What is Oil Pulling and Does Oil Pulling Work?

in Parenting

There been a lot of talk about Oil Pulling recently in mainstream Western media. What many don't know is that this isn't a new 'thing'; it’s been practiced for thousands of years in India.  We asked Ayurveda practitioner Valerie Goulding to help us make sense of this supposedly new -- and very beneficial -- detoxifying practice.

What is oil pulling, anyway?

Put simply, oil pulling is the practice of using some kind of oil -- such as olive oil, sesame oil, or coconut oil -- as a mouthwash to aid in removing toxins from the body.   

If it sounds strange to gargle or swish oil in your mouth for 10-20 minutes, be reassured that this simple act, practiced regularly, imparts amazing benefits to you and your loved ones. Kind of makes the weirdness seem like a small barrier to a powerful preventative health tool, right? 

Although Ayurveda is an ancient medical science, both it and its foundational practices are new to most westerners. There’s an ancient Indian text called the Charaka Samhita which is one of the main classical compilations and sources of Ayurvedic knowledge. It has this to say about the benefits of Oil pulling, or Gandush, as it’s called in Ayurveda’s Sanskrit language of origin:

“Keeping of oil gargle provides strength in jaws and voice, development of the face, maximum taste and relish of food. One does not suffer from dryness of throat, lip cracking and teeth become firmly rooted. The teeth do not ache or become sensitive and can chew the hardest food items.

In other words, Ayurvedic wisdom strongly holds that oil pulling removes toxicity from the body.  

In more modern lingo, there are also a number of studies that support statements made by the Caraka Samhita more than 3000 years ago.  Today’s science tell us that Oil Pulling effectively reduces plaque, removes bacteria, acts as a natural cleansing agent for the teeth and gums, prevents tooth decay, oral malodor (stinky breath) and bleeding gums.

Why is it called "oil pulling?"

You might be asking, why "Oil Pulling" instead of, say, "Oil Swishing?"  The name refers to oil's way of binding with bacteria and toxins, thereby 'pulling' them out of the tissues of the body and allowing you to eject them from your system with the oil you spit out. 

You might also find oil pulling referred to as oil gargling, as in the Ayurvedic text above. Certainly, you can knock your head back and gargle, if you want.  Personally, I don't think I could gargle oil for 10-20 minutes if my life depended on it.   You can't do the dishes or multitask half as well in the gargling position as you can in the swishing version of the practice. (One exception, though: if you're getting a sore throat, try adding some turmeric powder to the oil and then doing some dedicated gargling.  It will work wonders to reduce infection.)

Whatever you call it, the point is: embrace the practice. Find your own personal style. And do it regularly.  Here's why.

How does oil pulling work, and why is it important?

The build-up of environmental toxicity in the human body has reached dangerous levels. Heavy metals, radiation, man-made synthetic chemical compounds, the hormone disrupting plastics and other petroleum by products... It's all around us.  And inside us. These toxins cause disease. Not just in us, but in our children.

The average level of toxicity in a modern mother-to-be is much higher than her mother before her, or her grandmother, for that matter. Unless effective detoxifying practices become a part of daily life, the base cumulative load of toxicity that each new generation begins life with gets higher and higher. Toxicity is transmitted through the womb and through breast milk, according to Ayurvedic wisdom. A child is knit of the fabric of your body and nourished from the milk that you produce. If you're carrying toxicity - it follows that this will transmit to your child in-vitro through the building blocks that your body provides... and it can effect development. We're seeing an explosion of new diseases for which allopathic medicine has no 'cure' and higher rates of cancer (at younger ages) and autism than ever - and the rates keep rising. 

From an Ayurvedic perspective,"dis-ease" in the body, or "imbalances," are in large part due to accumulations of stuff in the tissues and channels of the body that block flow and prevent absorption, circulation, use and elimination of nutrient and waste. That's a long way of saying that now, more than ever, healthy detoxing practices are vitally important. If Ayurvedic claims that Oil Pulling is a powerful tool for deeply detoxifying the body are true, then all the more reason to take this practice and run with it.

As an added bonus, moder research also suggests that this practice benefits heart health. Gum health has been linked to the heart in many studies over the years. This is one of the reasons why dentists take such care to support healthy gums. Poor gum health may allow foreign microbes to infiltrate the blood stream and irritate arterial walls.

