Oil pulling is getting a lot of buzz as a cure-all health remedy and it seems that every pseudo-wellness blogger has something to say about it. Granted, there is a well established connection between poor oral health and disease but does oil pulling make a difference? The information circulating about this trend is only half accurate and I want to set the record straight.
Oil pulling is an ancient Ayurvedic practice in which one swishes edible oil (traditionally sesame but sunflower, olive, and coconut are also used) in the mouth for 15-20 minutes before spitting it out. It is still used today in developing countries where access to oral care and products is limited. Health-fad-loving Americans are embracing oil pulling as an alternative to commercial mouthwash, toothpaste, and teeth whiteners.
But where is the science behind all the hype? There are only 3 low-level peer-reviewed research studies published on the benefits of oil pulling and they are all highly flawed. Conducted in India by the same researcher, S. A. Asokan, each study included only 20 Indian adolescent boys (30 subjects are required to be statistically significant) with gingivitis (inflamed gums) who had never used mouthwash before. There was no benign control group in any of the studies to evaluate the results of swishing with water for 20 minutes compared to oil or chlorhexidine mouthwash. It is possible that swishing anything for 20 minutes could have a positive effect.
On the flip side, there are just as many weak studies to counter the benefits of oil pulling. One study (using 8 subject samples) shows that oil doesn’t kill cavity causing bacteria in tooth enamel and a professional paper with only one adult female subject reports that oil pulling had failed to alleviate her gingivitis. A letter published in February in the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease reports recurrent lipoid pneumonia associated with the practice of oil pulling. This is caused by accidentally inhaling the oil while holding it in the mouth–imagine coughing, sneezing or laughing with a mouth full of emulsified oil.
In the most recent published study by Asokan, he himself writes, “The exact mechanism of action of oil pulling therapy is still not clear and we are currently carrying out research in this area.” So when someone claims to know how oil-pulling works, you can call BS. We don’t know if bacteria are suffocated by the oil (most bacteria in the mouth require oxygen to live) or if the bacterium’s fat-soluble membranes are being broken or if the bacteria are drawn to the oil and expelled whole.
Other misleading claims on the internet suggest using only coconut oil for its unique anti-bacterial properties. All oil has anti-bacterial properties–that is why you can leave it in the cabinet and not in the refrigerator. Another claim states you must spit out the oil and never swallow it because it is “toxic waste.” Seriously? Nothing that grows in our mouths is toxic waste or we would all be dead. Swallowing the oil might have a mild laxative effect but the bacteria will disintegrate in stomach acid.
Claims that oil pulling speeds up metabolism are also silly. Oil pulling speeds up metabolism just as much as chewing gum because anything in the mouth triggers the body to begin the digestive process. Also, if someone claims that oil pulling detoxifies the blood, ask them what they think the liver and kidneys do.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that oil pulling is a waste of time or that you shouldn’t do it. I’m sharing the facts surrounding the hype so you won’t sound like a doofus when you talk about it with your friends. There is no strong empirical evidence, only anecdotal stories, that oil pulling has marked systemic health benefits. And unfortunately, no amount of oil pulling is a cure for stupid.
[This article was originally posted in my health column as “The Science Behind Oil Pulling–Good Health Or Good Hype?” on 4/1/13 at NYULocal.com. To read all of my NYULocal.com articles, please visit their site.]
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