One of the most amazing things about our bodies is our ability to heal ourselves. Got a scrape on your skin? Watch it slowly disappear, day by day, until it’s like it was never there at all (perhaps leaving a faint scar behind). Of course, when you have a cut or blister that’s bothering you, you’re likely thinking less about the miracle of our natural healing powers and more about the annoyance of the lingering pain. Scientists are studying new ways of potentially helping wounds heal even faster — taking cues from what happens to wounds inside our mouths.

Scientists have long been aware that mouth wounds heal faster than those on other spots of our bodies. Now, they are starting to zero in on the reasons behind this sped-up healing rate — and how it could be used to hasten healing elsewhere on the body.

How the mouth heals faster

There are a number of factors that go into healing a wound inside the mouth, such as a mouth blister or sore. One is blood flow. The head and neck have excellent blood supply compared to other regions of the body (which is why scalp wounds also tend to heal quickly). This helps bring in cells that help with the “rebuilding” process of restoring the damaged tissues.

But the biggest reason that cuts in the mouth heal so well appears to be related to saliva. The moist environment inside our mouths, caused by the presence of saliva, helps inflammatory cells thrive so that they can perform their healing functions. Additionally, saliva contains certain compounds that speed the healing process for any wound in the mouth.

Saliva’s healing components

The FASEB Journal (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology) recently published a study examining histatin-1, a peptide (that is, a compound of amino acids) that is naturally secreted by our salivary glands. Histatin-1 was found to have positive effects on the process of blood vessel formation, known as angiogenesis. Histatin-1 also helps cells adhere to one another and move into place. When histatin-1 was applied to tissues in various stages of the experiment, it was observed to increase blood vessel formation and speed the healing and regeneration process.

Interestingly, wounded animals are commonly seen licking their injuries. Even humans will impulsively suck on a paper cut or other small wound. It appears that this instinctive behavior has merit due to the healing properties of saliva. Saliva is not the same across all species, and dogs’ saliva is particularly beneficial, containing properties that kill certain bacteria.

Simply licking wounds is not an ideal way to improve healing, however. Our mouths contain a multitude of bacteria, some of which can cause infection if it’s passed into an open wound via saliva. To take advantage of saliva’s healing powers, scientists are committing to further research on the specific healing compounds and how to isolate them and incorporate them into materials and implants.