Perhaps you have heard of it: the Ayurvedic technique of swishing oil in your mouth for 10-20 minutes daily that claims to deliver a litany of health benefits.
The web is chock-full of stories claiming amazing results from this seemingly innocuous procedure. It seems implausible that swishing oil in the mouth could benefit one’s joint, heart, and immune health.
In this article, join me as I dive into the research – separating the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the non-truths – about this very ancient Ayurvedic technique.
What is Oil Pulling?
The practice of oil pulling is typically done by using sesame or coconut oil as a mouth wash or gargle. These oils are classically herbalized with turmeric and/or other herbs to enhance the effects. One tablespoon of this oil is swished in the mouth and sucked or pulled through the teeth for 10-20 minutes.
An International Buzz
In 1996, an Indian newspaper called Andhra Jyoti conducted a survey to find out user experiences regarding the effectiveness of oil pulling. Out of a total of 1041 respondents, 927 (89%) reported amazing health benefits. Only 114 (11%) reported no benefit.
The survey included the following:
- Pains in the body – 758 cases
- Respiratory system – 191 cases
- Skin – 171 cases
- Digestive system – 155 cases
- Elimination – 137 cases
- Joints – 91 cases
- Heart and Circulation – 74 cases
- Blood Sugar – 56 cases
- Hormones – 21 cases
- Miscellaneous – 72 cases
Since the newspaper buzz in 1996, oil pulling has been gaining more and more attention. The claims of health benefits linked to this very simple therapy have been extraordinary. However, many such claims are just anecdotal, without any research to substantiate them. Unfortunately, this newspaper survey, while it might have spawned international interest, carries no real proof for these claims.
But before you throw your “swishing oil” in the trash, there are real benefits to be had. Let’s take a look at the facts.
The Truth and the Research
Oil pulling is clearly mentioned in the classic and most esteemed textbook of Ayurveda, the Caraka Samhita. Caraka says this about oil pulling:
Keeping of oil gargle provides strength in jaws and voice, development of the face, maximum taste and relish of food. One does not suffer from dryness of throat, lip cracking and teeth become firmly rooted. The teeth do not ache or become sensitive and can chew the hardest food items (1).
In a randomized triple-blind study measuring the effect of oil pulling on oral health, 20 boys were divided into two groups. One group gargled daily for 10 minutes with a traditional mouthwash (chlorhexidine, considered the most effective anti-plaque and anti-gingivitis agent). The other group gargled daily for 10 minutes with sesame oil.
The results showed support for a healthy immune response against foreign microbes, and healthy gums and plaque levels in both groups (2, 3).
In another study, the swishing of the oil in the mouth and pulling the oil between the teeth were shown to have a saponification (detergent or cleansing) effect on the oral mucosa (4).
Gum health has been linked to heart heart in many studies over the years which is why dentists take such care to support healthy gums. Poor gum health may allow foreign microbes to infiltrate the blood stream and irritate the arterial walls. Interestingly the same bacteria, Strept mutans which surges in the mouth after a high sugar diet has also found in unhealthy levels in the arterial walls of heart patients.
Numerous studies citing similar results very much support the original statements made by Caraka Samhita more than 3000 years ago. The benefits of oil pulling on plaque as a natural cleansing agent for the teeth and gums are all very real.
But can the benefits of oil pulling go beyond the mouth?
How Does Oil Pulling Work?
Sesame oil, coconut oil and turmeric all have benefits. Sesame and coconut oils herbalized with turmeric are used in Ayurveda regularly to detoxify or “pull” toxins from the skin that they are applied to. The theory is the oils are lipophilic, meaning they attract other oils. The fatty layers in our skin are well-known dumping grounds for fat-soluble toxins (6).
Some of the fat-soluble toxins that we are regularly exposed to are:
o heavy metals
o environmental toxins
When applied to the skin, these oils may attract toxic fat molecules to the surface, cleansing them through the body’s largest detox organ: the skin.
Backed by Science
This use of oil as a detox accelerator or “pulling” agent has been recently studied. In one study, the external use of sesame oil in massage and the ingestion of ghee were found to reduce lipid peroxides or free radicals in the blood (5). The researchers concluded that the lipophilic effect of the oils helps pull free radicals and toxins out of the blood.
Another study observed how heavy metals and environmental toxins were “pulled” out of the blood during sesame oil massage and the ingestion of ghee during an Ayurvedic detox called panchakarma (6). Again, the lipophilic or pulling effect of the oils is believed to be the mechanism behind this detox effect.
To Pull or Not to Pull?
While more studies need to be done on the oil pulling technique, it is clear that the mechanism of oil acting as a pulling agent for toxins is known. As a result, it is very plausible that exposing the skin – and particularly the oral mucosa – to oils and herbs like sesame, coconut and turmeric may have a beneficial and detoxifying pulling effect.
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