History and Culture – Medicinal Uses of Saliva

Who knew that spitting is such a big deal? For many, spitting shows irritation, disregard, disdain, or disagreement. However, some interactions and records show medicinal uses of saliva. Let us explore some cultural practices and belief systems that have recorded medicinal uses of saliva. All the findings discussed below refer to human saliva.


1. The Greek

Did you know that the Greek philosopher – Heraclitus was so impressed that he made saliva the leading principle in his reflections on life? In his days, it was believed that “life is a continuous flow – in living organisms, there is an unceasing circulation and streaming of fluids with various beneficial, life-promoting effects.”


2. Bible times

Jesus restores a blind man’s sight with a paste made of saliva and mud. (Mark 8:23, John 9:6). It is believed that he did this because of the ophthalmological effect associated with saliva. The Romans and the Jewish rabbis expected it. At the time, Saliva was considered a legitimate agent in ophthalmological therapy. To confirm that this was the belief at the time, records show that the Roman Emperor Vespasian (AD 9 -79) spat upon the eyes of a blind man who implored him to do so and he was cured. The blind claimed to have received a dream from the Greco-Egyptian god, Serapis.


3. Ancient Romans

Ancient Romans spat on the victim of an epileptic fit and to ward off bad luck that follows meeting a person lame in the right leg. They also spat into the right shoe before putting it on, for good luck and treated ophthalmia by applying a saliva-based ointment every morning. They used fasting saliva to treat neck pains. This is done with the right hand to the right knee and the left hand to the left knee. The Romans also believed that spitting three times before taking any medicament sufficed to enhance its curative power (Pliny). (Frank Gonzalez-Crussi)


4. Philny

Philny in his Natural History (Book XXVIII, vii) says that saliva safeguards against serpents.


5. Albert the Great

Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus 1193-1280) said that saliva obtained during prolonged fasting can kill asps and other venomous creatures. This echoes the work of Pliny and his predecessors.


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6. Wet Nurses

Wet nurses used their saliva to cure the newborn of all sorts of cutaneous inflammations, furuncles, and impetigo by rubbing the lesions with their spittle.


7. Arabs

Arab physicians affirm that saliva mixed with mercury can cure a plague victim if he inhales the mixture’s emanations.


8. 19th Century Physicain

a. Nicholas Robinson, a 19th-century physician opines that saliva is therapeutic. He listed it as one of the three ‘recrements’ of the body that were useful for preserving the life and health of the individual. The other two recrements mentioned alongside saliva are bile and seed (seed refers to sperm).

b. Nicholas Robinson states that saliva can relieve sore eyes. This was tested by treating sore eyes with chewed bread mixed with fasting spittle.

c. More from Nicholas Robinson – Mixed with pancreatic juice and intestinal juice, saliva can “dissolve all manner of viscous humors and fabulous secretions” – (Frank Gonzalez-Crussi). The saliva is not only meant to soften food.


9. Today

All animals instinctively lick their wounds, and wounds in the oral mucosa heal faster than those on other sites. Research has shown that saliva contains medicinal properties –

a. Antibacterial and antifungal compounds. (immunoglobulins, lysozymes – a family of enzymes which damage the cell walls of bacteria-, mucins – protect oral mucosa and cause selective adhesion of potentially harmful bacteria and fungi, a growing array of antibacterial peptides)

b. Compounds that promote blood clotting.

c. Compounds that promote the healing of wounds such as epidermal growth factor (EGF), histatins, and leptin.


Saliva contains some impressive and effective barriers to infectious agents. Biomedical experts call it the ‘mirror’ or ‘window of the state of the body’.



Book: The Body Fantastic

Author: Frank Gonzalez-Crussi

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