Taking something for granted: Swallowing

Do not take swallowing for granted

Do not take swallowing for granted

Taking something for granted is when you possess an amazing ability, object, or even when someone you implicitly trust helps you each and every time. As time goes on you rely on this “ability” in daily life, to the point when it no longer amazes you but has become commonplace. It is only when you then lose this ability that you look back and wonder how you did not fully appreciate this ability and assume that your ability is somehow a “given”.

Swallowing is an innate autonomic response to salivation. It is complex in that when you swallow, food, drink and saliva needs to go down to your stomach and not into your lungs. If this simple mechanism gets confused, you can get whatever you eat down into your lungs, where it interrupts normal breathing, can cause coughing, gagging, infection, pneumonia and can kill you.

It was only recently when my autonomic swallow reflex had started to become compromised that I more truly began to appreciate the fundamental ability to swallow. We are all born with this ability, and as expected, come to rely on it implicitly. After all, without it we would, after a short and oh so brief stay on this good earth, die. If you swallow your saliva and then spontaneously cough, you should know that all is not well and you should seek the help of your local hospital’s emergency department.

While waiting, I tried very hard not to swallow, something of difficulty which is not entirely evident. To swallow is normal, and to not swallow is not normal. I would argue that to not swallow is impossible. You may laugh that the stereotypical scene where a pretty girls walks past a group of male construction workers. As she catches their eye their mouths drop and they salivate. I found out that this also occurs when there is no pretty girl nearby, you are not a construction worker and your mouth need not drop: Salivation is also an innate autonomic function.

So what to do? Here we are with an innate autonomic salivation function, coupled with an autonomic swallow reflex. They balance out. What one produces the other takes away. It is when one is not functioning well that trouble occurs. You cannot NOT salivate. You must salivate. You cannot stop salivating. This is how we are designed. Relief came when the doctor gave me a medical version of a vacuum cleaner: a suction device. I did love that piece of technology.

So I was a happy camper again, able to balance my autonomic salivation function with the suction device. Grated it was not as efficient as recycling my saliva into water, at the time I felt it was a great solution. How often do you need to suction to keep up with your saliva? It turns out to be very often, like every 20 seconds. Do we really salivate that much? Yes. And we’re not talking about a drop jawed dog in the middle of a hot summer’s day, only your average civilized human.

I would hope that we not take so many things for granted, particularly the devotion of loved ones. It’s odd that the loss of one autonomic reflex has brought this to the fore, but still it is worthy of thought.

1 thought on “Taking something for granted: Swallowing

  1. David Ing

    As a parent, I’m sure that you appreciate a baby learning to eat solid food. Have mastered the innate ability to nurse on liquids, the first response to solid food is to push it out of the mouth. It’s always amusing to watch babies try to master the tongue motion to keep food inside the mouth.

    I assume that the human species has evolved so that we’re physiologically predisposed to eat solid food, but it’s one of the first physical activities where we have to train.

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