Ask the Dentist: Tongue microorganisms could be indicators of underlying health

Lucy Stock, dentist at Gentle Dental Care in Belfast, says the tongue could be an indicator of health elsewhere in the body, including the heart

Visual differences of the tongue become more obvious the more the heart is under stress
Lucy Stock

OVER 2,000 years ago the Greek physician Hippocrates and then later Galen considered the tongue to be a window to our underlying health. Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine also hold the tongue in great esteem when diagnosing what is going on in the depths of our bodies.

These disciplines look at, among other things, the tongue's colour of which there is astonishing variation including black, purple, grey, yellow, white, brown, green, red, white and the one we all desire to have, healthy pink. Examiners of the tongue also contemplate the tongue's surface coating, texture, wetness and shape.

Some believe that different areas of the tongue correspond with the different organs in body just like the reflexology foot map. Recently modern science has upped the ante of the importance of the tongue by discovering that the tiny microorganisms which inhabit it could help us diagnose when the heart is in distress.

The study from Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine found that unlike the normal pale red tongue that has a pale white coating, people with heart failure have redder tongues with a yellower coating.

These visual differences of the tongue become more obvious the more the heart is under stress. Heart failure is when the heart isn't able to pump enough blood around the body to allow it to work properly; the chambers in the heart either don't fill up adequately or the heart muscle is just too weak to push the blood around the entire body.

Study author Dr Tianhui Yuan found that the amount and type of bacteria living on the tongue differ between patients with heart failure and healthy people. One of his ideas is that this knowledge could pave the way for more screening of the tongue to detect heart failure.

In 2019 another study from Zhenjiang University in China found a link between the tongue's coating bacteria and pancreatic cancer. The researchers used sophisticated instruments to look at the number and type of bacteria on the tongue.

So, while socially speaking, sticking your tongue out might be rude, medically it could be a lifesaver.

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