Saliva helps with digestion, but what does it do in your mouth? Most people know saliva is the fluid that your mouth produces to help you chew and swallow your food, but did you know it’s also the first line of defense against disease-causing bacteria? Because salivary pH levels have such an important effect on oral health, let’s talk about whether saliva is acidic or basic (and why), along with ways to maintain balance in your mouth to reduce the risk of enamel erosion and decay.
If you know you have a mouth pH that’s “off,” there are ways to help neutralize acid levels to make sure your teeth and gums are healthy.
The acidity or basicity in your mouth will affect tooth decay and how well you're able to fight off bacteria that cause gum disease. After all, acid levels can physically erode tooth enamel.
When we eat acidic foods, it can temporarily increase acid levels in our saliva or lower the pH in our mouths.
Most notably, studies show people with chronic gum disease are more likely to have acidic pH levels in their mouths. But people with gingivitis were more likely to have alkaline pH levels. When you work with your dentist to address those issues, you can expect your saliva pH to level out.
Your saliva is made up of a balance between acid and basic substances. You can actually test your own saliva pH level at home using what's called "hydrion pH test paper." Dentists sometimes offer pH testing in their offices. The key is to test your saliva first thing in the morning and not to eat or drink anything before your pH test.
High acid levels in the mouth are bad for your teeth because it makes it easier for cavities and tooth decay to form. These higher acid levels also cause a decrease in calcium in your teeth, which can lead to other issues like tooth sensitivity and demineralization, even if you have fairly decent oral hygiene. Remember, if acid erosion wears away your tooth enamel, you can’t grow it back.
Even though your saliva acts like a liquid buffer against bacteria and acids in your food, acidic bacteria can also cause physical damage to your tooth enamel. If we make decisions throughout the day or have infections that are causing acidic saliva, we're essentially working against our dental health without even realizing it.
The longer your saliva stays acidic, the more damage it does throughout your mouth. Including between your teeth, across smooth surfaces, and in the deep pits of your back molars.
When you purposely want to balance your mouth pH, you should start by eating a more alkaline diet. Alkaline foods include things like vegetables, legumes, or drinking milk. In fact, drinking milk can make a difference in your oral pH within just 10-30 minutes. Assuming it’s not flavored or sweetened, that is!
Fresh vegetables are usually alkaline. Given they take plenty of chewing to break them up for digestion, the food particles mixing with your saliva provide natural pH benefits, shifting it to alkaline saliva pH levels while you eat them. Add more vegetables to your diet to keep your saliva pH alkaline.
One of the easiest ways to create an acidic environment in your mouth is to drink anything sweet (including diet soda, coffee with creamer, or sports drinks). The same goes for drinking alcoholic beverages because of how much it physically dries out your mouth during the process. Does that mean you can’t enjoy them ever, for the rest of your life? No, but it needs to be in moderation instead of sipping on them for hours on end.
Like sweet liquids, fermentable processed carbs increase acidic pH levels because the dental bacteria LOVE to feed on them. Fermentable carbs are just as responsible for promoting cavities as drinking soda! Processed bread, crackers, cookies, and similar products literally feed acid-producing germs in your mouth every time you eat them.
Some types of anticavity toothpaste and mouthwash are specifically alkaline or basic to neutralize acid levels inside of the mouth when you use them. These can be beneficial if you have active periodontal disease, which is associated with an acidic pH in your mouth. Make sure they contain fluoride, too, to offset any demineralization that’s already occurred.
Artificial sweeteners are still bad for your teeth. Such things as diet soda, fruit juices, or anything that says “sugar-free” might still have cavity-causing acidic substances in them. When in doubt, avoid or limit them. Xylitol is the only exception!
Whenever you drink water, it helps flush away acids and bacteria inside your mouth. It’s one of the healthiest things you can do during the day to eliminate acidic saliva. Tap water is best, as some bottled waters have been known to have acidic pH levels too.
Having an acidic mouth is bad for oral health because bacteria in your mouth are more likely to do "worse" damage if your mouth is too acidic. In turn, this can lead to tooth decay and gum disease. Because saliva is slightly basic and helps buffer acid in your mouth, it's important to maintain a healthy balance by doing what you can to increase your saliva production.
Even if you’re cleaning your teeth as great as you can every day and drinking lots of water, acidic pH levels can still wreak havoc on your smile. A classic example is untreated acid reflux disease: the constant acid levels coming up your GI tract don’t just cause heartburn; they also erode your tooth enamel.
If you want to know your salivary pH levels, your dentist may be able to test your saliva biomarkers during your dental exam. Saliva's pH levels should be slightly basic. We already know that people with areas of advanced periodontal infection can have a more acidic pH than normal, so if you're currently being treated for active gum disease, this might be worth looking into. Other dentists may even suggest measuring your own salivary pH with special testing paper at home. But to get accurate readings, you need to be sure that you're testing on an empty stomach in the morning (not even a sip of water beforehand!)
It's always a good idea to talk to your dentist about your saliva pH levels and any other changes you notice in your oral health. If your dentist knows you have signs of acid erosion or acidic saliva, they can prescribe fluoride to use at home or a pH-balanced oral product line to help neutralize acid levels before any extra damage is done. Since fluoride helps remineralize weak enamel, it gives you a head start on preventing erosion and cavities.
If you’re someone who is constantly getting new cavities (or “recurrent tooth decay,” as we like to call it,) make sure you talk to your dentist about your salivary pH levels; it could make a world of difference.
Is saliva acidic? It’s not supposed to be. Your mouth pH can fluctuate throughout the day depending on what you’re eating and drinking and whether you have any medical conditions or untreated infections that raise acid levels. Being aware of your saliva pH can help you get ahead of future dental issues and keep your mouth healthier. Ask your dentist about a salivary pH test or order a kit you can use at home.
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