An ancient Ayurvedic practice, oil pulling is basically a prolonged swishing of oil in the mouth, followed by spitting it in the toilet afterwards. So far, very romantic. But, when you read up on it, you start to think “Oh, it does all that for you? I think I should try it!” There are a LOT of claims made by folks on the interwebs about oil pulling, from improving oral health to “detoxifying the body” to clearing allergies and sinusitis to curing diabetes and asthma. Oh, people. Why must you be so grandiose?? It doesn’t have to DO all those things to be worth my time, does it?
So, here I am to give you my take on it, as a western-trained physician with seriously earthy-crunchy tendencies.
I chose to use virgin, organic coconut oil because I sort of like the coco-nutty taste as opposed to the taste of sunflower or sesame oil. Some say coconut oil may be beneficial because of the relatively high lauric acid content, which is mildly antimicrobial. Hard to say if it really stands up to the BAZILLIONS of bacteria in your mouth, but it can’t really hurt either. It is best done on an empty stomach, first thing in the morning. Why? I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps because this is when your mouth is at its grossest? Or because you have not put any “toxins” in to your body yet? While I’m not sure there is scientific evidence to prove that an empty stomach is required, I do find that it’s the most convenient time of day to do it – when I first wake. Once my kids surface, then it becomes way less meditative and turns into a frustrating, gesture-filled, one-sided conversation with me saying only “mmmhh-hmmmm-hmpm” and my girls translating it: “Feed the dogs bananas, Mom?”
So, you take a spoonful of the oil and perform an awkward chewing-something-that-doesn’t-really-need-chewing motion to liquify it, and then start swishing. I floss my teeth first, because I think it makes sense to clear the swishing pathways as much as possible beforehand. When I first started, I was an aggro-swisher. I was out of the gates full speed ahead. But my cheeks cramped and fatigued and I learned my lesson: slow and steady swishing. It’s not unpleasant at all, honestly. I use the time to do my little dry brushing routine, wash my face or have a shower, tweet, or cut up goodies for my green smoothie later. Sources say to keep the oil in for 20 minutes. This is just too long for me. I stick with 10-15 minutes, and then spit. It’s best to spit in the toilet, as oil in smaller sink drains could cause clogs down the line. After spitting, I rinse with warm water several times, and then brush gently with my usual, fluoride-free, SLS-free toothpaste.
Now, in the oil pulling literature (this term is to be taken with a drop of oil – I’m not referring to the New England Journal of Medicine here), you will be warned about the oil you spit. That it is LOADED with toxins and bacteria, and is just this side of needing a HAZMAT container. But let’s think about this. I put coconut oil in my mouth and swished it around and now I want to spit it out. It is germy to be sure, but so is, um, SPIT. As for all those toxins, if they are in there, they just came from ME. So I’m not going to don goggles and gloves to deal with the stuff. (Then again, I’ve seen some seriously gross things, so maybe my standards aren’t the national average.)
In terms of results, I think the most realistic claims to be made about oil pulling are better oral health and slightly whiter teeth. And here are the reasons I think it works.:
- You put oil in your mouth (fat), and swish it with your saliva (water and enzymes), and make a temporary emulsion, which has the inherent capability of binding oil and water soluble molecules, sweeping them both into the current.
- The mixture is thicker (higher viscosity) than water or mouthwash, and has more mass as it moves through the spaces in your teeth. It just elbows its way into the nooks and crannies with more gusto.
- The oil and enzymes work together to break down, bind, and lift some of the stains from teeth. I definitely noticed a whitening effect, but only to a certain point. I think I have reached maximum oil pulling whiteness (after about 2 months of doing it 4-5 times a week).
- The swishing action stimulates circulation in the gums, and the prolonged time allows more microbes, particles, and plaque to be incorporated into the liquid, which is then ejected. (In this sense, you might get some of the benefits of oil pulling by mouthwash or water pulling for 15 minutes a day.)
- Now, if I wanted to get a little grandiose myself, I would consider the fact that periodontal disease is linked to cardiovascular disease. It is not proven that the link is causative, but there are theories that inflammatory pathways triggered by periodontal disease may lead to endovascular (inside blood vessels) inflammation, which is absolutely linked with cardiovascular diseases like atherosclerosis, strokes, and heart attacks. So, having excellent gum health may be a wise choice for more reasons than you think.
As for negative side effects, I have heard only two. The first is bleeding gums and gum pain. If this happens, you could try swishing more gently, for less time, and less often until you build up healthier gum tissue. Keep in mind that bleeding with flossing or oil pulling probably indicates gum disease, so you need to pay attention to this symptom! The second possible side effect is stomach cramps, which can occur while pulling (I still hate that word) or just after you finish. It may be a version of the gastrocolic reflex, which is the reflex that makes every toddler have to poop after two bites of his dinner. If this happens, you could switch to a different oil, like sesame or sunflower. Decreasing time and frequency while you build a tolerance to the process is also recommended.
Overall, I think oil pulling is a great habit to incorporate into your daily health routine. If you only get to it most days, no big deal – the benefits remain. I hope this Oil Pulling 101 course has been informative. Are you going to move on to trying it, also known as Oil Pulling 201? Are you already an expert? Discuss.
Update, January 2015: I decided, after my last dental cleaning, to go six months oil pulling 5 days a week (minus a few vacation days) and see if my dental hygienist noticed a difference. Just came from my appointment, and she said: "Your teeth look Excellent. I rarely use the E word. But today, you get an Excellent." Guess I'll keep the oil pulling in the morning routine!