The 'Oil Pulling' Health Craze Works, Just Not in the Way You Think

What if I told you there was ancient folk remedy that could improve your oral health, provide incredible detox benefits and also fix a bajillion other things wrong with you right this very minute, except you have to swish oil in your mouth every day for like 20 minutes? Eh? Yay? Maybe? Intrigued? Me too. Let's talk about "oil pulling," the thing everyone and their uncle is blogging about.

Like everyone cooler than you, I heard about oil pulling two centuries years ago. Duh? No, really: On a wild goose chase trying to alleviate my newfound recurring sinus infections without having to get on the Claritin train, I ended up in the online rabbit hole of natural medicine looking for "solutions." You know, where cures are secrets hidden from us by the evil government, where vitamins are not simply life-improvers, they are life-savers. Where if people would just eat whole foods, use natural things and get more vitamin D they wouldn't even NEED REAL DOCTORS.

Somebody said it cleared up allergies and sinus probs. So I tried it a few times, but didn't stick with it. But, still, I marveled at how such a basic thing could allegedly provide so many overall benefits and wondered if I'd ever be motivated to try it again. Well, now oil pulling or oil "swishing" is everywhere, so let us revisit these wild claims by talking to an actual doctor about it.

But first, what the Internet is saying:

What is oil pulling or oil swishing?

Oil pulling is a folk remedy that originated in India (and appears in an early text of Ayurvedic medicine, aka traditional Indian medicine, which is considered alternative medicine, the Charaka Samhita.) You take a tablespoon of oil (many sites recommend sesame oil as the number one best friend of all possible oils, but others swear by coconut or sunflower, while others warn against coconut) into your mouth by morning and swish or pull it around and through your teeth and gums without swallowing it. You do this for about 20 minutes. Then you spit it out. By the act's end, the oil is supposed to go from being clear to a white, milky substance, as it is now loaded with toxins and bacteria it has drawn out via all that swishing. (Here is a great guide to all that written by Dr. Sarah Villafranco, an emergency physician who is also a fan of the technique).

Where do I spit it out?

Excellent question. Not in the sink or in your toilet! Don't clog the pipes! In the trash.

Is this going to be hard and require effort?

My jaw got crampy right away and it made me a little nauseous cause I was being a giant noob, but advocates say you get used to it and that ye old tired jaw means you're probs doing it too fast. As in most homeopathic style medicine, it's also about relaxing and being calm and not speeding through it like a madperson on a quest for insta-results. RELAX.

Do I really have to do it for 20 minutes?

Not necessarily. Some folks say they get the job done in 10 to 15.

Every day?

Most people recommending it online seem to do it about four to five times a week.

So what does it allegedly do for you?

Allegedly it helps heal literally everything on or in your body and makes it look better as well as improving all the things. I'm not kidding. That is what the people are saying. A biomedical nutritionist and functional medicine specialist I emailed with, Nancy Guberti, said she has seen some positive results:

Yes, coconut oil pulling works great for whitening the teeth but also acts as an anti-bacterial, anti-viral — meaning it works on detox, sinuses, strengthens gums, and teeth.
 Where we see it may not work is when one is not treating their gastrointestinal issues and are bloated from candida overgrowth, intestinal parasites and imbalance of good bacteria.
 Basically, oil pulling works nicely but we cannot assume that it's the end all and be all.

And yet, end-all-be-all it is touted as being. Among the things it claims to help, according to a self-described "obsessed" superfan:

+ Whitens teeth

+ Strengthens your gums/teeth/& jaw. It helps with sensitive teeth & even has reported to help TMJ sufferers like myself.

+ Prevents cavities & gingivitis. Some people even reported it HEALED their cavities?! Not sure about that one… but who knows?!

+ Helps get rid of acne/ eczema/ psoriasis/ & other skin care issues.

+ General body detox.

+ Cures a hangover (hallelujah!!!) & a migraine.

+ Helps with sleep issues.

+ Clears out your sinuses & helps allergy sufferers.

+ If you have halitosis, oil pulling has been a big savior for many sufferers & your morning breath will get MUCH better (you can now kiss your S.O. good morning w/o them cringing!).

+ Helps with general pain issues.

+ Manages any weird hormonal imbalances.

+ & so so so so much more.

