Today we look at an ancient practice that is making a modern resurgence: Oil pulling. Does it work? Here’s what the experts say.
Oil Pulling: An Ancient Indian Practice
Established health sciences are notoriously skeptical regarding homeopathic medicine, Eastern medicine, and even some of the more recently systematized social sciences. At times the skepticism is appropriately warranted, while other times it seems unfairly biased. Nevertheless, the authoritative skepticism does not seem to hinder the numerous fads that emerge from the fringes of passionate seekers and the health obsessed. One of these latest buzz trends is oil pulling, an ancient Indian practice that has recently been experiencing a contemporary renaissance.
Oil pulling stems from Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient Indian form of holistic folk remedy with practices that may have developed 3000 to 5000 years ago. The idea is to fill the mouth with oil (traditionally sesame oil) and then hold and/or swish it around for several minutes before spitting it out. Hypothetically, the discipline is supposed to cleanse and renew the body by pulling toxins out which are then discarded with the oil. Hence, the name oil pulling.
In a March 2014 interview with Fox News, Dr. Scott Gerson, an expert on Ayurvedic medicine, described the process:
“Most of the toxins in the body are non-polar or lipophilic, meaning they’re the opposite of water soluble; they’re fat soluble… So if you eat an apple that’s been sprayed with pesticides, and those toxins from the fertilizer get into your body, those toxins are fat soluble. They stay deposited in the fat areas of the body, and they’re hard to bring back into solution with water.”
Watch a recent 2 minute overview on oil pulling from ABC Action News:
Oil Pulling Techniques
Multiple sources state that one tablespoon of oil is the common standard dosage for the practice. Sesame oil, coconut oil, sunflower oil, and olive oil all seem to be fashionable choices, yet sesame and coconut oil appear to be the most popular. Many sources recommend the practice first thing in the morning before eating, drinking, or brushing the teeth.
According to a recent CNN article, the practice of oil pulling was recorded in two Ayurvedic texts that were written around 700-800 BCE, and there are two major techniques called kavala and gundusa.
Kavala – In the kavala method, the practitioner holds the oil in their mouth for two minutes before swirling it and spitting. This is then repeated 2-3 times.
Gundua – With the gundula procedure, the oil is simply held in the mouth for 3-5 minutes before spitting and repeating.
Although many sources recommend holding and swishing for periods of up to 10-20 minutes, Dr. Amala Guha, assistant professor of immunology and medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center, Avurvedic trainee, and the founder of The International Society for Ayurveda and Health, claims this is unnecessary and simply recommends two daily sessions of 2-4 minute oil pulling.
Results, which allegedly include plaque reduction and healthier gums, are said to be expected within a few months of daily oil pulling.
If one has an allergy to oil, it would obviously be wise to avoid this practice. In addition, the oil used in pulling should always be spit out. Swallowing oil could result in upset stomach or diarrhea.
Because oil can clog pipes, sinks, and toilets, it should be spit into a bag or directly into the trash.
Although rare, the possibility also exists that the oil could be accidentally sucked into the lungs. In a recent interview with CBS Pittsburgh, Dr. Marc Itskowitz of the Allegheny Health Network made the following comment, “There actually were some reports that I read about pneumonia, where the oil actually gets swallowed into the lungs and it can cause an inflammatory reaction in the lungs, which can be very dangerous.”
The Science of Oil Pulling
A number of studies have been conducted in which it was shown that oil pulling may kill bacteria in the mouth which are related to bad breath, plaque, and gingivitis. Some of these studies can be viewed here, here, and here. However, there is little evidence that oil pulling actually draws toxins from the mouth or body.
Further, a 2012 Irish study covered by the BBC found that coconut oil treated with enzymes inhibited the growth of Streptococcus bacteria which cause tooth decay. This may be due to the coconut oil breaking down into lauric acid which is known to have antimicrobial properties.
Despite the scientific evidence and trendy popularity, many experts are still skeptical in relation to oil pulling, and agree that more studies need to be conducted. Mark Wolff, professor at the New York University College of Dentistry, seemed to reflect the position of many experts when he remarked, “I am not sure there is any harm, but I have never seen it have any positive effect on my patients who have been using oil pulling or in clinical research that has been published.”
The strongest condemnation of oil pulling has come from the American Dental Association (ADA), which released a statement on the subject in May 2014. Within their statement, the ADA expressed that oil pulling is not recommended, and criticizes much of the research that has been done:
Overall, as is true for many folk remedies, oil pulling therapy has insufficient peer-reviewed scientific studies to support its use for oral conditions… Current reports on the potential health benefits of oil pulling have clear limitations. Existing studies are unreliable for a number of reasons, including the misinterpretation of results due to small sample size, confounders, absence of negative controls, lack of demographic information , and lack of blinding. To date, scientific studies have not provided the necessary clinical evidence to demonstrate that oil pulling reduces the incidence of dental caries, whitens teeth or improves oral health and well-being.
The ADA also points to two studies showing that oil pulling can be the cause of lipid pneumonia. These studies can be found here and here.
Instead of oil pulling, the ADA recommends an antiseptic mouthwash such as Listerine which contains small amounts of several essential oils.
Even though there is sure to be disagreement with the statement issued by the ADA, there seems to be one point of major agreement, and that is oil pulling should not replace standard oral hygiene practices such as brushing the teeth and flossing.
Oil pulling is the ancient practice of holding and swishing oil in the mouth which is currently becoming an increasingly popular health fad. Although thought to be fairly safe, there have been some reports that it may cause lipid pneumonia if accidentally swallowed and sucked into the lungs. Some scientific research appears to show that oil pulling may neutralize bacterium within the mouth which cause bad breath, plaque buildup, and gum disease. On the other hand, the American Dental Association (ADA) has released a statement which says it does not recommend oil pulling, while condemning available studies. Rather than oil pulling, the ADA recommends brushing your teeth twice a day, flossing, and the use of an antiseptic mouthwash.
What are your thoughts on oil pulling?
Updated August 23, 2015
Originally published August 2014