Vitals & Bits # 17: Saliva
Think of your favorite bar. It might be an unpretentious dive bar, a kitschy sports bar, or maybe it’s a faux-swank establishment crawling with coked-out LA types. Perhaps it’s one of those pervasive Meccas of cultural rot where popped collars abound, or some cooler-than-thou hipster hangout. I care not. The point is that you’re sitting there at your favorite bar, deciding what you’re going to drink. There’s a special on well liquor, but you find yourself eyeballing the shelf selections appreciatively. A bloody Mary? Scotch on the rocks? Some nauseating lametini concoction? If liquor isn’t your thing, you night turn your attention to the wall of beers on tap. Or perhaps your closeted wine-enthusiast wants to come out and play. Even if you’re a twelve stepper or teetotaler, you’ve got plenty of options. Hey, there’s no shame in ordering a champagne flute of maraschino cherry juice. Wait, yes there is.
Chances are, you’re no idiot. You see that this article is about saliva, so you maybe you think I’m going to describe the medical implications of drunkenly French kissing the herpetic bar patron sitting next to you.
The human body is analogous to a bar in that many of its most vital components are liquid. With water comprising up to 75 percent of the human body, it’s no wonder that the story of life is written in aqueous characters. There are some old familiars, such as urine, sweat, and tears. Other bodily fluids remain mysteriously aloof. What’s in blood plasma, anyways? And where the hell does bile come from? Still others fall into that category of the beautifully exotic. Ghostly lymph circulates silently through the lymphatic system, while cerebrospinal fluid courses through the ventricles of your brain and your spinal canal. And there’s about a billion more, from stomach acid to the thin layer of fluid between the membranes lining your lungs (pleural fluid) to semen to pancreatic juice to snot. Each and every one of these fluids has a at least one job. Pleural fluid allows the lungs to expand smoothly when you breathe. Vaginal secretions protect the vagina against pathogens and provide lubrication during sex. Pancreatic fluid contains enzymes that help digest food. And urine, well, urine exists so that we can continue making jokes about R. Kelly.
Of all the bodily fluids, though, saliva might be the hardest working. This multitasking oral tenant contains digestive enzymes, antibacterial compounds and antibodies, lubricants, sex hormones, and even a pain-killing substance. Its various jobs include softening food for digestion, facilitating taste, and protecting the teeth. Saliva allows us to talk, kiss, and play musical instruments. In this sense, it not only plays a role in survival but also in the experience of being human.
Medically, saliva can tell us a lot about someone’s health. We can measure someone’s drug or alcohol level using saliva. Saliva production requires adequate hydration, and so health care providers should always look inside the mouth of a sick person to make sure they’re not dehydrated . Certain autoimmune disorders destroy the salivary glands, producing chronic dry mouth. There’s even a whole segment of the dental market dedicated to artificial saliva for people with dry mouth.
What does this all mean? It means, mon frère, that you should go out to your favorite bar tonight. Order a margarita and lick the salt off your lips. Chew on the mint leaves in your mojito. Laugh and talk with your friends. Spit on that one rude guy. Drool over your nachos. Make out with someone cute. Summer is almost over, so there’s never been a better time to enjoy all your fluids while you can, before you dry up and flutter to the ground like the last leaf of autumn.