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  • Writer's pictureLaura Sesana

Oil Pulling: It’s Not What You Think

Oil pulling is the new health craze that has been around for millennia. Consisting of swishing vegetable oil in the mouth for a specified amount of time, oil pulling is said to improve oral health as well as remove toxins from the body and relieve anything from acne to arthritis to diabetes.

Oil pulling comes from Ayurveda, a system on natural holistic health practiced in ancient India between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago. Ayurveda originates from India’s Vedic culture, which is now enjoying a major revival around the world.

Oil pulling involves swishing approximately one half a tablespoon of natural vegetable oil (coconut, sesame, and olive are popular), “pulling” the oil through the teeth and around the mouth for 20 minutes. Oil should never be swallowed, since it collects dental plaque and bacteria, and should be disposed of in the trash to avoid clogging drains and pipes.

While several experts say that oil pulling should not have any health risks beyond food allergies, many advise its use as a compliment to conventional brushing, flossing and regular dentist visits. Oil pulling should not replace other oral hygiene methods, but instead be used in combination.

Some say it whitens teeth, relieves postnasal drip, inflammation and sinus problems. Others claim it aids in digestion and prevents diabetes.

As oil pulling gains followers, there are also a fair number of skeptics.

For example, while conceding that it may be beneficial to oral health, Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH, for Web MD, hypothesizes that one of the reasons oil pulling was thought to have a number of other health benefits in ancient India was because those who had the time and wealth to swish oil for 20 minutes were probably affluent and in better health than most of the population to begin with.

There have been a small number of studies and informal lab tests that appear to confirm the oral health benefits of oil pulling. One small study in 2009 published in the Indian Journal of Dental Research concluded that oil pulling produced a reduction in oral plaque and gingivitis, as well as reduced microorganisms in plaque.

In an even smaller, unpublished study reported in a few news outlets, Michelle Hurlbutt, associate professor of dental hygiene at Loma Linda University in Southern California, found that some oils may be more effective than others in reducing bacteria in the mouth.

In an informal lab test reported in The Huffington Post, Dr. Hurlbutt divided student volunteers into three groups and ordered them to swish with either coconut oil, sesame oil, or water every day for two weeks and then stop on the third week.

By measuring the levels of Streptococcus mutans, a bacterium associated with dental cavities, Dr. Hurlbutt found that the group swishing sesame oil had a five-fold decrease in the bacteria when compared with the water group. The coconut oil had a two-fold decrease in the bacteria.

Dr. Hurlbutt stated that she does not plan to publish the results of the lab test due to its small size, but suggested that larger studies involving oil pulling’s oral health benefits are warranted.

However, many believe that the benefits of oil pulling go beyond oral health.

“Ayurveda advises oil gargling to purify the entire system; as it holds that each section of the tongue is connected to different organ such as to the kidneys, lungs, liver, heart, small intestines, stomach, colon, and spine, similarly to reflexology and TCM,” states a 2011 article about oil pulling in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine by scientists from the Department of Public Health Dentistry at the People's College of Dental Sciences and Research Centre in Bhopal, India.

There are no scientific studies showing health benefits of oil pulling beyond those related to oral health, however.

Photo: cottonseedoil, Flickr Creative Commons

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