Water the mouth. Prepare food for swallowing. Initiate food digestion. That’s the job of your saliva. It’s not just for dribbling out of the corner of your mouth while you sleep.
Without saliva, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy any of the flavors of your meal. But how exactly does it help us taste food?
Why doesn’t saliva taste like anything itself?
And how can just half an eye-dropper worth of saliva spell out your entire genetic blueprint?
99.5% of your saliva is water. The other 0.5% is made up of electrolytes, mucus, white blood cells, epithelial cells and complex protein molecules called enzymes.
Although there aren’t very many of these enzymes in your saliva, they’re essential for you to digest your food. They trigger chemical reactions and begin breaking down your meal as soon as it enters your mouth.
Enzymes in your saliva also break down food that gets trapped between your teeth. But that doesn’t mean you can stop brushing. Saliva alone won’t save your teeth from bacterial decay.
What were we saying about tasting food? Ah, right. You can’t do that without your saliva. But wait, aren’t the taste buds responsible for this sensation?
Well, your taste buds may be responsible for your sense of taste, but without your food being dissolved in saliva, the receptors on your tongue can’t detect food molecules.
Try it yourself. Just wipe your tongue with a paper towel, and the most delicious cake in the world would seem tasteless.
This is because enzymes in your saliva break down the structures of foods and release food molecules. Molecules that are then ready to be picked up by your taste bud receptors. These receptors identify each flavor and send signals to your brain to let you know whether the food you’re eating is salty, sweet, or bitter.
Similar to the enzymes in your saliva, bromelain, the enzyme in a raw pineapple, breaks down proteins on your tongue and lips. Essentially, pineapple is digesting the inside of your mouth. Does that change your mind about eating pineapples?
Let’s go back to your saliva. Just like the enzymes, the mucus in saliva is important too. It coats the oral mucosa, the “skin” inside your mouth, protecting it from trauma during eating, swallowing, even speaking. Thanks to mucus, food doesn’t stick to the inside of the mouth; instead, it slides easily all the way down to your stomach.
Your spit contains a natural pain-killer – a chemical compound called opiorphin. It’s six times stronger than morphine – at least when blocking pain in lab rats.
Even though it’s found in your saliva, the concentration of opiorphin isn’t high enough to reduce pain by just licking where it hurts. In your body, opiorphin helps to increase the effect of other natural pain-killing opioids called enkephalins.
Saliva also contains natural disinfectants. But despite a common belief, licking your wounds won’t make them heal faster, or even disinfect them. But it could help wipe away pathogens if clean water isn’t available.
And of course, your saliva can tell so much about you. A single spit contains a load of genetic information that can be easily be decoded with a DNA test.
It’s not just about tracking your ancestry. Your saliva can warn you about potential genetic diseases so that you can take better care of your health. Saliva testing is also reliable when measuring your hormones. And, unlike blood testing, saliva collection is absolutely painless.
Your watery saliva might taste like nothing, but it lets you fill your mouth with flavors, helps to swallow, initiates digestion and carries gigabytes of your personal information.