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What Is Oil Pulling?

Apr 24, 2014
By Michelle Konstantinovsky
Cracked coconut sitting next to jars of coconut

When Gwyneth Paltrow speaks, people listen. When the actress told reporters about a practice known as “oil pulling,” media outlets jumped on the phrase, calling it an ancient Ayurvedic dental remedy, a natural teeth whitening trick, and a detoxifying ritual. But what is oil pulling, and does it really deliver legitimate health benefits?

According to reports published after Paltrow’s infamous comments, oil pulling is a practice derived from Ayurveda, a 4,000-year-old Indian system of medicine rooted in the principle of balancing the bodily systems through diet, herbs, and yoga. Paltrow says the practice is simple, if somewhat time-consuming: “You swish coconut oil around [in your mouth] for 20 minutes.”

Media stories have claimed oil pulling can do everything from reducing headaches to balancing hormones, and Paltrow maintains it supports oral and skin health.

According to Ayurveda: It’s Not Ayurvedic

Some Ayurveda experts are taking issue with the term, however. Dr. Claudia Welch, an Ayurvedic practitioner, educator, and author, wrote on her blog that she’d never heard of oil pulling, despite having studied Ayurveda for nearly 30 years. She and Ayurveda practitioner Todd Caldecott agree that while there are Ayurveda practices that involve holding oil in the mouth — kavala and gandusa — both are different from the 20-minute swishing routine Paltrow described.

“The Ayurvedic practice most often referenced in relation to oil pulling is gandusa,” says Ayurvedic practitioner and yoga instructor Kate Schwabacher. “But it’s different because in gandusa, the oil is kept still in the mouth.” The practice of kavala calls for gargling oil or other liquids, but not swishing.

Scant Research to Support Oil Pulling

According to a 2009 study involving 20 age-matched adolescent boys, oil pulling with sesame oil for 10 to 15 minutes did show a significant reduction in plaque and gingivitis. And other small studies have indicated the practice might improve dental health.

But all of these studies involved a small number of participants, and many medical and dental professionals aren’t convinced by the scant research. Robert J. Collins, a clinical professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine told The Atlantic that there is no evidence that plaque is fat-soluble and, “even if it was, it doesn’t mean that it would disrupt the plaque.” Additionally, the American Dental Association stated that it would not comment on oil pulling’s effectiveness because of the need for additional research.

About Those Detoxification Claims

Many of the reports that followed Paltrow’s comments claimed oil pulling “detoxifies” the body because the supposedly fat-soluble toxins are expelled when the oil is expectorated. First, it might be helpful to address what a toxin is.

“By definition, a toxin is anything that is poisonous to the body,” explains One Medical’s Erica Matluck, a naturopath and nurse practitioner. “However, frameworks that look at health holistically, such as Ayurveda, refer to toxins more broadly as substances that are harmful to the body. Toxins in this sense are usually substances that the body has difficulty breaking down or metabolizing.”

So does traditional gandusa, kavala, or modern oil pulling actually rid the body of these harmful substances? “The mechanism guiding the practice is that the oil binds toxins in the oral cavity, a prime location for absorption and circulation, and therefore a hub for toxin absorption,” Matluck says. “When you expel the oil from your mouth, the bound toxins are removed from the oral cavity, preventing systemic absorption of these toxins.  Though this mechanism makes sense from a Western perspective, it neglects the multiple other routes through which we absorb toxins, such as the lungs, skin, and digestive tract.”

Not a Cure-All, But May Have Preventive Benefits

According to experts, oil pulling may not help, but it probably won’t hurt. “For a healthy individual, oil pulling is not likely to do any harm, but this practice alone is unlikely to radically change your overall health,” Schwabacher says.

Matluck sees some merit in the purported health claims, but doesn’t believe oil pulling is a reliable cure for any serious ailments. “Oil pulling may aid in reducing the body’s toxic load, but its overall impact on detoxification is quite limited,” she says. “While it may be a health promotional practice with preventive benefits, it’s not a curative therapy.”

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Michelle Konstantinovsky

Michelle Konstantinovsky is an experienced writer, regularly producing content on a variety of wellness-oriented topics ranging from breaking health news to fitness and nutrition. Michelle has a master’s degree from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and has written extensively on health and body image for outlets like O: The Oprah Magazine, Slate, SPIN.com, xoJane.com, and The Huffington Post. To read more of her work, visit www.michellekmedia.com.

The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.

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