Oxygen bars. Tapeworm diets. Ear-candling. Urine drinking. Strippercise. You never can tell which new health fad is going to take hold and which will later be revealed as an elaborate money-making ruse. And with the probable exception of urine drinking, often these new (though usually touted as “ancient”) remedies for whatever it is that ails you—whether it’s bad breath and cellulite or migraines and insomnia—come with a certain intrigue. Any inherent, and often wise, skepticism is swiftly put asunder by the mere thought of a magic bullet. And if you do happen to be on the receiving end of more dire chronic issues such as headaches or digestive problems, or even first-world bugaboos like restless legs syndrome or hair loss, you’re likely to think about trying anything once. You know you’ve been at least a little bit tempted to click on those “Lose belly fat” ads that follow you around the Internet. So where does the practice of oil-pulling fit in? Fast new fad? Or the holistic cure-all you’ve been waiting for?
Oil-pulling is, in essence, simple enough. Every morning before breakfast, put a tablespoon of sunflower oil or sesame oil into your mouth and swish it around like it was Listerine. Do this for fifteen to twenty minutes. Then spit it out, rinse with regular water or brush your teeth as usual, and you’re done. And that 140 minutes of your rinsing your mouth with oil will, according to some, banish your bad breath, relieve stress, cure insomnia and fatigue, dissipate body pains, and make digestive problems a thing of the past. There are even some—albeit decidedly nonscientific—reports that oil-pulling has been instrumental in curing such chronic disorders as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease in some people. But no empirical medical research has backed those claims.
Oil-pulling is an Ayurvedic home remedy that has been used in India forever and was brought to the mainstream in 1992 by Ukranian oncologist Dr. F. Karach. How does it allegedly work? Well, the details vary a bit depending on who you ask, but mostly oil-pulling’s effectiveness is attributed to oil’s ability to adhere, via the mucous membranes in the mouth, to all the toxins and bad bacteria in your system, thereby expelling them. Dr. Bruce Fife, nutritionist, naturopathic physician, and author of Oil Pulling Therapy: Detoxifying and Healing the Body Through Oral Cleansing, uses the analogy of motor oil in a car’s engine, which, while unappetizing, is also compelling. The oil picks up all the dirt and debris that you don’t want clogging up your engine. So you change the oil in your car periodically. Oil-pulling, to wit, is like changing the lubricant of your body’s mechanism.
That all seems logical, if imperfectly so, doesn’t it? However, there are almost as many oil-pulling naysayers as there are oil-pulling enthusiasts. To add to the confusion, since oil-pulling’s benefits aren’t supported by any credible scientific evidence, no credible source decisively debunks the practice. The skeptics do make some good points though. For one, on a physiological level, even the large veins under your tongue don’t carry enough blood to support the theory that the blood that’s cleansed by the oil in your mouth will somehow positively affect the blood any other place in your body. Furthermore, there’s the inescapable oil and water dynamic. Toxins in your bloodstream, it is argued, are most likely to be water soluble, so would therefore not bind to any fat-based anything. So the fat-soluble toxins would be stored in your fat cells and left to be expelled in some other way.
Where does that leave us then? What might oil-pulling do for you—or to you—if it won’t cleanse your entire system of every little microbial baddie it can stick to? One thing it will likely do is help with your overall oral health by way of the simple emulsification that happens as the oil mixes with your saliva. For the layperson, emulsification is what makes soap. And we all know that soap makes things clean. So, in a sense, oil-pulling is like making soap to clean your mouth. To support this, the majority of testimonials as to the benefits of oil-pulling do focus on renewed health of the teeth, gums, palate, and tongue. The long and short of it is that no matter what, oil-pulling will not likely cause you any harm at all. You’ll just have to consider if that’s how you want to spend twenty minutes every morning.