Saliva: vital for healthy teeth
Scientists regard human saliva as one of the body’s most effective instruments in preserving the health of the teeth. Saliva fulfils a number of functions in food intake, in defending the body against pathogens in the mouth and in maintaining a healthy balance of oral flora. But what is saliva exactly, how is it formed and what should you do if you have a dry mouth? Dr. Pink & Dr. Lutzenberger provide answers to these questions.
In human beings 0.5 to 1.5 litres of saliva are produced in the body’s various salivary glands every day. Saliva is 99% water and contains minerals such as sodium, calcium, phosphate, chloride and fluoride. It also contains proteins which are particularly important either in forming a protective layer on the tooth surface or the buffer substances that neutralise acids and sugar. The enzyme amylase breaks down starch contained in food in the mouth and acts as a chemical toothbrush.
What does saliva do?
Saliva contains the same minerals as contained in the tooth’s substance and is thereby able to fulfil three important functions: regeneration, cleaning and remineralisation. It also ensures that the pH value in the mouth remains constant thus reducing the risk of cavities. But saliva can only perform its regulatory role if there is a good salivary flow and proper oral hygiene. If plaque builds up saliva is prevented from protectively coating the teeth. Plaque damages teeth and gums and can lead to periodontitis in the long-term. Then saliva can even have a negative effect: in periodontal pockets, where there is little oxygen and rinsing, pathogens can multiply dramatically. Saliva absorbs the germs and carries them throughout the oral cavity to other teeth, spreading the infection.
What happens when saliva production stops?
The importance of saliva and its functions really become noticeable when saliva production stops. Mouth dryness, known medically as Xerostomia, is common affecting 4% of the German population. It can often lead to a distorted sense of taste, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, dry and cracked lips and a higher risk of cavities.
There are various causes. A dry mouth is sometimes attributed to illnesses such as diabetes, rheumatism, salivary gland dysfunction, dehydration, AIDS or depression. But the most common cause of xerostomia is the use of medication such as pain killers and psychiatric drugs.
How can saliva flow be stimulated?
The first step is to diagnose the cause of xerostomia. If the condition is due to medication intake, the dosage and active ingredients should be checked and adjusted. In symptomatic disorders saliva production can be stimulated by chewing sugar-free chewing gum or sugarless lozenges. It is extremely important to increase fluid intake. Frequently sipping on mineral water or unsweetened tea can also help to moisten the mucous membrane of the mouth. In severe cases xerostomia can also be treated medicinally.