Saliva is a watery substance formed in the mouths of animals, secreted by the salivary glands. Human saliva comprises 99.5% water, plus electrolytes, mucus, white blood cells, epithelial cells (which can be used to extract DNA), glycoproteins, enzymes (such as amylase and lipase), antimicrobial agents such as secretory IgA and lysozyme. The enzymes found in saliva are essential in beginning the process of digestion of dietary starches and fats. These enzymes also play a role in breaking down food particles entrapped within dental crevices, thus protecting teeth from bacterial decay. Furthermore, saliva serves a lubricative function, wetting food and permitting the initiation of swallowing, and protecting the mucosal surfaces of the oral cavity from desiccation.
Various animal species have special uses for saliva that go beyond pre-digestion. Some swifts use their gummy saliva to build nests. Aerodramus nests form the basis of bird's nest soup. Cobras, vipers, and certain other members of the venom clade hunt with venomous saliva injected by fangs. Some caterpillars, produce silk fiber from salivary glands.
There is much debate about the amount of saliva that is produced in a healthy person per day; estimates range from 0.75 to 1.5 litres per day while it is generally accepted that during sleep the amount drops to nearly zero. In humans, the submandibular gland contributes around 70-75% of secretion, while the parotid gland secretes about 20-25% and small amounts are secreted from the other salivary glands.
Saliva contributes to the digestion of food and to the maintenance of oral hygiene. Without normal salivary function the frequency of dental caries, gum disease (gingivitis and periodontitis), and other oral problems increases significantly.
Saliva coats the oral mucosa, mechanically protecting it from trauma during eating, swallowing and speaking. In people with little saliva (xerostomia), soreness of the mouth is very common, and the food (especially dry food) sticks to the inside of the mouth.
The digestive functions of saliva include moistening food and helping to create a food bolus. This lubricative function of saliva allows the food bolus to be passed easily from the mouth into the esophagus. Saliva contains the enzyme amylase, also called ptyalin, which is capable of breaking down starch into simpler sugars such as maltose and dextrin that can be further broken down in the small intestine. Only about 30% starch digestion takes place in the mouth cavity. Salivary glands also secrete salivary lipase (a more potent form of lipase) to begin fat digestion. Salivary lipase plays a large role in fat digestion in newborn infants as their pancreatic lipase still needs some time to develop.
Saliva is very important in the sense of taste. It is the liquid medium in which chemicals are carried to taste receptor cells (mostly associated with lingual papillae). Persons with little saliva often complain of dysgeusia (i.e. disordered taste, e.g. reduced ability to taste, or having a bad, metallic taste at all times).
The saliva stimulated by sympathetic innervation is thicker, and saliva stimulated parasympathetically is more watery.
Sympathetic stimulation of saliva is to facilitate respiration, whereas parasympathetic stimulation is to facilitate digestion.
Parasympathetic stimulation leads to acetylcholine (ACh) release onto the salivary acinar cells. ACh binds to muscarinic receptors, specifically M3, and causes an increased intracellular calcium ion concentration (through the IP3/DAG second messenger system). Increased calcium causes vesicles within the cells to fuse with the apical cell membrane leading to secretion. ACh also causes the salivary gland to release kallikrein, an enzyme that converts kininogen to lysyl-bradykinin. Lysyl-bradykinin acts upon blood vessels and capillaries of the salivary gland to generate vasodilation and increased capillary permeability respectively. The resulting increased blood flow to the acini allows production of more saliva. In addition, Substance P can bind to Tachykinin NK-1 receptors leading to increased intracellular calcium concentrations and subsequently increased saliva secretion. Lastly, both parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous stimulation can lead to myoepithelium contraction which causes the expulsion of secretions from the secretory acinus into the ducts and eventually to the oral cavity.
Sympathetic stimulation results in the release of norepinephrine. Norepinephrine binding to ?-adrenergic receptors will cause an increase in intracellular calcium levels leading to more fluid vs. protein secretion. If norepinephrine binds ?-adrenergic receptors, it will result in more protein or enzyme secretion vs. fluid secretion. Stimulation by norepinephrine initially decreases blood flow to the salivary glands due to constriction of blood vessels but this effect is overtaken by vasodilation caused by various local vasodilators.
Spitting is the act of forcibly ejecting saliva or other substances from the mouth. It is often considered rude and a social taboo in many parts of the world, including Western countries, where it is frequently forbidden by local laws (as it was thought to facilitate the spread of disease). These laws are generally not strictly enforced. In Singapore, the fine for spitting may be as high as SGD$2,000 for multiple offenses, and one can even be arrested. In some other parts of the world, expectoration is more socially acceptable (even if officially disapproved of or illegal), and spittoons are still a common appearance in some cultures. Some animals, including humans in some cases, use spitting as an automatic defensive move. Camels are well known for doing this, though most domestic camels are trained not to.
Many birds in the swift family, Apodidae, produce a viscous saliva during nesting season to glue together materials to construct a nest. Two species of swifts in the genus Aerodramus build their nests using only their saliva, the base for bird's nest soup.
A common belief is that saliva contained in the mouth has natural disinfectants, which leads people to believe it is beneficial to "lick their wounds". Researchers at the University of Florida at Gainesville have discovered a protein called nerve growth factor (NGF) in the saliva of mice. Wounds doused with NGF healed twice as fast as untreated and unlicked wounds; therefore, saliva can help to heal wounds in some species. NGF has not been found in human saliva; however, researchers find human saliva contains such antibacterial agents as secretory IgA, lactoferrin, lysozyme and peroxidase. It has not been shown that human licking of wounds disinfects them, but licking is likely to help clean the wound by removing larger contaminants such as dirt and may help to directly remove infective bodies by brushing them away. Therefore, licking would be a way of wiping off pathogens, useful if clean water is not available to the animal or person.
A number of commercially available saliva substitutes exist.