Why saliva is your body’s secret weapon

By Dr Mike Heffernan

I recently lectured at a dental hygienist conference and one of the other speakers was Chris Curtis, the passionate founder of The Swallows, an aptly named charity for head and neck cancer.

As part of his treatment for oral cancer, Chris had radiation therapy, which helped him survive but left him without saliva. At the end of his talk, Chris challenged the audience to see how many cream crackers we could eat in one minute, so we could feel what it’s like to live without saliva

I took up the challenge and felt quietly confident. I’ll let you know how many crackers I managed at the end of this 365, but rest assured, the challenge made me appreciate the wonders of saliva like never before.

As a dentist, I have a professional interest in saliva but very few of my patients ever stop to think how vital this seemingly innocuous liquid is to life.

First of all, saliva acts as a natural lubricant, allowing your lips, tongue and cheeks to move easily over and around your teeth, which is essential for speech. Which is why a nervy case of dry-mouth can be catastrophic when you’re about to give a best man’s speech or important presentation at work.

Saliva is crucial in other ways. We rely on it to rinse away smelly foods and avoid bad breath. It acts as a medium to transmit chemicals to our taste buds, helping us to fully savour our food. This in turn stimulates the production of more saliva, which contains enzymes that start breaking down our food even before we swallow it.

Saliva also dilutes the toxic taste if we eat anything foul and will even help neutralise stomach acids after vomiting. From a dentist’s point of view, saliva’s most miraculous ingredients are its proteins and minerals that protect our teeth and mouth from harmful microorganisms, such as bacteria.

Thanks to the calcium and phosphate ions saliva contains, it can reverse the early stages of tooth decay and erosive damage caused by the acids such as fruit juices.

So how can you keep your saliva levels fully topped up? First, steer clear of cream crackers! Second, stay hydrated by drinking water regularly and cutting down your intake of caffeine and alcohol. Third, avoid sugar, as it is a poor stimulant of saliva and therefore tends to get stuck on your teeth for a longer period, leading to your teeth becoming coated by the dentist’s nemesis: plaque.

Finally, use sugar-free mints or gum throughout the day and especially after mealtimes: as well as freshening your breath, the chewing and sucking action will encourage your mouth to generate more saliva.

So, how did I fare in the cream cracker challenge? Appallingly, I came last, managing just one measly cracker in 60 seconds, although the winner only managed one and a half. All of which goes to show - just as Chris intended - that without a healthy supply of saliva, the everyday can quickly become impossible.

• This article was originally published by The Daily Telegraph.