Oil Pulling. What's all the hype about?

“I no longer brush my teeth, I just oil pull and I feel amazing. It has changed my life.”

 

If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you’ve heard this sort of statement from someone, or maybe even multiple people, you know pretty well in the past year. Oil pulling has caught mainstream media attention with claims like it can cure cancer and diabetes and that swishing some oil can “pull toxins from your blood to detoxify your body.” Having friends and family close to me jumping on the oil pulling bandwagon had me wanting to do some digging into the research (or lack thereof) to see what the hype was all about. Apart from the outrageous claims or miraculous cures, hearing people say that they no longer have to brush their teeth really had me shaking my head and wanting to get to the bottom of this fad. So is oil pulling really as great as it’s said to be? Let’s find out. 

 

What is Oil Pulling? 

Oil pulling has been around as an oral hygiene practice for a very long time and some recent outspoken gurus have brought it back to the attention of mainstream media. Unfortunately that often means only very loosely basing headlines on facts to grab the attention of as many people as possible. Oil pulling is performed by placing about a tablespoon of seed oil in your mouth and swishing it around in your mouth and between your teeth for 15-20 minutes before spitting it out. Typically the gurus tell you that you must do this first thing in the morning on an empty stomach and that you always have to spit out the oil when finished, because it "contains bacteria and toxins."

Until I started to do research on the subject, I was under the impression that oil pulling had to be done with coconut oil, because that’s all I heard people talk about. However, in most research sunflower oil and particularly sesame oil is used as the oil of choice for organoleptic purposes. So basically whatever type of plant-based oil you choose to use seems to fine, although there may be some additional health benefits from your oil choice. 

What Oil Pulling Gurus Claims It Can Do:

Some of the claims that gurus state about oil pulling are poorly explained, albeit, plausible; other “cures" are outrageous embellishments, if not complete falsities. Naturopathic or holistic doctors and practitioners make such claims without scientific research to back it up in order to grab your attention and sell more copies of the “life-changing” books they write or expensive seminars they ask you to attend. The stated benefits of oil pulling include things like: 

  •  pulls toxins from your blood to detoxify you
  •  prevent migraines
  •  treat arthritis
  •  whitens teeth
  •  removes plaque and gingivitis
  •  cures all kinds of systemic ailments, like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and so on
  •  freshens breath or treats halitosis

 

What Scientific Research Has Actually Demonstrated:

This will be short and sweet, because there isn’t a whole lot of research on the effects of oil pulling. All of the research on oil pulling has focused on oral health, so we can only conclude that any systemic effects are exaggerated extrapolations with no direct evidence of any of the claimed effects. These include curing arthritis, migraines, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Hopefully that doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but it is claims like that made by so-called gurus that catch mass media attention and creates an all-or-nothing obsession with these health fads, while taking away from legitimate research into something that could have small, but significant effects on our health, even if just a single aspect. 

The research into the oral health effects of oil pulling is not robust, but there has been more research emerging in recent years. Most research has looked at how oil pulling can act similarly to other oral mouthwashes that are available. As such, the effects on gingivitis, plaque, and dental caries are most heavily studied. There is evidence that oil pulling can reduce plaque and gingivitis to a significant degree but no better than compared to common mouthwashes (Asokan et al., 2008; Asokan, et al., 2009). That’s about it as far as what benefits there is actual evidence for, but could still be an attractive alternate to products like Listerine for people interested in all-natural and holistic health approaches. 

As far as claiming you have to spit the oil out once done the rinse due to the accumulation of bacteria and toxins, I think there is only a half truth in that. There isn't going to be toxins pulled from your blood when oil pulling and there is no evidence to suggest it either. If that was the case, our whole digestive system acting as a barrier from the external environment would be pointless, because if you can draw toxins out through your mouth that simply, then they could also be absorbed or reabsorbed while swishing them around just as easily. Our bodies would stand no chance of protection from pathogens and toxins if our mouths were that susceptible to exchanging molecules.

