My yoga students often walk into class with a candy in their mouth, and I always make them spit it out when we begin class so they don't accidentally choke on it when we're moving. (Read this article to avoid choking hazards.) However, they like the candies because it helps with dry mouth. If you've ever experienced this, you know just how unpleasant dry mouth can be. Over 400 commonly-prescribed medications can lead to dry mouth, including anti-depressants, sedatives and tranquilizers; antihistamines; alpha and beta blockers; diuretics; and anti-Parkinsonism and anti-seizure drugs. Radiation for the treatment of head and neck cancer cause this dryness as well.
Xerostomia, the clinical term for dry mouth, can lead to oral health problems including mouth pain, a bad taste in the mouth and difficulty speaking and swallowing, which in turn can compromise nutrition. According to a study by Michael D. Turner, DDS, MD and Jonathan A. Ship, DMD, in the Journal of the American Dental Association, dry mouth affects 30 percent of adults over 65. Interestingly, the same study found that output from the major salivary glands does not undergo clinically significant decreases in healthy older people. The authors note that some data show age-related changes in salivary constituents, but other evidence shows stable production of salivary electrolytes and proteins in the absence of major medical problems and medication use. Doctors should not attribute complaints of a dry mouth in older people to their age—an appropriate diagnosis is required, they maintain.
There are important reasons to keep the salivary glands healthy besides relieving the discomfort of dry mouth. Healthy saliva bathes away food particles, and it contains anti-bacterial enzymes. Saliva is essential for good digestion because it contains enzymes such as alpha-amylase, which helps break down carbohydrates. It also helps make food easy to swallow.
There are lots of steps you can take to assist your salivary system flow. Here are a few suggestions; some of them are favorites among my older students.
Dehydration can lead to salivary gland problems, so drink plenty of fluids. Alcohol makes matters worse as do caffeinated drinks.
Ask About Acupuncture
"Early studies have suggested that acupuncture might stimulate saliva production in people with xerostomia induced by radiotherapy," according to an article by Mary Desmond Pinkowish, News & Views Editor of CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.
Yoga has a wonderful way to stimulate saliva: Khechari mudra. You make this mudra—a gesture or attitude that directs subtle energies—by drawing the tip of your tongue up and back toward the back of the nostrils in the upper throat. Close your eyes and mouth and hold the mudra for as long as is comfortable. Yogis use this mudra to preserve vitality. One of my students woke up in the middle of the night with a dry mouth, performed the mudra and went happily back to sleep, refreshed and moist.
Try Tai Chi
Lewis Paleias, who teaches Tai Chi to seniors at the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, suggests thinking of a sour plum, grapefruit or lemon. The mere thought of a sour taste will stimulate the salivary glands. Swish the saliva around the mouth and through the teeth. Then swallow.
Experiment With Oil Wash
This technique has helped several of my students: Swirl some oil such as olive, sesame or grapeseed, around your mouth and through your teeth. When you have done this for several minutes, spit the oil out. This practice keeps the mouth lubricated and is said to have cleansing benefits for the body.
Massage Your "Sideburns"
Mukunda Stiles, founder of Structural Yoga Therapy and author of many books on Yoga, including Ayurvedic Yoga Therapy, recommends stroking the masseter muscle from top to bottom. The masseter, which allows the act of chewing by drawing up the lower jaw, is located where the sideburns grow. "Doing this regularly works well," he notes.
Eat Juicy Foods Stiles also suggests eating foods full of "ojas," a Sanskrit word that roughly translates as "juiciness" or "nectar"—think honey, ghee, almond milk, dates and figs—to help stimulate saliva. "If food doesn't make you salivate, don't eat it!" says Stiles.
Chew Vitamin-Rich Foods
Chewing stimulates saliva, so eat high fiber foods that need lots of mastication. A lack of riboflavin and vitamins A and B-12 can also lead to dry mouth. These vitamins are found in beef liver, eggs and dairy products.
Try Herbal Remedies
Slippery elm tea is reputed to help dry mouth. Gargling with a tincture of myrrh can be very healing for gum problems. Check with your physician first to be sure there won't be any drug interactions.
Brush Your Teeth
Dry mouth can lead to cavities because it can harm tooth enamel, warned Joseph S. Levy, DMD, a Manhattan dentist, so it's important to take good care of your teeth. If you have problems with dexterity, try the toothbrush recommended by Rumeena Reshad, Dr. Levy's dental hygienist, G-U-M Summit Sensitive/Ultrasuave, which has an easy-to-hold handle. Or you can wrap a regular toothbrush with a foam hair curler to widen the base. The G-U-M toothbrush is very soft, so it's easy on your gums. Dr. Levy also recommends electric spin brushes for patients who have difficulty managing toothbrushes.
After brushing, rinse with a product like ACT restoring mouthwash to keep tooth enamel strong. Some dentists recommend special products designed for soothing dry mouth such as Biotene toothpaste, gel and mouthwash. Biotene contains anti-bacterial enzymes.