The other day one of my patients asked me if she should consider adding oil pulling to her daily oral hygiene routine. She had recently undergone a flurry of treatment as a result of a three-year hiatus from regular dental care. To avoid going through that again she wanted to “pull out all the stops” to ensure her mouth would be in optimal health from now on.
Mind you, when a person has neglected their routine preventive care and/or has not been consistent with brushing and flossing, it is not uncommon to develop dental health issues like cavities, gum problems, and worse.
But before I reveal what I advised this patient, some explanation into the what, why, and wherefore of the practice known as oil pulling is called for.
Oil pulling is an alternative medical practice first seen in ancient Indian Ayurvedic medical writing dating back 3,000 years. It involves putting about a tablespoon of oil (traditionally sesame, sunflower or coconut) into your mouth then slowly and deliberately swishing, swilling, squirting, pushing, and pulling it through your teeth, into your gums, over and under your tongue, and around your cheeks and palate.
It is an active procedure whereby all the muscles in and around your mouth are used to vigorously force the chosen oil into all the interstices, nooks, and crannies of your oral cavity.
It is recommended that the oil pulling procedure should be performed for a full 20 minutes every day, which allows enough time to purge out many hidden microbial invaders. During the process, the oil emulsifies in your mouth and takes on greater volume, especially as it mixes with your saliva. This leaves you with quite a mouthful as the minutes pass while you’re squishing away.
Personally, I prefer my oil in a salad. (Am I tipping my hand prematurely as to my opinion on this matter?)
But are there any real benefits from oil pulling?
In my research, I discovered that oil pulling has been touted as a cure for migraine headaches, a way to whiten your teeth, reduce cavities, improve the health of your gums, enhance your cardiovascular health, bolster your immune system, clear up your complexion, and help you find the perfect mate. (I made up the last one.)
But I can understand why oil pulling could be intriguing. It is postulated that the properties of the oil itself and the scrubbing action of the rapid and turbulent flow of the viscous liquid fatty oil inside your mouth causes the oil to attract and adhere to the fatty content of bacterial cell walls, “pulls them out of hiding” and into the slurry that is being mechanically pumped around your mouth.
The oil also purportedly flushes out toxins and bacterial residue associated with the microbial activity that causes tooth decay and gum disease.
You may have heard that a human bite is more harmful than a dog bite (assuming no rabies). This is because there are literally billions of bacteria and microorganisms present in our mouths. It makes sense that anything would eliminate or diminish this microbial population could be beneficial not just for oral health, but for general health, as well.
There is a plethora of bona fide scientific research that documents the link between oral health and overall physical wellbeing. Many conditions such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and an elevation of C-reactive proteins, which can be more detrimental to your heart health than high cholesterol, have been definitively linked to chronic oral inflammation.
In regard to oil pulling, however, there is no scientific research that proves that it has any more health benefits than does traditional oral care.
And the American Dental Association proclaims, “Currently, there are no reliable scientific studies to show that oil pulling reduces cavities, whitens teeth or improves oral health and well-being. Based on the lack of scientific evidence, the American Dental Association does not recommend oil pulling as a dental hygiene practice.” ADA Oil Pulling
So, what advice did I give to my potential oil pulling patient? (Can you guess?)
I explained that while oil pulling, in theory, makes sense, it sure seems like a lot of effort for very questionable results. I suggested instead, that she brush her teeth properly for two minutes twice a day; floss daily for 90 to 120 seconds and swish with a fluoride rinse for one minute, and in the presence of her gum issues add a 30-second antiseptic rinse to her ritual.
Plus, oil pulling does not replace brushing and flossing. You still gotta do it.
Traditional daily oral care as outlined above? Approximately 7 & ½ minutes.
Add oil pulling? A whopping 27+ minutes!
Plus, the oil puller must be sure not to swallow the oil and saliva mixture because it’s laden with harmful bacteria and toxins.
And if you think an added benefit of oil pulling is a good cheek workout, one side effect turns out to be sore jaw muscles. That can launch an entire other set of problems including jaw muscle spasms, which can exacerbate an existing temporomandibular condition, otherwise known as TMJ.
And, as it has been reported in several publications, do not spit the saliva/oil mixture into the sink because it can clog your drain pipes. (Better to expectorate into a paper towel or a wastebasket.)
I think I talked her out of it.
With more than 35 years of clinical practice under my belt, believe me when I say that despite my patients’ best intentions, it’s hard enough to get them to brush twice a day for two minutes using proper toothbrushing techniques.
And flossing-well let’s just say that I give out far more floss than is actually used.
Here’s my last word on oil pulling (did you doubt I had a last word?)
As a society, much can be done to improve our collective general health, and the instigator of many common conditions and illnesses is poor oral health. You don’t need to invest nearly a half hour each day to improve the condition of your mouth. Follow the advice above and in roughly 8 minutes you’ll be following a scientifically proven daily regime that will have enormous benefits for your overall well being for the rest of your life.
For those who are especially conscientious about their dental health, I’ll add one last caveat that would be better for your health, as well as your time management: forget oil pulling and add a midday brushing after lunch, even if only for an abbreviated cleaning, to remove lingering food particles between your teeth. And since oil pulling is best performed in the morning, not only would less effort be expended to achieve optimal oral hygiene, the time saved could very well afford you the opportunity to enjoy a less harried morning. Perhaps a chance to hit the snooze button when your alarm clock buzzes. Or more time to enjoy your cup of Joe before you start your day.
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