Tech + Health

03.28.14

Oil Pulling: Miracle Cure or Oily Mess?

By Christine Yu for Life by DailyBurn

Who would have thought that swishing oil in your mouth for 10 to 20 minutes a day would be the cool thing to do. But it seems like everyone is “pulling oil” these days, from your favorite bloggers and magazine writers to your local news anchor. Thousands of people are posting videos on YouTube while they gargle and swirl oil in their mouths.

Oil pulling is the latest trend to take the wellness community by storm, but it’s actually a traditional practice in Ayurveda — a holistic medical system from India that dates back 3,000 to 5,000 years. Ayurveda’s key objective: to promote good health and well-being through balancing the mind, body and spirit. According to practitioners, it’s when this balance is disturbed that sickness can occur. To maintain order, specific treatments, including oil pulling, are determined based on a person’s dosha, or mind-body type.  

And this pull toward wellness has seemingly reached the masses. All across the Internet, oil pulling has been said to whiten teeth, strengthen your gums and jaw, prevent gingivitis, rid the body of toxins, improve skin, clear sinuses, promote heart health, and even prevent Alzheimer’s Disease. But is it really worth the hype?

With renewed interest in this ancient custom, here’s the skinny on pulling oil.

“We know there’s definitely a link between poor dental health and heart disease,” says Dr. Patel, but the connection between oil pulling and the other health benefits is a little fuzzy.

A Daily Practice

Oil pulling is one part of a daily morning routine in Ayurveda to cleanse the body called dinācaryā, according to Todd Caldecott, Ayurvedic practitioner and Executive Director of the Dogwood School of Botanical Medicine. “Dinācaryā are these things we do for longevity. If you want longevity, you have a daily routine. It increases a person’s stability and mental focus,” says Nomi Gallo, faculty at the Ayurvedic Institute and Ayurvedic practitioner.

Typically, upon waking up, Gallo recommends “putting cool water on the eyelashes, rinsing the mouth with water, scraping the tongue, brushing the teeth and using the oil.” Rinsing, scraping and brushing work together to manually remove bacteria from the mouth so that when you swish with oil, “the oil has an ability to reach a little deeper to pull toxicity out and nourish the gums because it’s not stuck on all the other stuff,” say Gallo.

But oil pulling is more than just moving oil around in your mouth. The Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine mentions two primary techniques—Gandusha and Kavala Graha. In Gandusha, you fill your mouth completely with oil and hold it there for three to five minutes. In Kavala Graha, you use a smaller amount of oil, swish between the teeth, and gargle at the back of the throat.

Health Elixir or Mumbo Jumbo?

“Oil is antimicrobial and gets into the tissues of the mouth to inhibit bacterial growth,” says Caldecott. Recent clinical studies have shown that oil pulling does decrease bacterial counts and plaque index in the mouth as well as halitosis (bad breath), similar to chlorhexidine mouthwash. Recently, a small pilot study showed that oil pulling reduced levels of Streptococcus mutans, a strain of bacteria associated with cavities. However, once participants stopped pulling oil, bacterial counts began to increase. It’s also worth noting that these studies included small sample sizes.

In her own practice, Gallo has seen that when a patient begins pulling oil, their gums no longer bleed and become pinker and healthier. In the longer term, she sees big strides in preventing tartar build-up and halting receding gums. Oil pulling can also effectively clean the mouth if someone has oral ulcerations, which make it painful to brush teeth normally.

Much of this makes sense since the oil helps to manually remove bacteria and reduce inflammation. But what about the larger health claims?

“We know there’s definitely a link between poor dental health and heart disease,” says Dr. Sheila Patel, Medical Director, The Chopra Center for Well-Being, but the connection between oil pulling and the other health benefits is a little fuzzy. “Ayurveda recognizes the whole body as one system. Typically you’re not going to have inflammation in the mouth and not elsewhere, whether it’s the brain or the heart.”

According to Dr. Patel, you can map the entire body on the tongue and channels connect the tongue to the rest of the body. So, cleansing and treating the tongue can help to bring other parts of the body into balance.

Additionally, since regularity is paramount to well-being in Ayurveda, Gallo believes that simply “implementing dinācaryā can change people’s choices” and encourage them to make healthier decisions overall. “Once we start to change people’s mindset and bring catabolic changes in the body into check [i.e. those that break down the body], we can have an effect on inflammation in the body,” says Gallo.

Oil Pulling: Where to Start?

If you’re interested in beginning an oil pulling practice, Dr. Patel would first look at your individual dosha type. She typically recommends one or two tablespoons of oil in the mouth. Swish it, especially around the cheeks and upper palate, and pull it through your teeth. After you spit out the oil, rub the remaining oil into your gums.

Also keep in mind, while many recent accounts recommend using coconut oil specifically, “traditionally, [practitioners] would use sesame oil because sesame has so many nutritional qualities and benefits,” says Dr. Patel. Sesame oil is also cheaper and easier to produce, adds Caldecott, but “a lot of people find coconut oil more palatable.” You can also use sunflower oil or ghee, which is essentially clarified butter. Ultimately, the recommended tonic is based on your mind-body type according to ancient tradition. For example, for someone who has a fiery nature or pitta dosha, Dr. Patel would recommend coconut oil, which is cooling. 

You may often hear that you should pull oil for 20 minutes, but avoid going overboard. Caldecott says that if you swish oil for too long, you could accidentally breathe some into your lungs. He recommends sticking to three to 10 minutes each day.

“The daily routine should always include some sort of brushing and tongue cleaning as well. I wouldn’t replace the brushing,” says Dr. Patel. 

The Bottom Line

To talk about “oil pulling on its own is a bit sensational, and it removes how really wonderful and impactful it can be,” says Gallo. “But, it’s not a cure.”

“Ayurveda is a complex holistic medical system and this is just part of that system. People take an individual practice and often don’t appreciate that it fits into a larger medical system,” says Dr. Patel. “It should be part of a healthy holistic daily routine that includes brushing your teeth and cleaning your tongue.”

If oil pulling helps you to focus more on your oral health and adopt healthier choices overall, that’s great. But remember that oil pulling alone will not cure cancer and heart disease. Anyone telling you differently will just leave you with a greasy mouth.

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