How To Sleep Better, Breathe Better, & Look Your Best Too (Part One)
What single group of muscles can make your whole body stronger, improve your balance, make your face more attractive, give you better posture (and less headaches and neck pain), help you sleep better at night, improve your breathing and even save you money on dental bills?
Believe it or not, it’s your TONGUE! Which is probably the most important body part that no-one ever thinks about!
Like the rest of the world, I never would have guessed that my tongue (and my tongue position) was a big deal. In fact, I’d been teaching movement for almost three years before I started paying any attention to my tongue.
That’s when I met my wonderful dentist and learned that my tongue position is actually – most likely – the root cause of all of my body issues!
What’s more, I’ve learned that like me, many, many modern humans don’t hold our tongues the right way and can’t swallow properly. This can be a contributing factor in an unbelievable number of body things.
So today, I’m sharing what I’ve learned about tongue position and swallowing mechanics.
Even though this sounds weird and you may not feel it applies to you, my suggestion is that you read on.
Where your tongue lives in your mouth affects how you breathe, how you look, how you sleep, and even how strong your body is – just for a start!
If air, your facial appearance, your sleep and your strength matter to you, then this is seriously need-to-know information!
Although it seems strange to think of the tongue as being a majorly big deal, it actually makes a lot of sense.
First, your tongue and swallowing is how you get food into your body.
Obviously we’d die without eating, so even just the mechanics of getting food into us means the tongue is huge right there.
And of course, the sense of taste isn’t just there for fun. It’s vital to keeping us alive by distinguishing between stuff that’s good for us to eat and stuff that’s poisonous.
Plus, we’re constantly taking foreign substances into our mouths – including bacteria and viruses that can be seriously harmful. Bumps on the back of the tongue help catch and destroy all those nasty guys. Which means our tongues are a major part of our immune system’s defence network.
Pretty important, right?
Your body certainly thinks so – the tongue is packed with sensory nerves and a truly enormous amount of your brain space is dedicated to the tongue. In fact, neuroplasticity expert Norman Doidge calls the tongue “the royal road to the brain” in his fascinating book, The Brain’s Way Of Healing. You know how it feels sooooo super annoying when you get something stuck in your teeth? That’s because all those sensors in your tongue mean that your brain is super aware of what’s going on in your mouth!
Your tongue is one of your seriously important sensory organs, but it also affects your body mechanically.
In a well-organized body, the tongue should be constantly pressing upwards against the palate.
At rest, tip of the tongue should sit about half an inch behind the front teeth, and the back of the tongue should press up against the roof of the mouth.
What’s more, your lips should be sealed and your teeth should rest just slightly apart (apparently there is some controversy about tooth position, but I prefer apart, since it stops me from gritting my teeth together). “Lips together, teeth apart” is a good mantra to remember!
It is common but not ideal for tongues to rest either on the bottom of the mouth behind the lower teeth, or up on the palate but pushing forward into the front teeth.
Swallowing is complex and has many phases. But basically, you want your tongue to move up and back, instead of forward and down. The ‘up and back’ motion pumps food and fluids back into your throat.
When the tongue pushes forward and down, it’s known as a ‘tongue thrust’ pattern. Over time, tongue thrusting tends to push your teeth and jaw bones into less optimal positions.
Fun fact: Did you know that your tongue is actually a group of eight muscles?
How Tongue Position And Swallowing Mechanics Effect Your Body
All mechanical inputs to your body create loads (aka forces), and your body adapts to these loads.
The place your tongue rests and the way that you swallow are both mechanical inputs.
Different tongue habit inputs create very different adaptations and outcomes.
If you use correct resting tongue posture and swallowing patterns, your face and jaw grow normally. This is more functional, and is generally considered more attractive, with higher cheekbones, straighter teeth, and stronger jaw line. It also gives your teeth more space and promotes a healthy bite.
In contrast, incorrect tongue resting position and a poor swallowing pattern typically lead to a recessed chin, crowded teeth, a dysfunctional bite and a longer, flatter face shape.
Poor tongue position can also affect the position of the maxilla (bones of the palate) and in turn impacts how the eyes rest in the face, potentially contributing to vision problems.
Not surprisingly, the nose and sinuses can also be affected, leading to snoring and even sleep apnea. And poor tongue position can also lead to head forward posture, headaches, teeth grinding, tooth decay, and neck and shoulder tension. Crazy, right?!?
We swallow 500-1000 times daily – not even counting when we eat and drink. Each time you swallow, your tongue should push up against your palate. The rest of the time, your tongue should be providing constant support for the bones of the skull. Over a lifetime, that’s a huge amount of important physical loads that your body depends upon in order to work – and look – its best.
What A Tongue Thrust Does
However, as many as 50% of modern humans have a dysfunctional tongue position and swallowing pattern!
This dysfunctional pattern is typically known as tongue thrust. Instead of pushing up, the tongue pushes forward, either at rest or when swallowing (or both!)
If you have a tongue thrust habit, the mechanical load of your tongue pushing against the back of your teeth will sort of like (bad) braces. Your front teeth end up taking on the shape of your tongue, like in this picture. Not really ideal!
In contrast, when the tongue is in its correct spot, it works like awesome braces. The tongue’s pressure on the roof of the mouth actually causes your palate to expand. The roof of your mouth is also the base of the sinuses. When you widen your palate with your tongue, you also open up your nasal passages and make it easier to breathe. So, lips closed and tongue up equals expanded airway!
Want To Learn More?
Check out Part 2 of this post, where I share some tips, some of my favourite exercises, how to learn if you have a tongue tie and how you can find a team to help you with tongue, swallowing and airway related issues!
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Petra is a movement educator and personal trainer with a passion for helping people find greater ease, joy and health in their bodies. She believes that better movement can help every body - and she's always happy to chat about it. She's on the road right now, travelling the world and moving in as many ways as possible. When she's not out exploring or working on her movement practice, you can probably find her hanging on some monkey bars.