Removing some bacteria I can see as plausible because that is a part of the mechanism through which oil pulling works for removing plaque and treating caries and gingivitis. The oil you swish in your mouth for an extended period of time saponifies, meaning it turns into a soap, which can bind to bacteria.  The bacteria in your mouth will then be physically removed from all their nooks and crannies through oil pulling. This means that your entire oral microflora of both good bacteria and the pathogenic bacteria causing caries and gingivitis will be affected and you'll just be in a vicous cycle if a diet and lifestyle change isn't also a part of the practice when incorporating oil pulling. Whether you make health choices that promote a helpful oral microbiota or negative one is still going to dictate your health and outcome in the end. 

Effects of oral health on systemic health. 

Oral health does indeed have a connection to overall systemic health and I think this is where the oil pulling gurus have mostly veered off the straight and narrow path of scientific evidence to make exaggerated claims in order to attract attention.

In healthy individuals, there exists a symbiotic relationship between the host and the bacteria that live in the mouth. These bacteria constitute a barrier that prevents pathogens from attacking and causing damage or creating negative health effects. In addition to this, a healthy oral microbiota contributes to vitamin synthesis and contributes to boosting our immune system by inducing antibodies, which can in turn react to pathogens.

Unfortunately many dietary and lifestyle factors can jeopardize the quality of the oral microbiota. In particular, high-sugar foods can kill the good bacteria and encourage the proliferation of pathogenic and cariogenic bacteria in the mouth. High frequency of carbohydrate consumption creates a more acidic environment in the mouth, which can damage and kill the bacteria that normally create a symbiotic plaque on the tooth enamel. Without these good bacteria to protect the surface of our teeth, cariogenic plaque can form from bacteria that produce acid or can survive in higher acid environments. Pathogenic oral bacteria have also been implicated in systemic infections, if the bacteria can gain entry into deeper tissues. There has also been shown to be a link between oral microbiota dysbiosis and the prevalence of obesity (Goodson, et al., 2009). This correlation hints at the link between inflammation resulting from obesity and how it can impact all of our bodies systems including oral health.

Systemic inflammation is linked with almost every ailment we as humans suffer from, including cancer, arthritis, and the full gamut of metabolic syndrome (diabetes, obesity, and heart disease). If we can reduce a potential source of systemic inflammation by improving oral health, then the oil pulling "experts" extrapolate to say that all of those mortal ailments will be “cured.” Certainly a stretch, but it does sell books and courses and little packets of coconut oil at a huge markup. Striving for better health through any practice is good to do, but doesn't necessarily mean that there will be such a universally life-changing result. Also, remember that there is no significant difference between choosing oil pulling over other oral rinses, so those should also be just as life-changing by the same argument. 

There are additional antibacterial and antiviral properties to coconut oil that might make it an ideal oil to use for oil pulling. Coconut oil would not only remove plaque and bacteria from surfaces, but also offer a sanitizing effect, similar to Listerine, but less harsh. 

I don’t know how well I will personally find oil pulling to work compared to using Listerine or a hydrogen peroxide rinse for oral health and whitening, but I will give it a shot just to see if anything miraculous happens :P

The biggest hurdle for me, and I’m sure most everyone else, is the need to swish oil in your mouth for 15-20 minutes first thing in the morning when all I want is my morning shot of coffee. Adherence is a big challenge for oil pulling and practices that are more difficult to maintain always have a more devout following. 

If you want to follow my oil pulling experiment, I will only be talking about my impressions in my newsletter, where I send weekly updates about what I’m working on and other interesting things I’ve come across. So be sure to sign up and get on board.

Fortissimus

References:

  • Asokan, S., Rathan, J., Muthu, M. S., Rathna, P. V., & Emmadi, P. (2008). Effect of oil pulling on Streptococcus mutans count in plaque and saliva using Dentocult SM Strip mutans test: A randomized, controlled, triple-blind study. Journal of Indian Society of Pedodontics and Preventive Dentistry26(1), 12.
  • Asokan, S., Emmadi, P., & Chamundeswari, R. (2009). Effect of oil pulling on plaque induced gingivitis: A randomized, controlled, triple-blind study. Indian Journal of Dental Research20(1), 47.
  • Goodson, J. M., Groppo, D., Halem, S., & Carpino, E. (2009). Is obesity an oral bacterial disease?. Journal of dental research88(6), 519-523.