She left out that it can also save your marriage and make your teenager want to talk about their feelings. Zing! But look, if Deepak Chopra says you can heal the body through your tongue, you best believe.

So does it really do all this stuff or what?

Actually, yeah — but not like you think. I spoke with Dr. Sanda Moldovan, a periodontist in Beverly Hills and a certified nutritionist (with a Masters in oral biology) who teaches at UCLA's dental school. She said a lot of people have been asking her about oil pulling lately, and she's happy to get the word out.

That word is basically this: Oil pulling is not magic — your mouth is magic! At least, when it's working properly it is, and it's also a kind of gateway to overall health. Oil pulling is just one of a couple of ways to super duper clean your mouth so that your body can focus on healing other stuff and feel better.

In a nutshell, Moldovan told me by phone, the friction created by oil pulling has a soap-like effect on your mouth. It doesn't matter what type of oil it is, sesame is just what would've beeen cheap and widely available in the original communities who used it. Either way, it's a great method for helping reduce gingivitis. The reason, she said, is that oil pulling does reduce bacteria in the mouth — at least one study has shown it significantly reduces the strep mutans bacteria in plaque and saliva that causes cavities.

However, the oil only goes about a millimeter deep, and more serious infections are three, four, or five millimeters deep. "It should not be used for people with gum disease," Moldovan stressed. "Or they are going to end up losing their teeth."

But what about the other claims, from a nutritional and health standpoint? Is it a big fix for all possible health issues or what? Well yes, insomuch as a dramatic improvement in oral health affects everything:

"When we improve oral health, we improve so many other things in the body," Moldovan said. "People with bad oral hygiene have higher incidence for cardiovascular issues such as heart attack and strokes, and a higher incidence for pneumonia. Men with periodontal disease have a greater risk of erectile dysfunction. Even with diabetes, improved oral health can help control problems in diabetic patients. Also, pregnant women with gum disease have lower birth-weight babies. Yes — everything is connected."

To say nothing of the connection to bad breath or sore throats or other things that would likely be linked to constant infection in the mouth. And what of the improved sinuses, and skin clarity, and cavity-healing people are raving about post-oil-swishing?

"Well, yes, the mouth is connected to the sinuses and the ear canal, so people with improved oral hygiene can decrease ear infections and sinus infections," she said. "Tooth infections can be related to sinus infections. But we've found improvement for that with Xylitol, too, a sugar substitute. Toothpaste with Xylitol also decreases ear infections in kids by 50 percent."

What this means is that in the rush to give oil pulling the thumbs up as a cure-all, what we've really just discovered is an old way to clean your mouth more thoroughly than you probably are now. And it probably seems really appealing as a new and improved thing to do, instead of just getting back in there with ye olde toothbrush and floss. But doing that would also make you feel a lot better, too.

"When there is a healthier mouth, there is less inflammation in the body, and overall then everything can heal, the skin is better, you're in a better mood, you have more energy, because gum disease — if you have all this infection in the mouth, your body is constantly trying to fight this bacteria to keep it from entering your body," Moldovan said. "That is stressful for us. That chronic infection in the mouth, once it improves because we have better oral hygiene, we feel better and look better."

So yes, oil-pull away, because what you are doing is finally, at long last, giving your mouth the attention it deserves. (And no, it can't heal cavities, but since it does reduce cavity-causing bacteria in the mouth, it could slow or halt ones that are already developing, she said.)

But don't forget the caveats: Do not swallow the oil — Moldovan said she did read an article about someone aspirating the oil and developing pneumonia as a result of those toxin-loaded particles getting into their lungs. This is not a substitute for brushing your teeth altogether, as some have suggested. Moldovan actually recommends using an oral irrigator as the ideal cleaner for getting between teeth and preventing inflammation. She did say in her patients using oil-pulling, there is still inflammation between the teeth, so flossing and oral irrigation are still ideal. And Nancy Guberti, whom I cited earlier, said, "If I had to choose between conventional tooth paste and oil pulling then I'd go with oil pulling." (She recommends EarthPaste.)

Moldovan says she feels comfortable advising interested folks in using oil pulling as substitute for mouthwash, but definitely not everything else. "Basically, brushing for two minutes twice a day and Waterpiking is much, much better than oil pulling. It can get in places the oil can't. But if they want to use as substitute for mouth rinse, that's totally fine."

Image via Shutterstock.