Ancient Hindu health practice of oil pulling has fans here

Ancient Hindu health practice of oil pulling has fans here

July 11th, 2014 by Anna Lockhart in Chattnow Outabout

In oil pulling, natural plant oils - sesame, coconut, sunflower or even olive oil - are swished around in the mouth.

Photo by Laura McNutt/Times Free Press.

How to oil pull

• Oil pulling in the morning is best, on an empty stomach.

• Gently swish oil around the mouth. You don't have to be too vigorous. If your mouth is tired, you're swishing too aggressively.

• 20 minutes is recommended, but you can work your way up from 5. Some say 10 minutes does the job.

• Spit out the oil - but only in the trash. Oil can clog pipes. Don't swallow.

• Some recommend rinsing out your mouth with salt water, then brushing your teeth. Some also say to use a separate toothbrush from your usual one, since the oil pulling will leave the brush full of bacteria and toxins.

Ed Jones does it when he's feeling sick, or when he wants an extra-white smile. Sara Hauge says it's great for curing a hangover. Cheryl Howe does it every single morning when she wakes up.

Oil pulling, a health and beauty regimen making the rounds in Internet lore and natural health circles, is relatively simple. For 10 to 20 minutes, swish a natural plant oil - sesame, coconut, sunflower or even olive oil - around your mouth, spit and watch the oil work its magic.

Proponents of the practice say oil pulling can make breath sweeter, teeth whiter and the mouth and gums healthier. Working as a detoxifier, the oil is said to "pull" bacteria and toxins from the body, reducing headaches, asthma, acne, strengthening the immune system, even as a cure for hangovers. Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Shailene Woodley gush about it as a health and beauty secret; popular health guru Dr. Oz talked about it on his show.

But Snopes.com and Skeptoid.com went after it, basically calling it a hoax for gullible health nuts. Columnists and bloggers experimented with it to test the kooky-sounding practice, with varying results.

Howe, a health coach at Nature's Finest Nutrition, added oil pulling to her regular health routine and says she got relief from recurring tonsil infections. Though she doesn't credit oil pulling alone as her cure-all, she definitely figures it into the equation.

"I just don't get sick," says Howe.

Rebecca Phillips, director of children's ministry at Grace Baptist Church, started the ritual about six months ago, swishing about three times a week with coconut oil.

"I noticed my teeth were whiter after about a month," says Phillips, who even got her parents to try it recently. "Then people started asking and commenting about it, so I knew it wasn't just me."

The springtime allergies that usually plague her also disappeared.

Though it's trending, oil pulling is actually an ancient practice, dating back thousands of years to India, where it is mentioned in Ayurvedic texts written by Hindu practitioners of alternative forms of medicine. Indians used sesame oil, which would have been plentiful, but many contemporary oil pullers opt for the more palatable coconut oil.

Ed Jones, owner of Nutrition World, says oil pulling is more popular than it has ever been before, and he's been doing it for about six years. A busy business owner who starts his day at 4:30 a.m., Jones swishes coconut oil on his 12-minute ride to work, one of the only spare pockets of time in his day.

He also oil pulls when he is beginning to feel sick; every day or twice a day if he is already ill. A true believer in coconut oil's ability to whiten teeth, he makes sure to oil pull "more aggressively" in the weeks leading up to checkups at the dentist.

"It is difficult to keep oil in your mouth for 15 minutes," he admits. "And it is not pretty. When you spit it out it's all frothy and nasty," but that's because of the bacteria and toxins being leached from the system.

So how does using oil as a mouthwash supposedly do all of this?

Oil pulling hasn't been accepted by the medical community as scientifically sound, and only a handful of studies have been dedicated to it. One such study was done at Loma Linda University in Southern California by Michelle Hurlbutt, RDH, MSDH. A small group of young adults in three groups swished sesame oil, coconut oil and water for three weeks. The group that swished sesame oil had a five-fold decrease in bacteria from the group that used water; the coconut oil group's bacteria levels were decreased two-fold. After they stopped swishing, bacteria levels crept back up.

But even Hurlbutt emphasized oil pulling is not a miracle cure for disease.

"[Oil pulling] should not be used to treat oral disease such as gum disease or tooth decay," Hurlbutt told The Huffington Post. "It's more of a preventive rinse that could be used adjunctively with your regular mouthcare routine."

Theories vary about why and how oil pulling works. One is that the fatty membranes that surround teeth plaque are attracted to similar compounds in oil and adhere to them, then the friction of swishing has a soap-like effect cleanses them from the mouth. Some say toxins that gather in saliva ducts and the throat get teased out by the oil.

Sara Hauge, a cashier at Whole Foods, doesn't oil pull daily, but swears by it as a hangover cure. She says it gives her mouth that clean feeling you get after a visit to the dentist. She saw a spike in coconut oil sales at Whole Foods after an online conversation started circling about the practice.

"Since it's a new and somewhat controversial subject, there a lots of different viewpoints," says Hauge. "It really spawned a conversation. People were trying to debunk it and talk about it."

Though skeptical, dentists and doctors agree that improving oral health, even through something like oil pulling, can be good for overall health. The mouth is the foyer to the rest of the body, and it's a dirty one. Home to hundreds of species of bacteria and 20 billion microbes - both healthy and unhealthy - at any given time, the mouth holds more bacteria than any other place in our body. Oral infections and poor dental hygiene have been linked to cardiovascular problems like heart attack and stroke.

"The quickest way to destroy the health of the body is to leave infections and problems lingering in the mouth," says Jones. "Your immune system goes crazy trying to heal those wounds."

Dr. Charles Adams is an integrative internal medicine doctor who incorporates natural nutritional aids to healing plans for his patients. While he wouldn't prescribe oil pulling to his patients, he would not surprised if it has some benefits.

"Given how dirty our mouths are, you're going to be spitting out bacteria no matter what you use [to swish]," he says. And, many of the oils used in the practice are great for the body overall.

"Coconut oil has lots of omega-3 oils, and they do really wonderful things for the body. You're probably absorbing that when you swish." Coconut oil is also good for cooking, he says, and can help with brain function and memory loss.

Dr. Jeffrey Jump, medical director at the Center for Integrative Medicine in Chattanooga, hadn't heard of the oil pulling craze.

"From what I can read, there is little to no evidence to support its health claims," he says. "On the positive side, there seems to me to be little to no risk in swishing vegetable oil around in your mouth, and it should be cheap."

Local dentist Dr. Charles Fussell wasn't familiar with it, either. "That's not in any of my journals," he says with a laugh. "But as long as it's not motor oil, I suppose it wouldn't hurt."

Contact Anna Lockhart at 423-757-6578 or alockhart@timesfreepress.com.