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Live Well: Oil pulling draws fans, skeptics in Colorado Springs

August 19, 2014 Updated: August 19, 2014 at 9:50 am
photo - Jennifer Mulson staff mug Thursday, June 12, 2014. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette
Jennifer Mulson staff mug Thursday, June 12, 2014. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette 

Oil pulling is all the rage these days.

The practice of swishing coconut, sesame or sunflower oil around in your mouth for up to 20 minutes makes frequent headlines on covers of natural health magazines and in my Facebook feed. And when people ask me what I think, my answer seems to surprise them: "No, thanks. Gross."

But I know others who are pleasantly surprised by the ancient oral health care tradition that is said to have many benefits. So who's right?

I consulted two local health care professionals.

My first questions were to an Ayurvedic practitioner, since oil pulling might have come from India - a culture that widely practices the holistic system of medicine. Ayurveda seeks to balance the body through diet, herbs and lifestyle choices. It teaches that each of us has one or two of three doshas, or body constitutions, that must be kept in balance to maintain good health.

The second person I asked? A dentist.

How it's done

Oil pulling is simple: Swish a couple of tablespoons of oil around your teeth and gums for three to 20 minutes. Spit the oil into the toilet or trash because it can clog the sink, advises Sara Carson, local Ayurvedic practitioner and owner of The Body Tree Healing Center.

If there is a specific issue to treat, Carson recommends going to an Ayurvedic practitioner who will determine your dosha (vata, pitta, kapha) and suggest the proper oil to use.

Pitta-type problems could be mouth ulcers or bleeding gums, which Carson might treat with sunflower or coconut oils. She might also suggest an herbalized oil, depending on the issues.

"It (oil pulling) really has a universal application," Carson said. "It's both cleansing and healing, and rejuvenating."

The practice doesn't only treat oral issues, she said, but also can help heal chronic throat infections, migraines and lung and sinus problems.

The oil allegedly pulls toxins from the mouth.

"There's a mysterious aspect of it," Carson said, "but through thousands of years of practice, it does work. We can surmise that the oil pulls toxins out of tissues and activates the salivary glands. When you put the oil in your mouth, you start salivating. That may be part of it - the salivary glands rush in and are activated, and oil grabs on to that saliva. And the other way is that the oil has nourishing and healing properties, so just holding it in the oral cavity allows it to absorb into the tissues and carry the healing properties of the oil into the tissues."

When oil pulling got a foothold in popular culture last year, Jeff Kahl, a local pediatric dentist, did his own research. He's a member of the Colorado Springs Dental Society and public policy advocate for the Colorado Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.

"Some attribute it to Indian folk remedies, some say it's Asian medicine and some say it's been done in China for hundreds of years," he said. "It's hard to say where it started but probably in the East."

Springs dentist skeptical

Kahl is skeptical of the claims being made about oil pulling.

"Benefits reported are improved breath, decreased bacteria, removal of stains and all the way to removing toxins from your system," he said. "I think some are far-fetched. There is not a lot of great evidence or studies to support that stuff."

Even though he found three medical studies on removing bacteria, and oil pulling was shown to remove some bacteria, he's not convinced.

"They weren't well-controlled studies," he said. "And I suspect swishing water around for 20 minutes would have some benefit. There's no science around this. It can't hurt you, but there are no benefits around it as reported."

From a study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a center that advances science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information: "The oil therapy is preventative as well as curative. The exciting aspect of this healing method is its simplicity. Ayurveda advises oil gargling to purify the entire system; as it holds that each section of the tongue is connected to different organ such as to the kidneys, lungs, liver, heart, small intestines, stomach, colon, and spine, similarly to reflexology and Traditional Chinese Medicine."

Should you try it? Sure, give it a swirl.

For general use, Carson recommends an organic, unfiltered, raw sesame oil. You can warm it on the stove, she said, though be careful not to burn it. The heat gives the oil a slightly different property and makes it more absorbable. You also can use room temperature oil.

Kahl is a proponent of anything that gets people thinking more about their dental care.

"It always surprises me because it's such a challenge to get people to do a full two minutes of brushing twice a day," he said, "but then there's this new thing to do for 20 minutes, and they're gung ho about it."

Kahl sticks with his tried-and-true recipe: Floss once a day and brush with a fluoridated toothpaste for two minutes.

"The most current research says fluoride has a track record of being the most successful public health endeavor in the last 60 years," he said. "We started adding it to water and saw a significantly decreased amount of cavities in people."

Carson, on the other hand, doesn't brush with fluoride. She prefers Auromere Herbal Toothpaste.

"Way before Western civilization was brushing its teeth, there was the ancient tradition of oral care that included oil pulling," she said. "They would use sticks called 'danta' in Ayurveda. You see a lot of herbs originally used as toothbrushes now used in toothpaste, such as neem and licorice. Fluoride has other harmful side effects, but if you have used lots of fluoride, oil pulling can pull it out of the tissues."


Contact Mulson at 636-0270

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