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Oil Pulling: Is There a Kernel of Truth?

coconut oil

By Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH

In a short time, I’ve gone from wondering ‘what is this crazy new fad of oil pulling?’  to respecting the research going on around the world to improve oral health. As a WebMD medical editor, I read the health news every day and keep up with medical developments. When I heard about the fad of oil pulling I was intrigued.  What is this ancient practice from my ancestors’ home in India that’s all over the Internet and social media as a potential cure-all?

Can there really be a medical silver bullet? Of course not.  But I do believe most health practices – if they’ve stood the test of time – probably have a kernel of truth. In this case, the test of time has lasted thousands of years. But, as a doctor, I believe even that’s not enough. It also must “do no harm.”

Let’s start from the beginning and I’ll share my findings.

What is oil pulling?

Oil pulling refers to swishing a vegetable oil — like sunflower oil, sesame oil, or coconut oil — in your mouth.  The way you swish is important. The oil is supposed to half-fill the mouth and then be sucked back and forth through the teeth. The oil and saliva mix as you swish sideways and back and forth for about 10 minutes.

Where did oil pulling come from?

The practice goes back to the Ayurvedic health habits in ancient India, where it was believed to cure many diseases, from headaches to high blood pressure to diabetes and asthma. And, of course, it helped with oral and dental health.

This is where the kernel of truth comes in.

I suspect that back in ancient India, the people who had the leisure time to swish valuable oils in their mouths and then spit them out were not struggling for existence. They were the wealthy or the honored of India.  These were likely people who did not toil in the fields to bring home a little rice.  But rather they took part in all the wonderful Ayurvedic therapies and rituals we now know about and practice — like yoga and meditation.

My point is that this group would have suffered less from illness than those who barely have enough food to feed their families. Was it really the oil pulling that made all the difference in their health?

Why is it in the news now?

So here we are 2014, and oil pulling is in the news, which brings me back to the kernel of truth.

One key to preventing dental cavities and gum disease is regularly getting rid of the plaque buildup on your teeth (just like they say on toothpaste commercials).  Apparently, the swishing and “pulling” of the oil for a long period of time in your mouth decreases plaque and gingivitis.  The study where I got my information was a small one, but it was logical.  It was done at a dental school in India – where this could be an important part of daily oral health.

Today, in India, the cost of swishing cooking oil every day is much less than swishing a mouth rinse. And the poor don’t get 6-month dental checkups. In that light, oil pulling could be an important way to improve oral hygiene and worth further research.

Will I start oil pulling?

So, does oil pulling cure everything from headaches to asthma? That hasn’t been proven and probably won’t ever be. But it does seem to keep your mouth cleaner by cutting plaque.  And that could be very useful information for many in today’s world.

For me, I want to learn from the Ayurvedic way of the past. But as long as I have easy access to floss and the electric toothbrush, I’m sticking with that and skipping oil pulling.

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