It may seem a bit unusual for my first column on dental health to emphasize the importance of saliva. However, as I discuss changes in health care this past decade, you will understand why "spit is special."

Saliva plays several important roles in our general health. It begins the digestive process and it also is important as a lubricant to aid the passage of food to our stomachs. Just try to swallow food if your mouth is very dry.

Research confirms the role of saliva in preventing both decay of your teeth and the onset of gum disease. To understand the value of your saliva, let me explain how decay occurs. A common bacteria, s. mutans, in our mouth loves to digest sugar. There is no shortage of sugar in our diet, but that is a topic for a future column.

These sugars also, not surprisingly, provide a sticky mass to help the bacteria cling to our teeth. We call this gooey material plaque or a biofilm. The bacteria digest the sugar to help them grow and multiply.

In fact, in a day or two, if this mass is not removed by brushing, you have a microbiological mega-metropolis on every tooth. In addition to this rapid growth, the bacteria kick out an acidic waste product. Now you have your tooth being bathed with an acid that will, in time, eat a hole into your tooth.

If you remember in high school chemistry, adding water to an acid helps to neutralize the acid. In our mouth, saliva performs this neutralizing function.

Unfortunately, in the past decade or so I, along with most practicing dentists, have noticed a marked increase in the use of medications that can cause drying of the mouth. Today I have many patients who are taking one or more pills for high blood pressure, depression and anxiety or are using inhalers.

All these medications are very useful, but they also have the side effect of decreasing salivary flow. Many patients with good teeth suddenly have found they have cavities. Invariably, they now are on some of these medications.

What can be done to minimize this problem? First of all, knowledge of the potential problem is very important. With this awareness, one can put greater emphasis on brushing and flossing. Decreasing the amount of sugar in your diet also is very important. This is not easy to do in this era of corn syrup mania. It is important to drink water, not soda pop, everyday. There also is some evidence that chewing sugarless gum can stimulate salivary flow.

I highly recommend gums that have the natural sugar xylitol. This sweetener will not cause decay and may inhibit the growth of s. mutans. If you notice a dryness in your mouth, talk to your dentist about this problem. He or she can suggest some other strategies to help maintain good dental health.

Dr. John Spomer is a Hermiston dentist. Readers may e-mail him at jjspomer@msn.com.

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