The Scoop on Saliva

***UPDATED: November 15, 2014*** It looks like saliva as a more important role in oral health than we previously thought. A recent study has discovered that the mucus in saliva contains salivary mucins, a compound that actively protects teeth from the cavity-causing bacterium Streptococcus mutans. According to a recent Medical News Today article, before now, it was thought that the mucus did little more than keep saliva slippery and elastic.  The study, published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, was written in part by Erica Shapiro Frenkel, of Harvard University, who claims that their findings suggest that “boosting the body’s natural defences might be a better way to prevent tooth decay than relying on external agents like sealants and fluoride treatments.” The researchers found that the salivary mucins do not change the levels of S. mutans, which have to attach to teeth and form a biofilm to cause a cavity. Instead, the sticky stuff keeps the bacteria suspended in a liquid medium, reducing its ability to form biofilms on teeth, and therefore lowering the potential for decay.

Most people focus on brushing and flossing their teeth when trying to maintain good oral hygiene.  But there’s another key component that shouldn’t be overlooked: saliva.  That’s right, commonly referred to as “spit,” the saliva in your mouth plays a very important role.  Without saliva, tooth decay would dramatically increase, digestion could be more difficult, and food just wouldn’t taste right.  There are many benefits to saliva, and Michael Brennan, DDS, MHS, director of the Sjogren’s Syndrome and Salivary Disorders Center at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, recently shared his expertise on the topic in the ABC affiliate, KXLY, article, “Why you should salivate over benefits of saliva.”

According to the expert, saliva neutralizes acid and helps rid the mouth of decay causing sugars.  Therefore, if you aren’t producing enough saliva, you are much more prone to tooth decay.  Additionally, saliva helps move food through your intestines once ingested, and the enzymes found in the slippery stuff help break down food and are a key in aiding digestion.  And that’s not all; saliva is actually an important key in speech, allowing your mouth to work correctly when forming words.  Clearly, a lack of saliva would not go unnoticed.  Brennan listed the following as symptoms that may be found if not enough saliva is present: difficulty talking, chewing, or swallowing, dry or burning throat, sore or cracked tongue, dry or peeling lips, oral yeast infections, an abnormal increase in dental cavities, and digestive issues.

If you find yourself experiencing dry mouth often, be sure to keep yourself hydrated.  Sipping small amounts of water can help reduce symptoms, and adding a bit of lemon juice can stimulate saliva flow.  However, be cautious with sugar or acidic sweeteners, which can lead to dental decay and erosion.  Chronic dry mouth can be a symptom of a condition of Sjogren’s syndrome, when accompanied by dry eyes.  Sjogren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disorder where the immune cells destroy moisture-producing glands, and is often found in women in their 40s.  In fact, many attribute the symptoms to menopause and don’t seek the medical attention that they need.  The best course of action if you experience any of the above symptoms is to talk to your doctor or dentist.  While some over the counter products and behavioral changes can ease your symptoms, only a doctor or dentist can determine if there’s a more serious health condition and can prescribe the appropriate treatments.  Most of us take our saliva for granted, not realizing how vital it is to our overall well being.  Like many things in life, it’s not until it’s gone that we realize how much we’d miss it!

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