Saliva plays a huge role for oral health, yet remains one of the most neglected factors considered in overall health. You may ask, how does it affect my overall health? 

Saliva is an extracellular fluid carrying essential enzymes that aid in the break down of food particles in the first stages of digestion. It is produced by multiple salivary glands in the mouth, and its composition is 98% water with the remaining amounts made up of electrolytes, enzymes, minerals and mucous. The major salivary glands include the submandibular, sublingual and the parotid glands. Average daily production of saliva is about 2-4 pints a day. 

Why is saliva important? 

Saliva aids in digestion by binding to food particles as you chew, allowing for easy entry into the esophagus, as well as assisting in breaking down food particles for proper digestion. As saliva flows in the mouth, it helps clear away small particles of food to prevent bacteria from adhering to the tooth structure. Saliva also acts to lubricate the surfaces of the mouth which helps to prevent dry mouth, also known as xerostomia. Xerostomia can be caused by certain diseases such as Sjorgren’s syndrome and diabetes, salivary duct obstructions, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, dehydration, smoking and certain medications. Lubrication from saliva also assists in speech, as dry mouth can cause issues while speaking. 

From a dental perspective, saliva plays a huge role in defending against tooth decay and periodontal disease as it protects the enamel surfaces of the tooth. It neutralizes harmful acids in the mouth that break down tooth enamel. With proper flow, saliva repairs the enamel with its mineral contents, which ultimately aids in keeping the surfaces of the teeth healthy and resistant to decay. 

In addition to keeping teeth and oral surfaces healthy, proteins found in saliva act as indicators of health concerns as well. The use of saliva to detect and diagnose certain conditions and diseases is continuously being studied. Saliva has been used to detect oral cancers, viruses, allergies, gum disease and viruses including hepatitis and HIV. 

How do you sustain healthy saliva? 

  • Practice proper oral hygiene: Flossing, brushing, and cleaning the tongue. Water flossers are also a helpful addition to maintain great oral hygiene. 
  • Stay well hydrated: By drinking enough water throughout the day, the salivary glands will have proper flow, allowing for a healthy amount of saliva to protect against harmful bacteria and keep the mouth lubricated. 
  • Avoid acidic mouthwashes: Many mouthwashes contain alcohol which dries out
    the mouth. If using mouthwash at home, make sure to look for those that are alcohol-free. 
  • Opt for sugar-free gum and mints: This can help increase salivary production. 
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol: These can dry out the mouth. 
  • See your dentist on a regular basis: Get routine check-ups and professional cleanings. 

Sarah Khoshniyati (“Dr. Sarah”) is a dentist with Palm Desert Smiles and can be reached at (760) 568.3602.

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