We spit it out, we find it on our pillows, and we notice it collecting in our mouths sometimes when we’re thinking about our favorite foods. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself, why do we have it, and what does it do?
Though this may be hard to believe, saliva is absolutely fascinating. From its composition to its functions, saliva has many secrets, some we’ve yet to discover.
What is it?
We call it lots of different things--spit, drool, or dribble. Yet one of the most obvious bodily fluids still has a complex composition.
Produced by three major salivary glands in our mouth, saliva is composed of 99.5 percent water. However, the other 0.5 percent is where the magic happens. Containing mucus, electrolytes, enzymes such as amylase and lipase and other antimicrobial agents, saliva has several components that perform many important functions.
What’s Its Purpose?
To start, one of the primary functions of saliva is to initiate the digestive process. Amylase enzymes serve as a catalyst for breaking down starch and sugars while lipase help process dietary lipids such as triglycerides, fats, and oils. Studies have shown that up to 30% of starch digestion takes place before food ever hits the stomach.
Of course, that’s not all. Saliva acts as a natural lubricant which can play an important role in protecting our teeth, gums, and lips, and also makes it easier to speak. By moistening food, it easies the chewing and swallowing process.
The mucus prevalent in saliva acts as a coating that protects tender areas from minor abrasions, and also prevents food from sticking to teeth. While brushing and flossing twice a day is still a necessity, saliva maintains acidity within the mouth that prevents enamel from dissolving.
Surprisingly, saliva also has a pivotal role to play in taste. Acting as a liquid medium, it carries specific chemicals associated with taste to receptive cells. Those with xerostomia, known commonly as dry mouth syndrome, will often list a reduced ability to taste as a symptom.
But perhaps most important is the role saliva plays in protecting and repairing your teeth. The simplest protection saliva offers is in its ability to dilute and neutralize acids that would destroy your tooth enamel. This includes acids from foods like fruit juice and acid produced by bacteria in the mouth. Saliva also contains antibacterial compounds, as we noted before, and this helps keep oral bacteria under control so they don’t produce too much acid and destroy your teeth. Finally, saliva contains vital minerals that can serve to repair your teeth. The mechanism is slow, but it’s effective.
Can Saliva Be a Painkiller?
Another chemical component of saliva is opiorphin, which could be six times more effective at treating pain than morphine. By preventing the breakdown of little chemicals called enkephalins, opiorphin stimulates opiate receptors and blocks pain signals.
Research is still ongoing about the substance’s purpose, but opiorphin has also been found in the saliva of mice and dogs.
Our body has so many incredible functions we have yet to discover, which is why practicing holistic dentistry is so important to us. Researching and implementing procedures such as our custom remineralization protocol, which allows us to repair small cavities without drilling and filling, is a way in which to celebrate the body’s natural processes.