The Importance of Saliva

Saliva isn’t something you probably spend much time thinking about. But did you know that every moment of every day it affects your health? Saliva is vital for a healthy mouth, good digestion, and more. Read on to learn how saliva does a body good!

What is saliva?

Saliva is 98 percent water. It contains small amounts of important substances, including mucus, proteins, minerals, electrolytes, antibacterial compounds and enzymes. Saliva moistens the mouth for comfort, lubricates as you chew and swallow, and neutralizes harmful acids. It also kills germs and prevents bad breath, defends against tooth decay and gum disease, protects enamel, and speeds up wound healing.

Saliva originates in the three pairs of major salivary glands and in hundreds of minor glands surrounding the oral cavity. The major salivary glands responsible for most saliva production include the parotid (inside cheeks), sublingual (under tongue), and submandibular (near jawbone).

Tiny tubes called salivary ducts carry saliva from the glands into your mouth. Small amounts of saliva enter the mouth constantly to keep the mouth moist. The salivary glands really kick into action when you eat, or even just think about or smell food. Then your glands make lots of saliva, and you can notice much more of it in your mouth. An average person produces 2-4 pints of saliva every day.

Why is saliva important?

Saliva is an important part of a healthy body. Research shows that it protects against gum disease, tooth decay, and other oral infections. A thin film of saliva covers teeth and buffers against bacteria, while antimicrobial agents in saliva kill disease-causing bacteria. As saliva moves around the mouth, it sweeps away small bits of food that feed the bacteria responsible for tooth decay.

Saliva neutralizes acids in the mouth that break down tooth enamel by washing away acidic residue from eating. When acid damages enamel, saliva repairs the tooth’s protective surface in a process called remineralization. Calcium, phosphorous, fluoride and other minerals contained in saliva repair the enamel surfaces of teeth, keeping them healthy, strong and resistant to cavities.

Saliva also plays an important role in digestion, thanks to an enzyme called amylase. Digestion begins in the mouth, when amylase breaks down starch, maltose and dextrose into smaller molecules. It also helps you to swallow food, by making it wet and soft, so it can slide down your throat more easily.

What is xerostomia (dry mouth)?

Some people don’t make enough saliva. This condition is known as xerostomia, more commonly called dry mouth. When you don’t have enough saliva, gum disease and tooth decay happen easily, as your mouth becomes prone to infections from bacteria, yeast and fungus. Swallowing and digesting food becomes difficult, and bad breath occurs often. Plus, you will have the uncomfortable feeling of a dry mouth, including swollen gums and tongue.

Certain health conditions, such as Sjögren’s syndrome and diabetes, can cause dry mouth. Cancer treatments can cause dry mouth as well as more common things like dehydration, smoking, and mouth breathing. And hundreds of medications can cause dry mouth, including those for allergies, high blood pressure, asthma, anxiety and depression.

Dry mouth treatments:

  • Drink plenty of water every day. Dehydration lowers saliva production.
  • Talk with your health care provider to see if you’re taking a medication that causes dry mouth.
  • Chew sugar-free gum and suck on sugar-free candy or mints. This can help you make more saliva.
  • Keep up good dental care by brushing and flossing every day. Ask your dentist if a prescription-strength fluoride toothpaste or fluoride rinse would be helpful for you.
  • See your dentist regularly for check-ups and cleanings to help prevent problems by spotting them early.
  • See your health care provider, if you have white patches or sore spots in your mouth.
  • Ask your health care provider about artificial saliva. He or she can prescribe a rinse or spray to help keep your mouth moist.
  • Avoid foods that are salty, spicy or acidic — these can dry and irritate your mouth. You may also want to avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol, which can also dry your mouth. Choose soft and smooth foods and make foods moist with sauces or broth.
  • Rinse 4-6 times a day with a baking soda solution to reduce bacterial acids that cause cavities. You can make it at home from 2 teaspoons of baking soda in 8 ounces of water.

 

 

Salivary secretion in health and disease. Pedersen AML, Sørensen CE, Proctor GB, Carpenter GH, Ekström J. J Oral Rehabil. 2018 Jun 7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29878444. Accessed July 2018.

Dry Mouth. The American Academy of Oral Medicine. https://www.aaom.com/dry-mouth. Accessed July 2018.

Managing xerostomia and salivary gland hypofunction. A Report of the American Dental Association Council on Scientific Affairs – 2015. https://www.ada.org/~/media/ADA/Science%20and%20Research/Files/CSA_Managing_Xerostomia.pdf?la=en. Accessed July 2018.

A Guide to Medications Inducing Salivary Gland Dysfunction, Xerostomia, and Subjective Sialorrhea: A Systematic Review Sponsored by the World Workshop on Oral Medicine VI.  Wolff A, Joshi RK, Ekström J, et.al.  Drugs R D. 2017 Mar;17(1):1-28.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5318321/.  Accessed July 2018.

Dry Mouth. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/health-info/dry-mouth. Accessed July 2018.