A housekeeper approached me at a spiritual retreat (that was attended by mostly Indians) and asked, “What are all of those curved metal things in all of your bathrooms?” I chuckled at the question because the tongue cleaner is as basic as a toothbrush in Ayurveda. It is a must-have. For those who clean their tongues daily, forgetting their tongue cleaner is as unsettling as forgetting the toothbrush. It is mentioned right next to tooth brushing and oil pulling in the classical Ayurvedic text, Caraka Samhita.1
So, why the emphasis? In the western sciences, dentists appreciate post-nasal drip as the cause of bad breath. The post-nasal drip coats the back of the tongue with mucus that is rich in bacteria. This dying bad bacteria produces volatile sulfur compounds that create bad breath.2 In Ayurveda, we recognize the coating on the back of the tongue as much more than that.
The white coating is what we call ama (natural toxins). Bacteria and mucus can certainly be ama. But any toxin that has that sticky and heavy quality, causing dysfunction in the body, is ama. So, while post-nasal drip is certainly one cause of the white coating, there are many people with white tongues who have absolutely no post-nasal drip. Our tongue represents our entire gastrointestinal tract and what is going on there. As the body processes the toxins and puts them back into the gastrointestinal tract for elimination, it also spits them out onto the tongue. Further, oral bacteria is associated with the health of a number of other systems, including the heart, lungs, reproductive tissues, and pancreas, and even the health during pregnancy.3
One study compared a traditional tongue cleaner (which they called a tongue scraper) with a toothbrush. They found that the tongue scraper decreased volatile sulfur compounds by 75% as opposed to 45% with the toothbrush.4
But again, bad breath is only one benefit of scraping your tongue with a tongue cleaner. Doing so will support your entire body by helping maintain a healthy bacteria amount in the mouth and by stimulating the cleansing of the entire gastrointestinal tract.
It is also a great way to stay in touch with your overall health. By remembering to clean your tongue daily, you will quickly get into the habit of taking note of the coating on your tongue. You may notice a thicker coat after a heavy meal, sickness, or after eating a lot of dairy the night before.
If a tongue cleaner is not right next to your toothbrush and floss and is not already part of your daily routine, now is the time to start!
1 Charaka. Caraka Samhita. 7 vols. Translated by Dr. Ram Karan Sharma and Vaidya Bhagwan Dash, vol 1, Sutrasthana (Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 2009), chap 5, ver. 78-80
2 Academy of General Dentistry. “Tongue Scrapers Only Slightly Reduce Bad Breath.” Science Daily, accessed December 21, 2015, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/10/061005221650.htm
4 Pedrazzi V, et al. “Tongue-cleaning methods: a comparative clinical trial employing a toothbrush and a tongue scraper.” Journal of Peridontology. 75, no 7 (2004):1009-12.