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Would you squish oil between your teeth for 15 minutes a day?
(No. 139) I thought not. But what if it made your gums and teeth feel like new?
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When I was 19, I fled Amerika for Central America, and encountered many “wise travelers” (not tourists, God forbid) on the Gringo trail. In a Belizian hostel I came across a long-haired German guy in a colorful sarong who told me he was a “citizen of the world.” Then he showed me how to pull oil.
He took a small swig of local coconut oil and squished it around his mouth for 15 minutes or so.
“I learned this in Kerala,” he said, once he’d spat the emulsified oil onto the dirt. “That’s in southern India,” he explained, because it was obvious that I had no idea what he was talking about.
I thought he was completely nuts, and also a little pretentious.
Well, as so often happens, aging has changed my mind, this time about the Ayurvedic practice of pulling oil. There’s little to no scientific evidence (in the Western sense) that pulling oil improves gum and teeth health and freshens your breath. But there’s plenty of scientific evidence showing that bacteria in unhealthy gums and teeth can negatively affect other systems in your body, including your cardiovascular system. Unhealthy gums can lead to far worse health outcomes as you age.
Also, if you are single, the awful smells of gum disease will prevent you from dating. And if you’re married, your spouse might grow to despise you. And you might wake up to discover you have no friends. We aren’t children any more. We need to take care of our teeth.
Oil pulling is an ancient practice based on the premise that squishing oil between your teeth and around your gums removes harmful bacteria, fungi, and other microbes. It is said to have positive effects on gingivitis. While my recent visit to my dental hygienist showed that my mouth is pretty healthy, a few weeks ago I was feeling an ache in some teeth in the back of my mouth that are very hard to clean. For some reason, the old “citizien of the world” I’d met in Belize popped into my head, and I went to Whole Foods and bought some Dr. Bronner’s coconut oil.
The pain I felt eased immediately after my first pull. And I haven’t felt it since. My gums feel healthy (I still floss and use an electric toothbrush). Obviously, I’m not a dentist, scientist or coconutologist. But I believe this practice, which is a little gross, because the oil is hard to contain in your mouth for 15 minutes (you swallow a bit, or you forget you are squishing it and it comes out the corner of your mouth — yech), is improving my oral health.
Here's a brief overview of the science and potential mechanisms behind oil pulling:
Lipophilic Nature of Oil: The cell membranes of most bacteria contain lipids (fats), and given that oil is a fat, it can adhere to the cell membranes of these microorganisms, helping to pull and trap them. The concept is that, over the course of swishing, more bacteria get encapsulated and trapped in the oil, which you then spit out.
Mechanical Cleaning: The act of swishing itself can help in mechanically cleaning the mouth. The constant swishing can help dislodge food particles and bacteria, similar to how using mouthwash or water might help clean the mouth.
Emulsification: When you swish oil in the mouth, it becomes emulsified with saliva. This process increases the oil's surface area, which might enhance its mechanical cleaning and bacteria-binding capabilities.
Saponification: There's some evidence to suggest that during the oil pulling process, a saponification reaction occurs. This is basically the process of turning fat into soap, which can clean the mouth.
Antimicrobial Properties of Oils: Some oils, like coconut oil, contain lauric acid which has known antimicrobial properties. This means that the oil itself may help reduce your mouth’s bacterial load.
Reduction of Plaque and Gingivitis: There are limited studies that suggest oil pulling can reduce plaque and markers of gingivitis. This is likely due to the combination of mechanical cleaning and the intrinsic properties of the oil.
If you're interested in trying oil pulling, here's a step-by-step guide:
Choose Your Oil: Traditionally, sesame oil was used for oil pulling, but coconut oil has become popular in recent years due to its pleasant taste and potential antimicrobial properties. You can also use sunflower oil or olive oil.
Right Amount: Start with about a tablespoon of oil. If you find this amount too much, you can reduce it. Over time, you can adjust the quantity based on your comfort level.
Timing: It's typically recommended to practice oil pulling first thing in the morning, before eating or drinking anything. However, you can do it at any time of the day as long as you haven't eaten in the preceding 2-3 hours.
Swish and Pull: Put the oil in your mouth and gently swish it around, ensuring it moves around your entire mouth and between your teeth. Do this for about 15 minutes. If you find it difficult at first, you can start with 5 minutes and gradually increase the duration.
Don't Swallow: As the oil moves around your mouth, it may collect bacteria and toxins. Avoid swallowing it. If you accidentally swallow a little, it's not generally harmful, but the aim is to spit out the contaminants with the oil.
Spit it Out: After 15-20 minutes, spit the oil into a trash bin, or a paper towel that you put in the trash. Avoid spitting it into the sink, as over time, the oil could build up and lead to blockages.
Rinse Your Mouth: Rinse thoroughly with warm water to remove any residual oil and toxins. Some people prefer to rinse with warm salt water as it provides additional antimicrobial properties.
Brush and Floss: After rinsing, proceed with your regular oral care routine. Brush and floss your teeth to ensure that your mouth is clean.
Let me know how it goes!