Written by Claudia Welch
About 5-7 years ago I started hearing a lot about, “oil pulling.” How it was an ancient Ayurvedic practice used extensively for thousands of years. And it seemed to cure everything from cavities to cancer.
I had never heard of it.
I had been studying Ayurveda since 1985, in the US, in India, and had never heard of it.
A little surprising for such a powerful Ayurvedic practice to elude me for about 25 years of study and exposure, but stranger things have surely happened. Over the next 4-5 years, I heard about it more and more. It was a specific practice (described below). I heard the rationale for why it was such a powerful medicine for the body, and practiced it myself, to see what all the fuss was about.
Then, a couple years ago I enquired of Dr. Robert E. Svoboda what he thought of the panacea-like claims associated with the practice of oil pulling.
He had not heard of oil pulling.
Dr. Svoboda is the first westerner ever to receive a Bachelor’s of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery (BAMS). He’s been at this for about 40 years.
It seemed to me that the chances were very slim indeed that this reportedly powerful, popular, ancient Ayurvedic practice would have not made it into his education either.
So this year I did a little research to see where oil pulling as a term and current practice originated. Here is what I found, what the practice looks like now, its health claims, what makes sense to me, and what the classical Ayurvedic texts have to say about oil pulling (hint: nothing. But they do talk about something related).
How oil pulling is currently being practiced and taught
On an empty stomach, take about a Tablespoon, or about half a mouthful, of oil into your mouth. Push, pull and draw the oil through the teeth, from side to side and front to back, for 8-20 minutes. If you feel the need to spit during this time, spit a little out and keep “pulling.” At the end, the oil will be milky white, thin and frothy. Spit this out and rinse your mouth with water. Some say to brush your teeth after oil pulling, as they say the oil pulls out toxins, bacteria, pus, and mucous, which is why, they say, the oil gets whitish after swishing it around for 20 minutes. It is said that this should be practiced one to three times daily, but that the best time is in the morning, before breakfast, on an empty stomach. Coconut or sesame oil seem to be the most commonly used oils, but sesame, olive, almond, sunflower and other oils also receive honorable mention. There seem to be no particular associated dietary considerations or prescriptions.
Health claims around the practice of oil pulling
- Strengthens teeth and gums and oral health in general
- Cleans the teeth, removing plaque
- Cures arthritis
- Improves the health of sinuses
- Reduces headaches
- Benefits skin and blood disorders (some accounts claim incredible improvement to psoriasis within just a few days of oil pulling)
- Benefits hormonal balance
- Reduces chronic inflammation in the body, thereby benefiting heart and brain health and, indeed, can be a near miraculous, panacea-like practice that improves the health of the whole body.
- It is one of the most powerful and effective practices available for detoxifying the body.
Where does the current practice of Oil Pulling originate?
It seems to lead back to a Dr. F. Karach. I could not find out what the “F” stands for. Bruce Fife, a major proponent of Oil Pulling, writes, “Oil pulling as we know it today, was introduced in 1992 by Dr. F. Karach, MD. Dr. Karach claimed that oil pulling could cure a variety of illnesses ranging from heart disease and digestive troubles to hormonal disorders. He said it cured him of a chronic blood disorder of 15 years duration and within three days it cured his arthritis, which at times was so painful he was bed ridden. He used the method in his medical practice with great success.”[i]
Dr. Karach’s success and practice seems to have spread pretty steadily. Today, when I Google “oil pulling,” 26,500,000 results pop up.
If the current practice of oil pulling only began in 1992, how is it that claims abound that this is either a “folk remedy” or ancient practice described thousands of years ago in the classics of Ayurveda? As far as I could see, the most common Ayurvedic source quoted, as proof that oil pulling originated thousands of years ago, is:
“Keeping of oil gargle provides strength in jaws and voice, development of face, maximum taste and relish in food. The person practicing this does not suffer from dryness of throat, there is no fear of lip-cracking, teeth are not affected with caries, rather they become firm-rooted. They (teeth) are not painful, nor are they oversensitive on sour-taking, they become able to chew even the hardest food items.”[ii]
While this passage does refer to oil in the mouth, it does not describe the current practice of oil pulling. “Keeping of oil gargle” is a poor translation of “gandusa,” a practice we will consider presently. So this particular classic is actually not referring to the current practice of oil pulling.
What the Ayurvedic classics do say about oil pulling
Nothing. As far as I can see, there is no passage in the brhat trayi (the “Three Great” and classic, ancient Ayurvedic texts, Charaka Samhita, Ashtanga Hrdayam and Sushruta Samhita) that describes the current practice of oil pulling.
Here’s what they do describe.
Gandusa is a practice whereby oil is held in the mouth without moving it around at all, after having the neck and shoulders warmed and massaged, looking slightly upward, while sitting quietly in a sunny, warm place first thing in the morning. The oil is held in the mouth until “the mouth gets filled with kapha,” or secretions come out from the nose and eyes.
