Oil pulling: is it actually good for your oral health?

what are the proven scientific benefits of coconut oil pulling?

In my time as an alternative health guru, I’ve come across loads of old wives’ tales that simply don’t stack up. Tonics that cure all manner of illnesses. Home-made lotions that clear up all kinds of skin problems. Strange habits that somehow, mysteriously cure health conditions people have been trying to treat for years. Some work, and some fail. Some are funny, some make a lot of sense, and some are downright dangerous. So which category does oil pulling fall into?

What actually IS oil pulling?

Alright, so you’ve got a vague idea of oil pulling involving coconut oil and your mouth…but what does it actually mean?

Oil pulling developed as an integral part of Ayurveda, a traditional form of Indian medicine which took shape between 3000 and 5000 years ago. Essentially, it involves swishing any kind of edible oil around in the mouth for a period of time, to prevent dental decay, oral difficulties, bleeding gums, and plenty more. Commonly used oils include sesame oil, sunflower oil, olive oil and coconut oil. Coconut oil, being the new golden girl of the alternative health world, is the obvious choice for most oil pullers.

While it has it’s origins in ancient Ayurvedic practice, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that oil pulling was popularized by a certain Ukrainian doctor by the name of F. Karach. In 1991, Dr Karach delivered a lecture to the Houston Indian Senior Citizens Association, and word got out. Next thing, the good doctor’s lecture was posted in the Journal of World Teletherapy, and it was on to bigger and better things from there.

Dr Karach had some bold claims about the benefits oil pulling could provide for not only oral health, but general health as well. Karach believed that oil pulling could cure upwards of 30 systemic diseases and health conditions, including asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and even migraine headaches. While some of these claims are undoubtedly farfetched, modern science continues to establish links between oral hygiene and general health. A well-researched example is the association between oral infections and diabetes mellitus.

So there’s obviously some truth to Dr Karach’s beliefs, but the problem is that there’s very little scientific basis to most of them. Sure, oil pulling might help you treat diabetes, headaches or even asthma, but it also might not. So what benefits do we know that oil pulling provides, without a shadow of doubt?

The scientifically proven benefits of oil pulling

Happily, there’s actually a reasonable amount of studies into the health benefits of oil pulling. While many of them so far have been small and for a relatively short duration, the results show that there’s some definite scientific substance to several claims about oil pulling.

Oil pulling treats gingivitis and plaque

Research indicates that oil pulling is an effective treatment against gingivitis. A 2009 study published in the Indian Journal of Denture Research took 20 compliant teenage males with some seriously nasty oral hygiene and asked half of them to do oil pulling using sesame oil once a day, along with their (presumably lacking) usual dental routine. The other 10 boys were given chlorhexidine mouthwash to use on a daily basis as a control group.

After 10 days, the test subjects were checked to see how their oral health was coming along. The researchers found that both groups had comparable reductions in both plaque and gingivitis, and that these reductions were significant. In their words: “the oil pulling therapy showed a reduction in the plaque index, modified gingival scores, and total colony count of aerobic microorganisms in the plaque of adolescents with plaque-induced gingivitis.” And of course the winner here is oil pulling, because it doesn’t expose your gums (and therefore bloodstream) to nasty chemicals and additives like those found in the commercial mouthwash.

Oil pulling treats Streptococcus mutans

This is good news, because Strep mutans is one of the leading bad guys in the harmful oral bacteria world. This 2008 study once again grabbed hold of 20 adolescent boys, which leads me to believe that there’s some affiliation between this study and the previous one that looked at gingivitis. Nothing wrong with that, technically.

Researchers gave the half of the boys sesame oil to conduct oil pulling once a day for 2 weeks, and the other half that same nasty chlorhexidine mouthwash. After checking up on the lads, they found that “the reduction in the S. mutans count in the plaque of the study group was statistically significant after 1 and 2 weeks.” This suggests that while oil pulling is effective in treating Strep mutans, you need to do it for at least a week to see any results. Good to know, right?