Interestingly the same bacteria, Streptococcus mutans which peaks in the mouth after a high sugar diet is also found in unhealthy levels in the arterial walls of heart patients.

How is Oil-Pulling Done?

Here are some simple instructions for oil pulling.

Place approximately 1 tablespoon of oil (traditionally, organic unrefined sesame oil is used) in the mouth and ‘swish’ it around while sucking it through the teeth for 10-20 minutes. When you spit it out, look at the color. It will be white and -- when put under a microscope -- the bacteria count captured within it is off the charts. Doing this daily, or at least a few times a week, will allow you to reap the benefits. While plain unrefined organic sesame oil makes for the easiest use, oils that are herbalized with turmeric and/or other herbs enhance the effect of the practice. There are a few different takes on when and how best to do it. Really, it's better to do than not -- so fit it in where you can.

Here's how I do it on a good day:

When: In the morning after I've brushed my teeth, scrapped my tongue and flossed and before I eat. It's an Ayurvedic 'thing' to clean your teeth and mouth before you eat so that you're not swallowing bacteria that accumulates throughout the night when you eat breakfast.

Prep: I announce to my daughter "Oil Pulling!" so that she knows not to expect to have a conversation with me for a bit. Which means that she forgets in two minutes and asks me a series of questions or tries to talk with me anyway while I glare at her with my puffed out cheeks working back and forth as they swish the oil.

How: gentle swishing of oil around the mouth combined with pushing it through and between my teeth. You'll end with more fluid than you started with. Saliva mixes with the oil. By the time you finish the oil will be largely diluted.End: with a flourish. Spit the oil into a garbage bag lined trash can instead of down the sink. Spare your septic. Finish with a quick gargle with warm water to clear residual oil from you mouth.

It'll be hard to track the benefits of the practice... after all, how can you tally up dentist bills, doctor visits and sick days when you haven't seen the numbers? :-)

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Valerie has been studying and working in Ayurveda field since 2006.  She comes from a long line of nutritionists; her mother owned and operated one of the first health food stores in the Midwest for 30 years. Valerie carries a dedication to health and wellbeing forward in her work with an ancient wholistic medical science. She is a mother, student of life, and nature enthusiast. 


  • NaturallyBorn December 10

    On behalf of Danielle: "I've read several articles..but not all oils are created equal .. they are chemically different .. so I don't understand the indifference towards oils used and efficacy?"

  • Valerie Goulding December 10

    Hi Danielle --

    Great question! It's important to understand that Ayurveda is an indigenous Life science, and that it comes from India. Thousands of years ago, in a world where the only resources on hand were local and regional, sesame becomes the featured oil because, in India, it was native to the land and easy to get. In most Ayurvedic recommendations, you'll see sesame recommended partly for that reason.

    Classically, Sesame is also recommended for oil pulling because it's nourishing to the oral tissues and has natural and inherent anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties (most oils do, by the way).

    Ayurveda has a way of seeing all substances through a sort of 'law of opposite properties" classification. Meaning; is something hot or cold? Dry or wet? Smooth or Rough? Mobile or Stable? These opposites allow for degrees between each end of the spectrum. Something can be warm, not hot. Cool, not cold.

    Looking at things in this way, Ayurveda would say that coconut is a cooling oil, where sesame is warming and olive oil is more warming than sesame. Coconut oil is great to use on a hot day. Olive oil is wonderful for a cold day. Sesame is the happy medium, unless someone has an aggravated heated condition.

    Seen in this way -- all oils are beneficial. Some are moreso than others for certain people in certain conditions. More on that another time.

    My recommendation; for oil pulling, let sesame oil be your first choice. But if all you have is olive or coconut oil, don't let that be a barrier to the practice - go for it! Just make sure the oil is organic!;-)

  • NaturallyBorn December 10

    On behalf of Monica: "Can oil pulling be done while pregnant? Why or why not?"

  • Valerie Goulding December 10

    Hi Monica - Technically, there is no Ayurvedic contra-indication against oil-pulling while pregnant. Generally, though, cleansing is not done during pregnancy -- loosened toxins circulate in the system and can affect baby. During pregnancy, the liver is working overtime, so to stress it more by loosening toxins is a big no-no. Cleansing should be done before conception!

    Oil pulling is a gentle detoxifying practice, so it's safe to do throughout pregnancy. However, remember that when you're pregnant your senses of taste, smell and the gag reflex may be more sensitive than usual, and this could be aggravating.

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