According to the classical Ayurvedic text, Charaka Samhita, gandusa improves the strength and health of the face, jaw, voice, throat, lips, teeth, gums and general oral tissues.[v] (These are the benefits given in the quote that most sites provide as proof that oil pulling is an ancient Ayurvedic practice, but it is actually a quote that relates to the practice of gandusa.)
There are four kinds of gandusa: one to address the increase of each of the three doshas,[vi] and one to help heal oral ulcers.
- Snigdha (unctuous or oily) gandusa is prepared with oil processed with sweet, sour and salty substances. It is used to pacify vata disorders of the head and neck.
- Shamana gandusa is prepared with bitter, astringent and sweet tasting substances and is used to pacify pitta disorders of the head and neck.
- Shodhana gandusa is prepared with pitter, pungent, sour or salty substances that are warming, to pacify kapha disorders of the head and neck. It may seem strange to the student of Ayurveda that sour and salty tastes are used here, as they are tastes that usually increase kapha. However, the sour taste has the ability to increase oral secretions and this may help clear the local channels. Similarly, salt may help clear local channels because of its ability to soften hard masses and reduce swelling. Also, this is not being swallowed, so these tastes are mainly affecting the local channels and, therefore, will not serve to increase kapha systemically.
- Ropana gandusa is prepared with astringent and bitter substances, to promote the healing of oral ulcers.
Gandusa can be practiced with various substances like oils, ghee, milk, honey water, fermented gruel, wine, meat juice, fermented grain washes mixed with pastes of various substances, even animal urine, for various therapeutic purposes, but most of these are used for specific therapeutic purposes. Of the daily use options recommended, oil is perhaps the most appropriate choice.
Some modern day practitioners who seem not to differentiate the practice of oil pulling from gandusa, say oil pulling shouldn’t be practiced outside of narrow and strict parameters of the complicated and delicate detoxification practice of panchakarma but, considering the classics do give an option for daily use, and gandusa is not the same as oil pulling, it may be possible that using oil for daily use could be beneficial. However, if there is excess ama, or toxins prevalent, especially in the neck or head, it may be prudent to consult with a practitioner before engaging in the practice.
Whereas gandusa involves holding liquids in the mouth without movement, kavala—the other classical practice involving oil in the mouth—involves gargling with the oil or other liquids. Gargling is not part of the current practice of oil pulling. In fact, one website dedicated to the practice of oil pulling that claims to be the, “Most Trusted original and popular website on oil pulling since 2004,” says specifically NOT to gargle with the oil.
Kavala is advised for some diseases of the neck, head, ears, mouth and eyes, excess salivation, diseases of the throat, dryness of the mouth, nausea, stupor, anorexia and rhinitis are curable especially by kavala.
Myths and real benefits of the modern day practice of oil pulling
Does oil pulling remove toxins from the mouth?
Some proponents of oil pulling claim that the white mixture that we spit out after the practice, is white due to the “toxins” that are being pulled out of your mouth. However, if you simply mix oil and water together for a few minutes in a blender, it will turn whitish. Saliva and oil, thoroughly emulsified, are likely to be white so, while there may be plaque or bacteria in this mixture, it is perhaps a stretch to claim that the mixture is white because of toxins. While it is likely that some plaque is dislodged in the process of oil pulling, I personally do not feel that my teeth and gums are sufficiently clean after oil pulling to quit brushing and flossing.
There is a small study on the effects of oil pulling for 45 days, that concluded that practicing oil pulling has the ability to reduce plaque and gingivitis.[vii] Another small study concluded that oil pulling 10 minutes daily with sesame seed oil may reduce Streptococcus mutans (which is linked to the production of plaque) within two weeks.[viii]
So there is evidence that oil pulling can reduce plaque and gingivitis, but there may be other reasons why oil pulling could benefit oral health.
Does oil pulling benefit the teeth, gums & oral health in general?
I have read many, many first hand accounts on the internet claiming improved oral health through the practice of oil pulling. Teeth are whiter, gums pinker and healthier-looking. I don’t know if this is true, but there are so many that I certainly think it possible.
This is what makes sense to me: oil is viscous, and pulling it repeatedly through our teeth, subjects our oral muscles to significantly more effort than they are used to. This oral exercise increases blood flow to our oral tissues and muscles, in the same way that exercising any group of muscles can increase the health of the local tissues. Increased blood flow to tissues anywhere in the body help improve the health of those tissues by carrying more nutrition to the tissues, and more waste away so, increasing blood flow to oral tissues could improve the health of the gums and other local tissues.
Increasing blood flow to the area and efficacy of waste removal could also serve to stimulate secretions from the nose or mouth, and help clear the local channels. I could see this having the potential to benefit most any disorders of the mouth, sinuses and head and face in general. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), we understand that, wherever there is pain, there is stagnation of qi or prana (energy) or blood. If we move that qi or blood, the pain resolves. Since oil pulling should increase blood flow to the oral tissues, I would expect it to benefit pain and inflammation there, and possibly for it to help reduce stagnation and inflammation in other local tissues, including the sinuses, jaw, throat, and possibly tissues as far away as the eyes or top or sides of the head.
