Did you know that digestion begins in the mouth — and that without proper saliva production it can be difficult to digest foods properly? Saliva contains two essential digestive enzymes: amylase, which breaks down starches, and lingual lipase, which breaks down fats aiding in digestion. (1) Healthy adults produce three pints or so of saliva a day, which helps to moisturize foods as we eat, making it easier to chew and swallow. When there is a lack of saliva, mouth irritation, gum disease, tooth decay, infections, bad breath and poor digestion are possible. It is easy to see why dry mouth, or xerostomia, must be taken seriously. (2)
Dry mouth occurs when our salivary glands don’t produce enough saliva to keep our mouths wet. While often a normal side effect of aging, xerostomia can also be caused by certain medications, radiation and chemotherapy, as well as certain underlying health conditions.
Treatment for dry mouth depends on the root cause. If it is caused by medications, changing the type of medication or the dosage may help. If it is caused by an underlying health condition like diabetes or Sjögren’s Syndrome, effectively treating the condition may provide relief. Fortunately, there are a number of natural remedies that may help to improve dry mouth symptoms.
What Is Dry Mouth?
Dry mouth is a condition in which the salivary glands do not produce enough saliva to keep the mouth moist. Saliva is essential for digestion, to prevent infection in the mouth, prevent gum disease and to prevent tooth decay. Saliva actually helps to neutralize both bacteria and fungi in the mouth, making it essential for good oral health. (3)
In addition, having a dry mouth can cause a variety of other challenges. Foods may not taste like they once did, it may be difficult to chew and swallow dry foods, and xerostomia can impede speech. A decrease in saliva is something that is more than just uncomfortable; it can lead to serious dental health conditions and poor digestion.
Signs and Symptoms
Recognized signs and symptoms of dry mouth include: (4)
- Sticky feeling in the mouth
- Saliva that is stringy and thick
- Bad breath
- Difficulty chewing
- Difficulty speaking
- Dysphagia (difficulty in swallowing)
- Dry or sore throat
- Dry or grooved tongue
- Burning mouth syndrome
- Change in taste
- Intolerance for salty, sour or spicy foods or drinks
- Problems wearing dentures
- Lipstick sticking to teeth
- Dry or cracked lips
- Sores in the mouth
- Gum disease
- Tooth decay
Causes and Risk Factors
When salivary glands don’t make enough saliva, dry mouth occurs. Recognized dry mouth causes and risk factors include: (5)
- Medications for depression, high blood pressure and anxiety as well as antihistamines, decongestants, muscle relaxants and pain relievers can cause dry mouth.
- Aging is associated with dry mouth, which may be due to certain medications, Alzheimer’s disease, inadequate nutrition or other underlying health conditions.
- Chemotherapy drugs can change the amount and the nature of the saliva that is produced. This may be a temporary side effect, or it may be permanent.
- Radiation therapy directed at the head and neck can damage salivary glands. Like chemotherapy, the damage may be temporary, or it may be permanent.
- Nerve damage as a result of an injury, trauma or surgery can cause dry mouth.
- Diabetes can cause xerostomia symptoms and dry mouth is actually a symptom of undetected or unmanaged diabetes. (3)
- Stroke can cause dry mouth and depending upon the type of the stroke and the severity, the symptoms may be permanent.
- Oral Thrush, a yeast infection in the mouth, can cause dry mouth symptoms and it is often resolved when the infection is treated.
- Alzheimer’s Disease is related to xerostomia and the Alzheimer’s Association indicates that it may be caused by inadequate fluid intake in addition to certain prescribed medications. (6)
- Sjögren’s Syndrome is an autoimmune disease that causes excessive dryness in the eyes and mouth, as well as other conditions. (7)
- HIV/AIDS causes dry mouth for many people and HIV-associated salivary disease is common in diagnosed children. In addition, many of the medications prescribed for HIV/AIDS are linked to dry mouth syndrome. (8)
- Tobacco use, both smoking and chewing, can cause dry mouth. Quitting smoking relieves symptoms very quickly for some.
- Alcohol use, including binge drinking and the use of alcohol-based mouthwashes, can cause xerostomia.
- Recreational drug use, particularly the use of methamphetamines, can cause severe dry mouth commonly referred to as “meth mouth.” Marijuana use can also provoke symptoms when smoked or vaped.
In addition, the American Dental Association identified the following more rare causes of xerostomia in a report to the ADA Council on Scientific Affairs: (9)
- Graft-versus-host disease
- Immunoglobulin G4- Sclerosing Disease
- Degenerative disease – Amyloidosis
- Granulomatous disease – Sarcoidosis
- Hepatitis C
- Salivary Gland Aplasia or Agenesis
Many people ignore dry mouth symptoms and don’t visit their doctor or dentist as they see it to be just an uncomfortable condition. However, left untreated, serious dental health conditions and poor digestion can occur.
