Is it just spit? Yogic breathing may affect salivary proteins
By Sundar Balasubramanian
Saliva is a basic fluid found in organisms ranging from insects to humans, and it contains several molecules needed for normal physiological functioning. Environmental factors activate salivation, so saliva is a critical bridge in translating external stimuli into biological responses. Saliva is normally considered a rich source of digestive enzymes, and studies show that it contains more than 1,000 proteins and other biologically active molecules that influence the body’s functions. For instance, people with depression produce less saliva, and “dry mouth” occurs alongside several chronic psychosomatic conditions. Clearly, normal salivary flow is important to good health, but it can also be affected by treatments such as radiation therapy for head and neck cancers. Reduced salivary flow results in dramatically reduced quality of life, so strategies for activating salivation are needed to manage dry-mouth conditions and the symptoms that go with them.
Salivation is induced in the body by the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) arm of the autonomic nervous system. Although there are several pharmacological methods for inducing salivation—and even artificial saliva—my own work considers the pathway of breathing regulation. In our 2016 research study, when human subjects engaged in breathing regulation (pranayama, or yogic breathing) with or without vocalization, they were able to stimulate saliva production. My personal experience performing a breathing exercise from an ancient yogic text, the Thirumanthiram, prompted this work.
Practicing a breath-holding exercise from this literature produced saliva rich in biologically important molecules. Our first discovery was that when study participants performed 20 minutes of breathing exercises, they produced more salivary nerve growth factor (NGF). A member of the class of molecules called neurotrophins, NGF is thought to be important for treating Alzheimer’s disease. The ways in which salivary molecules are transported to the central nervous system and elsewhere make it possible for these breathing practices to stimulate NGF. We also discovered that pranayama practice stimulates proteins known as tumor suppressors, as well as salivary molecules critical for our immune responses (immunoglobulins). Levels of proinflammatory proteins (cytokines such as interleukin-1 beta and IL-8) can also be reduced by the practice of pranayama.
Our studies represent the first evidence that breathing regulation can alter salivary constituents, paving the way for better physiological and emotional well-being. Further studies are underway in various disease conditions in which pranayama could be a useful aid to symptom management.
Sundar Balasubramanian, PhD, C-IAYT, is a researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina and the founder/director of PranaScience Institute. He was a speaker at TEDx Charleston 2015 and is the author of PranaScience: Decoding Yoga Breathing.
I experience dry mouth daily due to autoimmunity. I have Celiac Disease and possibly Sjogren’s Syndrome which was a diagnosis by exclusion. I do some yoga poses for stretching and strengthening especially since learning yoga is good for the bones to prevent osteoporosis. After reading about the pranayama breathing exercises helping with saliva production, I am very interested in what yoga breathing exercise would be helpful. There seem to be many to choose from.
Can you tell me what kind of breathing exercise would be most beneficial to try and produce more saliva? I very much would like to give it a try. Thank you.
Because yoga induces what’s called the relaxation response, when we practice yoga we’re shifting our nervous system activities toward their “rest and digest” functions. Salivary production is part of the rest-and-digest response (as opposed to the fight-or-flight response), so when we can get into a relaxed state, we can expect effects like increased salivation.
The study mentioned here used a pranayama that included chanting and a specific type of alternate-nostril breathing with breath holds, which you’d want to learn from an experienced yoga therapist. That person would also assess you to determine the breathing and other exercises that might be most useful for your individual circumstances. (Note that the study specifically excluded those with various conditions, including Sjögren’s—one of the challenges of applying research directly to real-world situations is that the setup needed for a valid study can make it difficult to generalize the results.)
I think it’s helpful to remember that yoga is a holistic practice rather than a set of individual components. “Do X pose/exercise for Y symptom,” would be the way many of us are accustomed to thinking about our health, but a complete yoga practice includes many elements—physical postures, breathing exercises, meditation, etc.—that all work together to produce effects like the relaxation response.
I do hope you’ll continue on your yoga journey and see where it leads you!
When I began doing this technique, I salivated so much that I had to do it with a hankie in my hand. The effect was almost instantaneous. This site will not let me cut and paste the link. It is on YouTube. Type in Dr. Andrew Weil 4-7-8 breathing technique. Very powerful.
Which technique is that? Thank you!
Hi Jill, according to the research study linked above, “This study focused on the YB exercise specified in Poem 568 of Thirumanthiram (named Thirumoolar Pranayamam, TMP) that includes an inhalation (Purakam), breath-holding (Kumbakam), and exhalation (Resakam) for specified time periods.”
It’s really great. I would like to know about its role in Parkinson’s disease
Wow! It works! Just did a bit this morning and am salivating like mad. I needed help with dry mouth and…Voila!
This might seem silly question, but the saliva that is produced during breathing exercises, should we spit it out or ingest it? Are we getting rid of toxins if we spit it out?
I believe Dr. Balasubramanian’s research found only beneficial molecules in the saliva assessed, although I don’t know whether they specifically looked for toxins. If toxins were present, however, I suspect that the body’s own highly efficient detoxification systems, including the disgestive tract’s acidic environment, would neutralize them in most cases.
Great content! This is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. Thanks for your help 🙂
Hi, thanks very much for this. Even just focusing on slow breathing instantly increases my saliva. I will look more into yoga too and hope for a lasting effect., l I’d like to know more.anout the research (is there a link?). Thanks
One of Dr. Balasubramanian’s studies is linked in the post (https://bmccomplementmedtherapies.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12906-016-1286-7).
I have major salivary stimulation lately during yoga, especially in child’s pose. I am so glad to find some positive information. I am also curious about the chakra indications.