In 1986, I arrived in India and remember watching a man bathe in a public fountain—something we don’t typically see in the West. Upon closer inspection, while he was quite intent on rubbing every inch of his body, he was not using soap. He was massaging oil on his body—everywhere—and then, he appeared to drink it!
I soon learned that he was giving himself a daily oil massage called abhyanga and also oil pulling . . . have you tried it yet? Oil pulling is the ancient, time-tested practice of swishing herbalized sesame and coconut oil in the mouth for 10–15 minutes daily. This is best performed after tongue scraping, brushing, and flossing, and can be done while showering.
This ancient technique, gandusha, is discussed in the Ayurvedic text Charaka Samhita. It has been getting lots of press lately for its teeth-whitening and bad breath-banishing benefits. In this article, I’ll share the science behind oil pulling.
The Science of Oil Pulling
Named for the cleansing effect oils have when applied to the skin, oil pulling uses lipophilic oils, meaning they attract other oils and fat soluble toxins, and act to pull them out from any surface an oil is introduced to.16 This amazing property to chelate or pull toxins has been employed for centuries during classical Ayurvedic detox therapies,1 such as oleation, which is used in all of our LifeSpa cleanse programs.16
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While good science suggests ingesting healthy fats like ghee can pull toxins out of the body via a process called lipophilic-mediated detoxification, I have not seen studies that suggest swishing your mouth with oil will have the same detoxification effect.16 However, there is plenty of solid, albeit less than earth-shattering, evidence that should motivate all of us to employ this simply daily practice.
New Research Urges a Healthier Mouth
Researchers have known for some time that the same bacteria found in your mouth are also found inside arterial plaque and on the valves of the heart and the brain.17–20 These unhealthy bacteria are thought to find their way into the bloodstream through the gums, especially if they bleed. Flossing and even chewing can irritate gum tissue, cause minor bleeding, and open the door for bacteria exposure—access to the heart and arteries.18
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Plenty of evidence links common undesirable mouth bacteria like Streptococcus mutans to a host of health concerns, including arterial, heart, lung, brain, and blood sugar health.17 S. mutans is very common compared to other oral bacteria. In one report, S. mutans was found in 69% of heart valve cases and 74% of arterial plaque specimens.18
Recent studies have linked S. mutans to amyloid plaque that accumulates in the brain9 as well as cerebral microbleeds that result in collagen deposits, plaque formation, and cognitive decline.20
Your New Mouthwash
The mouth is loaded with microbes—some good and some not so good. Most mouthwashes in the conventional market are alcohol-based. Alcohol-based mouthwash essentially wipes out both bad and good bacteria.
In a healthy mouth, certain microbes play a critical role in upper respiratory health, breath smell, healthy gums and teeth, and the first immune response for the entire body. Streptococcus salivarius is one of the most important and abundant good microbes in a healthy mouth.2, 3, 4, 5
Microbes such as Streptococcus mutans (the main contributor to tooth decay) and the harmful yeast Candida albicans seem to flourish in the mouth—particularly in the presence of sugars and starches. These bad bacteria and fungi, when allowed to flourish, can cause a plethora of health concerns, specifically in the heart, arteries, and brain.
Oil pulling has been shown to create a saponification or detergent effect that deters bad bacteria and plaque, while supporting healthy gum tissue, an important barrier against bacterial exposure to the bloodstream.6, 7, 8, 9
Traditional Mouthwash vs Oil Mouthwash
In a randomized triple-blind study measuring the effects 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 show that regular gargling, combined with brushing and flossing, supports healthy gums and overall oral health in both groups, suggesting that oil pulling is as effective as conventional mouthwash but without killing all the mouth’s good bacteria.8, 9
Numerous studies citing similar results support Ayurvedic statements made more than 3,000 years ago10 suggesting that the effects of oil pulling and its role as a natural cleansing agent for the teeth and gums are all very real.
Can I Just Brush With Coconut Oil?
You may have also seen articles raving about brushing your teeth with coconut oil. While brushing with coconut oil will be beneficial, as it contains numerous antimicrobial properties, you may be missing out on some of coconut’s most potent health benefits.
Dr. Damien Brady at the Bioscience Research Institute in Ireland conducted a study comparing raw coconut oil with a naturally enzyme-modified coconut oil—modified to mimic the natural effect of the digestive process that starts in the mouth. They found that the partially-digested coconut oil was more effective than raw coconut oil at impacting levels of potentially harmful bacteria in the mouth, including the infamous Streptococcus mutans mentioned above.11
Oil pulling allows time for the digestive enzymes in the mouth to break down the oil and fully activate it. This may explain why simply brushing the teeth with coconut oil was not a common Ayurvedic practice, while swishing with a blend of coconut and sesame oils for 10–20 minutes is.
Once again I am amazed by the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda. How did they know to activate the therapeutic effects of the coconut oil by swishing it in the mouth?
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Oil Pulling and Bad Breath
Studies also show that oil pulling has a substantial ability to reduce microbes in the mouth that cause halitosis or bad breath.12, 13
By supporting healthy microbial populations that limit the proliferation of volatile sulfur compounds (VSCs) or sulfur-producing bacteria, you can get to the source of the bad breath. This is another example of how the proper balance of microbes can solve an age-old problem very simply.
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Oral Health and Longevity
According to a study investigating cognitive decline at UCLA’s Buck Institute, good oral hygiene is one of the top 10 keys to longevity. 14 Neglected oral health has been linked to poor cognitive function and risk of heart and artery concerns. 15
How Do You Oil Pull?
Uncooked sesame oil, coconut oil, and turmeric are traditionally combined for the most reliable benefits. At LifeSpa, we suggest a product called Swish that contains these ingredients plus a dash of peppermint to freshen the mouth during the process.
Take about one tablespoon of this oil mixture and swish or gargle for ~10 minutes per day. It is perhaps best to do this in the shower while you are washing your hair or humming your favorite tune—give it a try!