One concern that arises on the internet is that oil pulling could help leech mercury from people’s amalgam fillings. Another is that the practice of oil pulling could loosen crowns. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it is worth exploring, when considering if this is a good practice for everybody.
Does oil pulling benefit our health in general?
If, in fact, oil pulling does reduce inflammation in the gums and oral tissues—and it seems likely it does, it has the potential to benefit the health of the body. Why? Because chronic inflammatory gum disease, like any latent inflammation in the body, has been shown to increase C-Reactive Protein (CRP). Higher levels of CRP are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Latent inflammation taxes the immune system. Resolving latent inflammation anywhere in the body, helps free up the body’s resources to fight other pathogens.
Resolving latent inflammation, and thereby reducing CRP levels, has the potential to reduce heart disease, arthritis, and other conditions in the body that are negatively impacted by inflammation. So, yes, it is possible that oil pulling can benefit our overall health, in the same way that addressing any latent inflammation anywhere in the body could be of benefit. As a practitioner, I would want to assess where a patient’s inflammation is, and address it there.
Are there other possible benefits to oil pulling?
Possibly. According to Eastern medical traditions, all organs are represented on the tongue, so it is theoretically possible that exercising the tongue would have a “reflexology” effect perhaps, benefiting the organs that have that subtle connection with the tongue, but this seems to me to be a very indirect possibility, and certainly more difficult to prove.
Is oil pulling the most important and powerful detox practice ever?
I think not. It makes sense to me that it could have a very beneficial effect on oral health, that it could possibly have a beneficial on disorders of the throat, jaw, face and head and, in that it may reduce inflammatory conditions locally, it has the potential to free up the body’s resources to do other important things, like address inflammatory conditions elsewhere and reduce our CRP levels. That is super.
But I think that the Ayurvedic practice of panchakarma –that addresses inflammation and health of the tissues throughout the body, is absolutely a more thorough approach to detoxification. In Ayurveda, we think it is most effective to address inflammation via the closest orifice. Addressing inflammation in the head, and especially the mouth, by introducing medicine or medicinal oil or other substances, to the mouth makes sense. If inflammation is in the joints or organs, however, then getting the medicine to those organs via oral route, to be digested and circulated, or through massage on the skin—in the case of joints—may be more direct and effective routes of delivery.
While I appreciate that some practitioners have had or seen amazing results from the modern practice of oil pulling, for myself, I think that the practice has great potential to improve oral health, have an overall positive, if perhaps sometimes minor, beneficial effect on the general health of the body and its organs; it has low potential for negative side effects, and is likely worthwhile to include in a healthy dinacharya (healthy daily routine), if you are not concerned about leaching mercury or loosening crowns. I would use an oil that is appropriate to my vikruti (current condition), if I didn’t know what that would be, I would consult with an Ayurvedic practitioner, especially if I had any pathology in my head or neck, or concerns about whether it would be good for me or not.
I realize there are passionate proponents and practitioners of “oil pulling,” and it is not my intent to minimize the value of this practice. Neither is it my intent to influence anyone either to engage in or avoid this practice. Rather, to explore its roots, and what makes sense to me to be its likely benefits and to share those explorations, in case it resonates with anyone else. My personal conclusions could be completely wrong. (Something that is true in this and all cases J.) If you’ve either had wonderful or horrible effects, personally, from the modern day practice of oil pulling, feel free to let me know and I may post your experience, below, along with those of others.
[ii] Charaka Samhita; Sutrasthanam V:78-80
[iii] Ashtanga Hrdayam: Sutrasthana: XXII:1-12
[iv] Ashtanga Hrdayam: Sutrasthana XXII:12
[v] Charaka Samhita; Sutrasthanam V:78-80
[vi] The 3 doshas being Vata, Pitta and Kapha. You can read more about them in an article [http://drclaudiawelch.com/resources/articles/your-ayurvedic-constitution/] on my website.
[vii] http://www.johcd.org/pdf/Effect_of_Oil_Pulling_on_Plaque_and_Gingivitis.pdf This study states, “Oil pulling is an age-old process mentioned in Charaka Samhita and Sushratha’s Arthashastra.” I don’t know what Sushruta’s “Arthashastra is. It is not a section of Sushruta Samhita that I can find, and the authors do not give references for such a book. The reference they do give is for Charaka Samhita: Sutrasthana and they equate oil pulling with, “The process is called Kavala Gandoosha/ kavala Graha in Ayurveda.” Charaka Samhita: Sutrasthana does not describe a practice like the current day oil pulling. It does describe kavala and gandusa but, as we will see, they are not practices that resemble the modern day practice of oil pulling.
Written by Claudia Welch