An ancient oral-health practice, oil pulling, has come into fashion. But how does it work, and what can it do for you?
What’s Been Going On in Our Mouths?
According to the American Dental Association, tooth decay increases exponentially when carbohydrates are left on the teeth. And bacteria thrives on food stuck between teeth — producing acids that destroy tooth enamel. This can be addressed by brushing your teeth. But the first modern toothbrush wasn’t developed until the late 1780s in England, and the practice of brushing one’s teeth didn’t become commonplace in the United States until after the Second World War — when American soldiers continued their required dental regimen after returning from war.
Yet archaeological evidence suggests many humans in the ancient world had strong teeth until the day they died. So if they weren’t brushing and flossing, what were they doing? Historic Ayurvedic literature recommended a process called “oil pulling” for oral health and general detoxification, which may explain how our long-ago ancestors kept their teeth in tact.
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The Art of Pulling
In recent years, the practice has started gaining popularity again. The process involves swishing about a tablespoon of coconut, olive or sesame oil around the mouth for about 15–20 minutes (though some sources suggest as little as five minutes). It may sound unusual to the uninitiated, but anecdotal evidence suggests it may be one of the best ways to eliminate unhealthy bacteria from the mouth.
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The results may even extend beyond oral health. Practitioners of oil pulling have credited it with improvements in conditions as varied as headaches, diabetic conditions, asthma, and acne. (Drag Race’s Michelle Visage has raved about it on the podcast RuPaul: What’s the Tee? with Michelle Visage.) Ancient wisdom also connects cleansing the oral cavity and preserving the health of the tongue with the well-being of the colon, heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, small intestines, spine and stomach.
It’s easy to give it a try. Oil pulling is most effective first thing in the morning. It can easily be done while taking a morning shower or preparing for your day. Coconut oil is most commonly used, as is sesame oil for certain Ayurvedic doshas. Take a big spoonful and swish it gently around your mouth without swallowing. Spit it out. Then rinse with warm water or saline before brushing your teeth as you normally would. Start the day like this three or four times a week and see if you notice a difference in your smile and overall being.
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Last modified: July 8, 2019