What is oil pulling? Examining the ancient detoxifying ritual

An ancient morning routine is making a 3,000-year comeback.

It’s the practice known as “oil pulling,” and it has been gaining popularity in the United States over the last year or so.

The ritual is simple: Just fill your mouth with coconut or sesame oil and swish it through your teeth and gums for five to 10 minutes each day.  This odd habit is supposed to “pull” toxins out of your body and trap them in the oily solution, which you spit into the toilet or the trash when finished.

While this trend may seem rather unique, oil pulling has long established roots in Ayurveda – an alternative system of medicine native to India.  Referred to as “gandusha” or “kaval” in the ancient Ayurvedic text of Charaka Saṃhitā, oil pulling was believed to help cure over 25 systemic diseases – including conditions like tension headaches, migraines, asthma, bronchitis and even osteoarthritis.

According to Ayurveda expert Dr. Scott Gerson, oil pulling has been shown to help prevent many common disorders.

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“It’s used to prevent tooth decay, to prevent mouth odor, bleeding gums, dryness or hoarseness of the throat, while strengthening the teeth and gums,” Gerson, an Ayurvedic physician and medical director of Ayureveda MD in Brewster, N.Y., told FoxNews.com.  “It’s also used in certain cases of anorexia, as it tends to improve the taste function in the mouth and stimulate appetite.  And it’s also used as part the multidimensional treatment of impaired vision and used extensively in people with far sightedness.”

Theoretically, oil pulling reduces inflammation by absorbing the body’s toxins – known as ama.  Ranging from pesticides and fertilizers to chlorine and ammonia, these toxins are found in the air, water and food supply and are imbibed by unknowing individuals on a daily basis. Oil pulling is believed to “pull out” toxins circulating in the tissues lining the oral cavity, as well as the toxins in the local blood supply found in the tongue – one of the most vascular organs in the body.

Gerson said the technique’s success all revolves around its namesake – oil.  Both sesame and coconut oil (and the less-commonly used sunflower oil) contain essential fatty acids, which are thought to be the proper solvent for the majority of the body’s toxins.

“Most of the toxins in the body are non-polar or lipophilic, meaning they’re the opposite of water soluble; they’re fat soluble,” Gerson said.  “So if you eat an apple that’s been sprayed with pesticides, and those toxins from the fertilizer get into your body, those toxins are fat soluble. They stay deposited in the fat areas of the body, and they’re hard to bring back into solution with water.”

Since oil pulling is relatively new to the Western world, its health benefits have been mostly anecdotal, but a few published studies have confirmed that swishing oil does have value – especially for oral health.

In 2009, one study found that people who practiced oil pulling for 10 days showed a reduction in dental plaque comparable to plaque reductions seen in people who used chlorhexidine mouthwash during the same time period.  And in 2008, another study found that oil pulling effectively reduced mouth bacteria in the plaque and saliva samples of study participants.

For those hoping to reap the benefits of oil pulling, Ayurveda experts agree that it must be performed consistently each morning to obtain the best results.  And if you’re really looking to enhance the detoxification process each day, there are some additional Ayurvedic practices that are recommend in combination with oil pulling.

“There’s an idea of scraping the tongue, starting at the back and moving to the front, and you do that scraping action until you get this natural gag reflex; it’s great for preventing bad breath,” Anisha Durve, an Ayurvedic practitioner and licensed acupuncturist for Connor Integrative Medicine Network at University Hospitals in Cleveland, told FoxNews.com. “We also use tongue diagnosis – so the thicker the tongue coating, the more toxins there are in the body.…Also in terms of brushing teeth, we recommend using herbal toothpaste called Neem.  It keeps the mouth fresh, it’s anti-fungal, antiviral, and antibacterial.”

But overall, Durve and Gerson said oil pulling is all about developing a better understanding of what is going on inside your body – a fundamental principle of Ayurveda.

“Ayurveda is really about holistic living – how to get yourself in tune with your own body, the environment, the seasons, the climates,” Durve said.  “Even though there are general principles, we’re always adopting it based on where you live and the season and how active you are.  It’s really about helping each individual develop that self-awareness and get in rhythm with their own body.”