Saliva's got a bad name. In fact, it's got a lot of bad names: spit, gob, dribble, drool, slobber. The average person doesn't appreciate how amazing and useful it is though. Saliva really is super, for lots of reasons.
Saliva is essential for eating. Have you ever tried to eat a dry Weet-Bix? Once that first burst of saliva is used up, it's nearly impossible to continue chewing the flakey, dry mess that's left behind. You need the lubrication of saliva to help move the food around your mouth, and to stop food from cutting and scraping the inside of your mouth. Saliva also contains enzymes. These are chemicals which help to start breaking down the food and begin the digestion process.
If you're one of the many people who fears public speaking, you'll have noticed that talking with a dry mouth can be difficult. It's saliva's lubrication quality that comes into play again here. It prevents your tongue from sticking to your teeth and the roof of your mouth, making speech possible.
Saliva also has antibacterial qualities. It can kill off microscopic foreign invaders with its own biological weapons - lysozyme and immunoglobulin. A kid in primary school once told me you should spit on a cut to help disinfect it. I'm certain that dribbling on wounds is not common practice in hospital emergency rooms, but the basis of the theory makes some sort of sense.
Finally, the minerals contained in your saliva help to re-harden your teeth after you eat. Every time you eat or drink anything with sugar in it, the bacteria in plaque turn the sugar into acid, which starts dissolving your enamel. A plentiful flow of good quality saliva bathes your teeth in minerals, which are absorbed by your teeth to reverse the damage.
So what happens if you have little or no saliva? Radiotherapy to the head/neck, dehydration, and a lot of medications can affect salivary flow. If you look at the great things saliva does, you can guess what problems a dry mouth might cause: difficulty eating and tasting food, oral discomfort including burning sensations, delicate oral tissues which are easily damaged, speech problems, higher plaque levels, increased risk of oral infections, and an increased risk of tooth decay.
Take a moment today to appreciate your saliva - it's amazing!