Admit it: you've probably never thought much about saliva. That is, until you got a dry mouth once or twice and realized it's important.
It's not really a common topic to hear people talking about, but it's something that is almost always there, working behind the scenes making your life easier and better.
Many people who suffer from a chronic dry mouth have horror stories about how terrible it is to live with little to no saliva. After all, when you start to think about it, much of what we do every day is thanks to our saliva. Speaking, eating, swallowing, and so much more requires adequate saliva to work properly.
Saliva is important to digestion and many other things, but one of the more direct functions is to keep the teeth healthy and intact.
Saliva is a mixture that is secreted from many salivary glands in the mouth. There are three types of saliva that are excreted: serous (watery), mucus (thick), and mixed.
Different salivary glands produce different types, and each contributes to the overall fluid that we call saliva. While not necessarily a "type," thick or ropy saliva denotes a chronic dry mouth. Chronic dry mouth often quickly leads to rampant tooth decay, oral lesions, and/or other oral diseases that affect your quality of life.
Most saliva in the mouth is composed of about 98% water, with the rest consisting of buffering and remineralizing agents, mucus, digestive enzymes, antibacterial and antibiotic compounds, electrolytes, and glycoproteins.
Have you ever noticed that when you're really hungry and think about food, your mouth starts to water? This is because pre-digestion begins in the mouth, and it's so important that just the thought of food can switch it on.
Increased salivation ensures that as soon as food hits the mouth it will be mixed with digestive enzymes, breaking down starches and fats. This is also why the way food is presented is so important: it gets your gastric juices and saliva flowing.
Buffering: Constantly bathes teeth in crucial minerals that buffer the pH in the mouth. Low (acidic) pH is responsible for the development of cavities since the teeth's minerals dissolve in acidic environments. A supersaturation of ions in the saliva buffer this acid to keep the mouth's pH around neutral (7.0)
Remineralization: Constantly bathes teeth in calcium phosphate. Teeth are 90% hydroxyapatite, the crystalized form of calcium phosphate, while enamel itself is 96% hydroxyapatite. Saliva helps restore calcium phosphate minerals to the teeth, healing "soft spots" and reversing cavities in the the beginning stages of decay.
Digestive Enzymes: Aids in the digestion of carbohydrates and fats through their exposure to salivary enzymes. Salivary amylase begins to break complex carbohydrates down into simple carbohydrates, while salivary lipase begins the breakdown of fats.
Antibacterial & Antibiotic Properties: Specific (IgA) and non-specific (lysozyme, lactoferrin, peroxidase) immunologic actions in saliva help prevent the build up of microorganisms in the mouth. These organisms are responsible for dental decay and gum disease.
Lubrication: Saliva protects the oral mucosa (oral tissues) from mechanical damage while speaking, eating, and swallowing. Without saliva, food sticks to the tissues and teeth, increasing the likelihood of mechanical damage (scraping, gouging, slicing.) In addition, it keeps the tissues from desiccating (drying out.)
Speech: It's nearly impossible to speak with a chronically dry mouth. Saliva aids in our ability to communicate freely. The tongue and lips slide around constantly when speaking, and when saliva is absent speech becomes painful, difficult, and jumbled.
Singing: Just imagine trying to sing with a dry mouth. It becomes difficult to produce sounds, and not only that, it can be quite painful to the tissues as well. You lose control of what's coming out of your mouth. Next time you feel bad about your singing voice, try it with a dry mouth and you'll feel much better.
Taste: Saliva is the liquid medium through which chemicals are introduced to the taste receptor cells on the tongue (commonly known as taste buds.) Without saliva to carry these chemicals to the taste buds, it's difficult to taste anything. A common complaint with chronic dry mouth is that all foods taste the same, and I've had patients describe it as "torture." This is what leads most people to seek dry mouth remedies.
Kissing: If you have ever tried to kiss someone with a dry mouth, you quickly realize that it's just not going to happen. It's nearly impossible to be intimate in this way when your mouth or your partner's mouth is like the Sahara desert. It's a losing battle.
Dental Prosthesis: In the case of people who wear removable dentures, especially removable full dentures, chronic lack of saliva makes it difficult or impossible to keep them in place. The maxillary (upper) denture is especially affected, as saliva allows the denture to suction onto the hard palate.
Chronic dry mouth, also known as xerostomia, is a serious problem.
Not only does it affect a person's ability to taste their food, digest food effectively, and hold long conversations. There is a huge dental element to xerostomia as well.
Those who suffer from a chronic dry mouth don't have the constant buffering and healing factors that saliva gives the rest of us.
Unfortunately I have seen many patients who weren't aware of the connection between their dry mouth and their development of cavities. Many of them were looking at tens of thousands of US$ in dental bills just to have a normal looking smile.
I wish that more doctors and dental health professionals would mention that a dry mouth can have serious consequences for the whole body.
To read more about how to deal with the complications surrounding a lack of saliva, or a chronically dry mouth, please refer to my article "Natural Dry Mouth Remedies."
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