You have a dirty mouth. No, I am not referring to your vocabulary choices silly, but rather the many microorganisms that can be found hiding between your pearly whites, and hanging out on the slick surfaces of your tongue and gums. Whether you like it or not, there are billions of happy bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites that naturally take up residence in the warm and saliva-y habitat of your mouth. In order to prevent disease and keep your smile shining however, it is important to keep these busy little buggers in check. The age-old method of oil pulling may be the crucial missing step in your oral health care regimen.
Re-Examining the Idea of Oral Health
We are a culture obsessed with the idea of a clean mouth and perfect smile. Every year a line-up of new “advanced formula” toothpastes are released, and an assortment of flavorful mouthwashes can be found sloshing around on the market. Infomercials proudly exhibit the latest beeping and buzzing electronic toothbrushes to add to your bathroom sink, and magazine spreads are filled with images of celebrities posing with beguilingly bleached grins and perfectly painted lips. Photo editing software now even has built in “teeth whitening” tools to sparkle-ify the quickly snapped selfies that decorate our social media pages. Already, the very business of tooth whitening has swelled to an $11 billion dollar industry- and the pursuit of cosmetically brilliant teeth keeps growing. (1)
Yet beneath all of this fuss around having a camera-ready smile, the general state of oral health across the population is quite dismal. According to a grim study in the British medical journal The Lancet, gum disease afflicts up to 90% of individuals worldwide. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also spit out some startling statistics on the matter, claiming that 9 out of 10 Americans struggle with tooth decay, and that nearly 1/3 of adults over the age 65 have lost all of their natural teeth to disease. Despite the $60 billion dollars spent annually on dental services in the United States, 40% of children over the age of 12 already have moderate gum disease, and over 67% have cavities. (2, 3)
Clearly, all of the latest products, pharmaceuticals, procedures and other quick-fix methods for dental care aren’t helping. What is truly needed is a preventative solution that goes well beyond appearance, and into the actually physiology of the problem. Most oral health issues of the modern day are not caused by a deficiency in toothpaste- but rather by fundamental dietary insufficiencies and the unresolved overgrowth of microbes. Research has shown that when the mouth is not properly cleaned, bacteria and other microorganisms accumulate and create toxic by-products that damage teeth and irritate the gums. It is often this inflammation-related change that perpetuates chronic dental problems and drives oral disease.
The Oil Pulling Phenomenon
Enter oil pulling: the ancient Ayurvedic practice of oral cleansing that involves swishing oil around in the mouth and spitting it out. It seems overly simple and almost too good to be true, but this 2,000 plus year old gargling technique has been gaining the attention of many functional-minded health practitioners lately as a viable way to transform declining oral health patterns for the long term.
Oil pulling is a technique that is practiced almost exactly as it sounds- by placing a few tablespoons of high quality vegetable oil in the mouth and working it around the teeth and tongue to “pull” out the bacteria and debris that remain there. The frothy, saliva-filled oil is then spit out, and the mouth rinsed thoroughly to remove any lingering particles. Practiced once daily for 10-20 minutes, oil pulling has shown tremendous promise for general detoxification and improved oral health. (Check out this video on oil pulling to learn more).
The scientific concept behind oil pulling is that the carrier oil and mechanical “swishing” exercise, dislodges microbes and other toxic by-products so that they can be actively dispelled from the mouth. Oil pulling is unique from other oral hygiene practices in that it is gentle and biocompatible. Vegetable oils have a unique fatty acid composition that gives them the potential to actually attract inflammation-causing microbes, a quality that dramatically improves the efficacy of the process. Oil pulling also works to increase saliva production to tap into the body's natural immune system, and accesses all surfaces of the mouth- unlike tooth-brushing, which concentrates on just about 10%.
So, if you are considering giving oil pulling a try but aren't quite convinced yet, here are five unique oil pulling benefits to consider:
1. Reduce Plaque Levels
When bacteria on the teeth sits for long enough it forms a film called plaque. While a moderate amount of plaque is healthy, if left in excess, this sticky stuff eventually hardens into tartar- calcified deposits that make the teeth and gums very difficult to clean. Toothbrushing has been shown to reduce plaque by just 11-27%, whereas oil pulling has been shown to decrease levels by an entire 18-30%. It is important to note that oil pulling is not a replacement for brushing and flossing, but rather an effective addition to the power duo. 4
2. Minimize Risk of Gum Disease
While we have a tendency to over-obsess over the appearance of our teeth, the gums are also a very important part of oral hygiene. Periodontal (or gum) diseases range from simple gum inflammation to serious illness that results in major damage to the soft tissue and bone that support the teeth. In one study, oil pulling was shown to reduce rates of gingivitis (a heightened inflammation and sensitivity of the gums and precursor to more serious conditions) by an incredible 52-60%. 5
3. Say Good-bye to Bad Breath
When it comes to bad breath, minty-fresh gums can only go so far. Chronic bad breath, also known as halitosis, can be a major issue and much more than a sign that you’ve eaten too many onions. In fact, bad breath is often the result of accumulated and potentially harmful bacteria in the mouth. Many people notice a significant change in breath odor once they start oil pulling. This phenomenon has been documented in many clinical case studies, and is believed to be due to the removal of odor-causing microbes. 6
4. Whiten Your Teeth Naturally
Although many individuals who take up oil pulling swear that it whitens their teeth, the exact mechanism of this action isn’t completely understood. Some specialists believe that a daily oil swishing practice can help to remove the tooth stains created by consuming various foods and beverages, where as others attribute this phenomenon to a strengthening and pinkening of the gums that simply makes the teeth look whiter. Either way...it works! 7
5. Safe and Inexpensive Oral Hygiene
No need for fancy gadgets, money-squandering treatments or sketchy chemicals. All that is required for oil pulling is a spoon from your kitchen drawer and a jar of high quality vegetable oil. Centrifuged coconut oil is often the oil of choice due to its mild, pleasant flavor and unique anti-microbial fatty acid content, however cold pressed sunflower and sesame oils are also viable options.
Doing What is Right for You
There you have it: a brief summary of the many benefits of oil pulling. While I would love to scribble down one last enthusiastic end note here exclaiming that everyone has a miraculous, life-changing, glamorous experience with oil pulling- it’s not that simple. Overall, the success of oil pulling is variable based on one’s current state of health, the nutrient density of the diet, and the initial dynamic of the microbe community inhabiting the mouth. While some people experience immediate improvements in their oral health from oil pulling, others may notice more subtle changes over time. I should also include a disclaimer that your oral health is a serious matter, and you should always check in with your provider before making significant changes to your routine. With all that being said, oil pulling has been shown to be a safe, gentle and highly effective oral hygiene technique, and I encourage you to do some additional research to decide if it is something that may also work for you! The book Oil Pulling Therapy by Dr. Bruce Fife is a good place to start. It may just be time to put a spoon and jar of coconut oil next to that toothbrush and box of floss!