to it. It can also be overproduced if there is trauma to the tongue from hot liquids or smoking. Under normal circumstances, the amount of keratin produced, and the amount that is “knocked off” by eating, is balanced. When the diet is too soft, without enough fiber and roughage, or the oral cavity is irritated in some way, keratin can accumulate. When the keratin continues to accumulate, it can coat the taste buds resulting in a ‘hairy’ tongue. Although the AAOMP considers this a ‘harmless’ condition, they recommend tongue cleaning and acknowledge that this keratin can act as a place for bacteria in the mouth to accumulate and grow.
The Oral Microbiome
There are over 600 species of microbes in your mouth including bacteria, fungi, and more. Some are helpful, and others can cause disease. Some stick to your teeth and others prefer the tongue. Although the bacteria may not be harmful themselves and are usually normal oral bacteria, there is a delicate balance in the oral microbiome that needs to be maintained for good oral health, much as we are finding with the microbiome balance in other parts of the digestive tract. When bacteria grow on this layer of keratin, the chemicals they release can lead to discoloration of the coating, as well as inflammation. One randomized controlled trial showed that cleaning the tongue reduced inflammatory markers in oral fluids as well as improvements in volatile sulfur compounds in the mouth that can lead to gingivitis and halitosis (bad breath). Although there is some debate as to whether tongue scraping is better than using a toothbrush, from an Ayurvedic perspective, as well as my own experience, a smooth tongue scraper causes less irritation and tissue trauma than the bristles of a toothbrush.
Each area of the body has a balance of natural microbes that are unique for its function--there is yet much to learn. What we do know is that when the balance is disrupted and abnormal numbers of bacteria flourish in these biofilms in the body, we are more likely to experience disease. Rather than wait for a disease to occur, by removing this coating as we do with plaque and tartar on the teeth, we can help prevent oral health issues down the line.
What Kind of Tongue Scraper to Use
Although Western dentistry is not clear on what to recommend for tongue cleaning, The Charaka Samhita states that “tongue scrapers should be made of gold, silver, copper, tin, and brass and should be non-sharp and curved, so as not to injure the tongue”. Stainless steel scrapers, which are now widely available and resist corrosion, are effective as well. I, for one, try to reduce my use of plastic by using a stainless-steel tongue scraper, which is durable and suitable for all mind-body types.
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How to Scrape Your Tongue
In guiding people through the use of a tongue scraper, I find the number one challenge is teaching people not to scrape too hard. The tongue should be gently scraped from back to front for 7 to 14 strokes. The scraper may be rinsed off between strokes if there is a lot of accumulation. Some people report stimulation of the gag reflex during scraping, which may indicate that the scraping is too aggressive. If this occurs with gentle scraping, begin slightly more forward on the tongue to avoid the gagging reflex. The practice should be a comfortable addition to your regular dental hygiene.
When we think of individual body parts as separate from the whole, we may not equate tongue scraping with improved mental health. However, when we consider that the entire system is in constant communication, it begins to make sense. From an Ayurvedic perspective, we clear the mind when we cleanse and open up the communication systems of the body. Certain foods that we eat, such as dark chocolate, can communicate with the mind to improve our mood. They contain phytochemicals that can signal the release of feel-good molecules as well as send signals from the tongue to the brain that immediately make us feel better. There are also medicinal herbs that exert their effect by binding receptors on the tongue and sending signals to the brain to curb cravings. This communication wouldn’t be possible if those channels are clogged.
A Daily Practice
From an Ayurvedic perspective, tongue scraping should be performed on a daily basis. This ancient practice helps to stimulate the internal organs through energetic connections with the rest of the body, improve digestion by increasing your sense of taste, and cleanse the body by removing toxins and bacteria from your oral cavity. In addition, along with healthy foods, it can clear and invigorate the mind and is a great way to start the day.
The tongue can be a mirror to all the organs of the body, and thus, a daily look at the tongue prior to scraping gives you a clue to your general health. An Ayurvedic practitioner may perform a tongue examination as a useful way of evaluating the health of the entire body. When you examine your tongue daily, it’s an opportunity for self-awareness, where you can reflect on the choices of the last several days, months, or years and see how those choices have affected your health. If a thick coating is noted, try tongue cleaning along with your other oral hygiene practices and see if you notice a difference. This simple daily practice can bring more self-awareness and gives you the opportunity to make new, healthier choices.
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