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28 November 2023

The Role of Saliva in Oral Health: More Than Just a Lubricant

Saliva keeps our mouth lubricated and makes swallowing our food so much easier. However, its benefits for our oral health are often overlooked. Saliva (aka, spit) is far more than a lubricant as it also works to keep our teeth and gums healthy.

How Is Saliva Produced?

Before we explore how saliva helps maintain our oral health, it’s worth understanding how it is produced. 95% of spit is comprised of water, with the remaining constituent parts made up of mucus, enzymes, proteins and teeth-nourishing minerals such as potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium and bicarbonate.

The salivary glands act as the production factory, using a system of ducts to create its important product. There are three main salivary glands positioned on each side of the mouth. These are called the parotid, submandibular and sublingual glands. 

Production ramps up during certain situations that are usually prompted by the senses. The taste and smell of food is one example, although certain medications can also stimulate extra production. A healthy production level prevents a dry mouth and produces slightly acidic spit, posting a PH range of between 6 and 7.

The Importance of Saliva in Maintaining Good Oral Health

The benefits provided in keeping teeth and gums healthy cannot be overstated. It is an important part of anyone’s oral care, helping prevent cavities and tooth decay. The following are its primary benefits to your oral health.

1. Maintains Bacterial Balance in the Oral Cavity

Our mouths harbor both good and bad bacteria. The spit produced by salivary glands helps maintain the balance between good and bad bacteria by attaching itself to certain types of microbes. This prevents certain bacteria from sticking to the surface of the oral cavity. 

Maintaining this balance of mouth bacteria prevents the bacteria that can cause cavities and tooth decay from becoming the dominant force.

2. Strengthens Teeth

The minerals contained within our spit help prevent cavities. It does this by re-mineralizing our teeth throughout the day and this is why a consistent and healthy salivary flow is important for your dental health.

3. Removes Food Particles

Food particles can stick to a tooth or become trapped in areas that could be difficult to reach with a toothbrush. Your saliva acts as a natural flosser, although you should still back this up by continuing to floss daily as part of a good oral care routine. Food particles that attach to your teeth can feed bacteria and produce acids which could cause cavities.

4. Acts as an Acid Buffer

Another way your spit protects against the acids that attack tooth enamel is by containing compounds that help act as a buffer against the acids. One of these compounds is bicarbonate. Not only does it produce ammonia to help form a buffer that negates the acids, but bicarbonate also penetrates dental plaque to help further neutralize cavity-forming acids.

5. Lubrication

Yes, lubrication remains an important benefit when considering overall oral health. A low production rate from the salivary glands leads to the condition of dry mouth which can increase your risk of dental health issues. 

However, dry mouth can also result from numerous other factors including mouth breathing, tobacco, dehydration, and certain medications. By keeping your mouth lubricated, you also prevent the insides of the oral cavity and the tongue from becoming irritated.

Benefits for the Digestive System

Our salivary glands also make a key contribution to how we eat and digest our food. The two main functions are:

  • Aid chewing and swallowing. Saliva softens the food we eat, creating a ‘bolus’ that is easier to swallow. It also protects the esophagus, while an enzyme it contains called amylase kick starts the digestive process by breaking down the food particles.
  • Taste, the most immediately noticeable of the benefits. Flavors within food come to the fore after they have been made more soluble.

Tips on Maintaining Healthy Levels of Salivary Flow

As we can see, it is important to maintain production levels of healthy saliva. The following are ways to help accomplish this.

  • Make sure you maintain a good oral health care routine, including twice daily brushing, daily flossing and regular appointments with your dentist.
  • Mix up your food types, as chewing foods that need a little extra chewing effort can help stimulate the salivary glands 
  • Stay hydrated throughout the day. It may sometimes seem difficult to drink the recommended amounts of water each day, but it is key to healthy levels of salivary flow. As a rule of thumb, it is recommended you drink half your body weight in ounces of water every day. Therefore, if you weigh 180 lbs you should look to drink 90 oz of water each day. If this is a tough ask, you can boost hydration by eating foods like celery that are high in water content.
  • Chew xylitol gum as this can boost the salivary glands production rate as well as aid in the remineralization of your teeth. Avoid traditional mouthwash products though where possible as this can upset the balance of bacteria in the oral cavity by causing dry mouth.
  • If allergies are an issue, look to reduce your exposure to the allergens where possible. Allergies can lead to nasal blockage and see you breathe through the mouth. This can result in a dry mouth. Similarly, treat early symptoms of colds and flu that could also see you with a blocked nose and having to breathe through the mouth.

Final Thoughts

When we think of our spit, we don’t typically consider its importance to our oral health. However, by maintaining good levels of healthy saliva, we help protect our teeth from acid-creating bacteria as well as flush away the food particles they feed on. 

Saliva’s importance is also in the way it helps remineralize our teeth, neutralizes damaging acids, and aids digestion. 

 

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