Violet Beauregarde: [with her finger in her nose] “Spitting’s a nasty habit.”
Willy Wonka: “I know a worse one.”
Well, despite Violet’s objections, spit is really quite useful. We use it to flatten our eyebrows, wipe smudges from our children’s faces, make a pitched baseball take a nose dive, in distance contests to see who takes out the trash, wet our fingertips to turn the book page, stick stamps to envelopes, seal envelopes, get the thread through the eye of the needle, shine our shoes, swap it with a passionate kiss, and even clean the dry erase board…. admit it we’ve all done that one ☺.
However there is much more to this ropey gooey, serous story than meets the eye. Spit’s real or rather technical name is “saliva”. Irrespective of the ingenuity used to create the aforementioned “101 uses for spit”, the true functions of saliva play central roles in both our oral and systemic health.
Saliva is produced by a series of glands (clumps of fluid secreting cells) The major glands are located in the cheeks and floor of the mouth. There are actually two types of saliva: one a watery, serous type of saliva; the other makes a more viscous, mucous type of saliva.
Each of these saliva types performs different functions to assist our bodies. As a whole these different saliva types provide integral functions to assist our health:
- Saliva lubricates the mouth allowing easy movement of food within the oral cavity. This facilitates efficient chewing allowing all of our taste buds to come into contact with the food we are eating. All of this lubrication greatly assists in getting the chewed food to “slide” down the esophagus (tummy tube) into your stomach.
- Saliva contains numerous enzymes (proteins that perform a specific function). The enzymes in saliva are digestive in nature. Thus food is already being broken down chemically while it is still in our mouths. This dramatically reduces the amount of digestive work (less acid production) the stomach has to do once it receives all of our chewed food.
- Saliva contains antimicrobial proteins which promote wound healing and help to maintain a good balance of the “right” type of bacteria in the oral cavity.
- Saliva greatly aids in our sense of taste by transporting chemical signals to our taste receptors.
- Lastly saliva is a very powerful buffering agent (i.e. it can dilute acid). Acid (a chemical that can dissolve substances) ends up in the mouth from three sources:
- It can be ingested: fruits (citrate), soft drinks, etc.
- It is produced by the bacteria in our mouths as they metabolize the carbohydrates we eat.
- It can come from the stomach: heartburn, reflux disease
Acid in any form in the mouth will cause dental decay (cavities) or dental erosion (the wearing away of tooth structure). Additionally, increased acid exposure to the oral tissues increases the risk of oral pathology (disease).
Thus saliva is one of the body’s main defenses against tooth decay and the symptoms of heartburn.
As expected then lack of saliva production, leading to “dry mouth” can be a serious condition. Xerostomia (pronounced “zero”stomia) is the medical term for “dry mouth”.
Xerostomia can lead to poor chewing ability, poor digestion, dysphagia (altered ability to swallow), a significant increase in dental decay, increase episode of heartburn, oral and peri-oral (lips) mucositis (inflamed/irritated tissue), It also increases the likelihood of developing oral ulcers or even a topical oral yeast infection.
Some of the causes of dry mouth are:
- As a symptom of systemic illnesses
- As a result of oral radiation therapy
- As a result of any number of medications
- As a side-note the condition commonly known as “meth –mouth” is directly related to the decrease in salivary flow secondary to meth-amphetamine abuse.
So treat that ropey, gooey, serous spit of yours with some respect. It is helping you more than you know.