Diagnosis requires a full review of your medical history, including any medications you are taking, any past physical traumas to the head or neck and any history of chemotherapy and radiation for cancer. Your physician will likely order blood tests and imaging scans of the salivary glands to look for the root cause. If Sjögren’s Syndrome is suspected, a biopsy may be taken to confirm the diagnosis. (10)
As dry mouth syndrome can cause serious dental health problems, it is important that your dentist be included in treatment. Ideally, you should visit your dentist every three to six months according to the American Dental Association. (9)
Conventional treatment for xerostomia depends on the root cause. Finding an effective treatment to manage diabetes, for example, may be the first step if that is determined to be the cause. Your medical team may recommend other treatments such as:
- Over-the-counter oral rinses and mouthwash.
- Prescribed medications to stimulate saliva production. The most common, pilocarpine, needs to be used carefully according to Harvard Medical School. (2) This is a powerful drug normally used in the treatment of glaucoma, and it may help to relieve dry mouth, but it carries worrisome side effects including limiting night vision and chronic inflammation of the eye.
- Fluoride trays worn overnight to prevent cavities.
1. Stay hydrated
Throughout the day, keep your mouth moist by drinking a minimum of 10 8-ounce glasses of water each day and keep water by your bedside at night.
2. Drink with meals
To help with chewing and swallowing, drink non-alcoholic beverages with meals. Take small bites and sip your drink as necessary to aid in the breakdown of food.
3. Moisten foods with broth
Avoid dry foods like crackers and other foods that suck up the little moisture that you have in your mouth. And add bone broth to help moisten drier foods to make it easier to chew, swallow and digest. It is also important to avoid salty processed foods like potato chips and other snacks as they can make symptoms worse.
4. Breathe through your nose, not your mouth
One of the most common dry mouth causes is breathing through your mouth. When exercising, limit breathing through your mouth as much as possible and sip water throughout your workout. If you snore, try natural snoring remedies to help keep your mouth moist.
5. Use a humidifier
The Cleveland Clinic recommends using a humidifier to increase the overall humidity in your home. Be sure to fill it every night before bed. (11) If you have a humidifier with a diffuser attached, make up a batch of diffuser-friendly essential oils sleep aid.
6. Use coconut oil on your lips
Dry and cracked lips are common with dry mouth. Apply coconut oil to your lips several times a day.
7. Try coconut oil pulling
Coconut oil pulling can treat many of the symptoms of dry mouth, including bad breath and tooth decay. A number of studies show that this traditional Ayurvedic practice can improve overall oral health and decrease the microorganisms that cause bad breath. Also, one study points to the lauric acid in coconut oil helping to decrease plaque. (12, 13, 14) When practicing oil pulling, remember not to spit the oil down the drain! Instead, spit it out into a trash can.
8. Eat saliva-producing foods
Snack on organic apples and cucumbers whenever your mouth feels dry. Their high-water content can help to relieve symptoms. In addition, adding fibrous foods that require a lot of chewing, like raw carrots, can spur saliva production. Certain herbs and spices, including cayenne pepper, fennel, ginger and endive, have been shown to increase saliva. Add them to your diet whenever possible. (15)
9. Practice good dental hygiene
Floss, use mouthwash and brush at least twice a day. A joint study from researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine and Kyoto University School of Medicine and Public Health found that tooth brushing should be encouraged, particularly for those taking certain medications, as dry mouth in the elderly can lead to pneumonia. (16)
Use only alcohol-free mouthwashes as alcohol dries the mouth. (17) Effective natural mouthwashes are available, plus you can try my homemade mouthwash recipe that features the power of both peppermint and tea tree oil to help fight bacteria and bad breath.
When dry mouth symptoms persist, they can cause poor oral health conditions like gum disease and tooth decay. In addition, without adequate saliva to combat bacteria and fungi, infections, including oral thrush, are possible.
As digestion begins in the mouth, if salivary glands aren’t producing enough saliva to properly breakdown fats and starches, poor digestion can occur.
In the elderly, dry mouth is a great concern as it makes chewing, swallowing and digestion difficult and this can lead to poor nutritional deficiencies and even pneumonia.
- Dry mouth, or xerostomia, happens when the salivary glands do not produce enough saliva to keep the mouth moist.
- Aging, certain medications, cancer treatments and underlying health concerns including certain autoimmune diseases can cause dry mouth.
- Conventional treatment depends on the underlying cause of the xerostomia. Changing medications and treating diseases like diabetes may help.
- There are prescription medications available that may spur saliva production, but they may cause severe side effects and must be used with caution.
- Natural treatments to help prevent tooth decay and dental problems as well as ways to keep the mouth moist may help relieve dry mouth.