Buds for Life: Your Tongue & Taste
Full disclosure before your Cornelius dental team at Whalen Dentistry starts dropping knowledge on the muscles in your mouth that are partially to thank (or blame) for the foods you love: we’re hungry as we write this and are envisioning pizza; yummy, savory pizza with cheese that stretches when you grab a slice, crust with just the right amount of crunch, sauce with the best blend of veggies and herbs…what were we going to talk about? Oh yeah, taste buds! Wait—are you craving pizza now, too? Let’s go halfsies on some ‘za!
The scientific term for your taste buds is gustatory receptor cells. Jot that down because there will be a quiz later (we joke). These taste buddies (that’s just more fun to say, isn’t it?) form before we evacuate the womb. In fact, based on their sensitivity to sweet and bitter tastes, newborns may have more taste buds than adults. For an image to distract from the pizza that may still be on your mind, picture babies trying new foods. Need help? That’s what we’re here for! Here are babies tasting lemons in slow motion.
A common belief about taste buds is that they’re the bumps visible on your tongue, but those are papillae which exist to give your tongue the rough texture that helps you eat—your taste buds cover these papillae but can only be seen with a microscope. A person can have anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 taste buds co-existing with bacteria in their mouths, and the number of bacteria present? That can range anywhere from 1,000 to 100,000 on each tooth’s surface and jump to 100 million or a whopping 1 billion bacteria in a mouth that needs flossing and brushing.
Why’d We Mention Bacteria?
We’re sorry to derail the humor train, but Dr. Ryan Whalen would be remiss not to mention the importance of oral hygiene when it comes to tongue talk. Your tongue is a favorite haven for bacteria and food debris, after all, and neglecting to give it quality time with your trusty toothbrush and friendly floss (or alternatives like the WaterPik®) can carry consequences like cavities, gum disease, bad breath, and alteration of your taste buds! You know how food is harder to taste when you’re fighting an infection or virus? It’s like that, and we think this further highlights the oral-systemic link.
The oral-systemic link is the term used to describe how your body’s systems work together to keep you going strong, or work against you to make you feel crummy (not to be confused with crumbly like a cookie). Your mouth is a gateway—your taste buds being on the roof of your mouth and your upper esophagus, cheeks, and epiglottis (the flap of cartilage that covers your windpipe while you swallow food or liquid to prevent you from inhaling it and choking) illustrate this for us.
Your Tongue Isn’t the Only Thing with Taste
For another example of how your systems work together, get a whiff of how the nose operates in conjunction with your taste buds. Your olfactory receptors send signals to the brain about whether the food you’re about to consume or reject is spicy, fatty, sugary, salty, and/or acidic—because food can be almost as complex as your body, can’t it? And yes, we did mention the brain!
Your brain is what provides you with the sense of satisfaction you feel when eating something you love. Your brain’s participation in the consumption process is further evidenced by the ability scientists have to turn taste “on” or “off” by stimulating or silencing clusters of brain cells. (Does this mean they could make onions more palatable to people that don’t usually like them? Maybe! But so far, testing has only been conducted on mice.)
Other Fun Tongue Facts
- Contrary to a somewhat popular belief, your tongue’s ability to taste sweet, savory, salty, sour, and bitter is not relegated to different sections—your whole tongue senses these equally.
- Each person’s tongue is as unique as their fingerprints.
- The size of your tongue can contribute to disorders like Obstructive Sleep Apnea.
- The average tongue is about three inches in length, with the longest recorded being 3.97 inches.
- Taste buds have an average lifespan of 10 days but can be killed sooner if you burn your tongue on hot beverages or foods. Not to worry—most taste buds regenerate!
- Your sense of smell and taste change with age, which may mean loss of the ability to distinguish between savory, sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. This could be why some of us love hot sauce and add more of it to our food as we grow wiser (the term we prefer to older, thank you!).
We hope you enjoyed reading about your tongue and that it inspires you to treat it kindly along with the rest of your mouth. One of the best ways to show it some love is by scheduling an appointment with your Cornelius dentist, Dr. Ryan Whalen of Whalen Dentistry, to make sure everything is in tip-top shape!
The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.