While much of the research has focused on sesame oil, coconut oil shows even more promise. A comprehensive 2011 study published in the Asia Journal of Public Health found that coconut oil was not only effective against S. mutans, it also exhibited strong antimicrobial activity against our old foe Candida albicans.

Oil pulling treats halitosis (bad breath!)

We all know someone who battles with bad breath. Perhaps that someone is you. Either way, constantly belting out great clouds of fumes isn’t great for one’s social life. Luckily, there appears to be an easy solution, and it’s not carcinogenic “sugarfree” chewing gum. Yup, it’s oil pulling!

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Indian Society of Pedodontics and Preventive Dentistry (say that ten times!) once again pitted sesame oil pulling against regular mouthwash to see which was most effective in treating halitosis and the bacteria that cause bad breath. Weirdly enough, they also conducted the research using 20 adolescents. Interesting. Regardless of the deja vu, the results were promising: “oil pulling therapy has been equally effective like chlorhexidine on halitosis and organisms associated with halitosis.” Garbled English aside, 2 weeks of oil pulling appeared to make a big headway into treating bad breath.

Oil pulling DOES NOT detoxify the blood

Sadly, this is one rumor that simply isn’t true. This study puts it nicely: “oil pulling cannot actually draw toxins out of the blood as claimed because the oral mucosa does not act as a semi-permeable membrane to allow toxins to pass through.” In other words, while toxins can enter the bloodstream via the gums, oil can’t somehow magically draw those toxins right back out again. Toxins still in the mouth? Sure. Toxins elsewhere in the body? Nope.

How to do oil pulling with coconut oil

While much of the research has examined oil pulling through the lens of either sesame oil or sunflower oil, coconut oil is still your best choice in my opinion. It’s a wide-spectrum antibacterial and anti-microbial agent, meaning it can kill off a range of different pathogens in your mouth, and it has a much better omega-3 to omega-6 ratio than sunflower or sesame. Because more omega-6 fatty acids mean more inflammation, coconut oil is the logical choice.

Here’s what to do:

  • Pop a heaped teaspoon of coconut oil into your mouth. If it’s solid, give it a minute to melt before you start the next step.
  • Swish the coconut oil gently around your mouth. The idea is to move it between your teeth from one side of your mouth to the other – like you would with mouthwash, but more gently. Continue doing this for 10 to 20 minutes – the longer you do it for, the more bacteria you’ll draw out of your teeth and gums. Try to avoid going over 20 minutes however, as word has it that your body starts to re-absorb the toxins after that point.
  • Spit the oil out. Don’t be tempted to keep the coconut oil for cooking or anything else, as it’s loaded with your mouth toxins! Gross! I usually spit it into a paper towel and put it in the rubbish, as it could clog up your plumbing if spat into the sink and it’s too fatty for the compost.
  • Rinse your mouth with warm water, and spit that out as well!
  • Brush your teeth as per your normal routine. For best results, and because I care about my gums, I use the OraWellness Healthy Mouth Blend along with the Bass toothbrush. They’re more than your average toothpaste and toothbrush, but a worthy investment in your health.

As we saw in several of the studies, your best bet is to continue oil pulling every day for at least 2 weeks. Feel free to take a break after that point, but there’s nothing stopping you from making this a part of your regular dental routine. Your teeth just gave you a high five!

Oh, and just so you know – I’m literally giving oil pulling a go as I type this post! I’m planning on doing it every day over the next couple of weeks, and I’ll report back on whether it’s made any difference to my pearly whites at the end.

UPDATE: I’m two weeks into my daily oil pulling commitment and actually really enjoying it. My teeth have definitely gotten a couple of shades whiter (which could also be in-part due to my remineralizing tooth powder recipe), and my mouth feels a lot fresher. I also had a small cut on one of my gums from a rare chip eating incident, and it healed super fast with the oil pulling. I’m going to keep this up for at least another week and see how things go!

Thanks for reading, everyone! What are your thoughts on oil pulling? Still think it’s just a load of codswallop, or have you used it already and seen significant improvements in your oral health?

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