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Oil Pulling: What It Is and How It Works

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    What Exactly Is Oil Pulling?

    Whether you've been plugged into the Internet for the past six months or you were on the holistic bandwagon back in the '60s, you've probably heard about oil pulling, an ancient Ayurvedic procedure that is said to boost oral and overall health by withdrawing toxins.

    The procedure is pretty straightforward: take any vegetable oil, such as coconut, olive or sunflower, and vigorously swish it around your mouth for 20 minutes, then spit it out. Don't gargle, don't swallow. Repeat daily. In simplified terms, by doing this, the oil purportedly cleans and detoxifies your mouth by binding with oral bacteria (hence, the "pulling" away of toxins from your mouth) that you later spit out with the oil, and the healthier mouth in turn leads to a bunch of other positive physical effects, like clearer skin, eased PMS, cleared allergies and alleviated migraines.

    There are two beliefs as to why this may work: first, it's thought that by swishing the oil like a mouthwash, it cleanses the mouth of bacteria due to its antimicrobial properties. Secondly, once the procedure is done, the oil is thought to coat the surface of the teeth, creating a slippery barrier that prevents bacterial buildup.

    Now, if you're raising your eyebrows as to whether this silver bullet is actually real, you're not the only one. Here's what a host of experts across various disciplines are saying so you can judge for yourself.

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    What the Naturopathic Doctor Says

    Bruce Fife, a certified nutritionist, naturopathic physician, and author of the book Oil Pulling Therapy, is a huge proponent of the practice, though he notes that there's some false information floating out there about oil pulling — for example, that it magically migrates from your mouth into your bloodstream, then comes back with toxins that you then spit out.

    "The first benefit is better oral health — whiter teeth, healthier gums, decrease in oral infections," Fife explains. "But the environment of your mouth also affects your entire body."

    Skeptics may think that swishing mouthwash would be the same as swishing oils, but Fife disagrees. "The bacteria in our mouth is covered with a fat membrane and is attracted to the oil, so oil is far better at pulling," he explains, citing the chemical repulsion between water and oil as opposed to the attraction between oil and fat.

    Though the ideal is to swish for 15 to 20 minutes, the good news is that any amount of time will be beneficial, especially if you make it a part of your long-term routine, Fife says. He recommends adding it to (read: not replacing) your flossing and brushing routine for the best results.

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    What the Holistic Health Coach Says

    Rachael Pontillo, a Philadelphia-based AADP board-certified health coach and licensed aesthetician, is also a supporter of oil pulling. She points out that the gastrointestinal system plays a large role in keeping the immune system in check, hence the emphasis on keeping the mouth — the beginning of the digestive system — clean.

    According to Pontillo, the oil is antimicrobial because of its liquid makeup, which allows it to get into places where toothbrushes, floss, and even more advanced tools like Waterpiks and dental scrapers can't. "The oil leaves behind a slippery residue, preventing microbes from 'sticking' to those areas in the future, and also helps seal and protect tooth enamel which helps prevent future toxic buildup." The last part is key — don't brush afterward, or you'll remove the protective coating.

    Newbies may find it a bit unsettling to swish for such a long time, and may even feel gum soreness afterward, which is what happened to Pontillo when she first started. "This is normal, as when toxins are aggravated — pulled out of their hiding spots — they tend to be irritant and cause discomfort just as they do inside the body when you do a detox or cleanse," Pontillo says. "The discomfort passed after those first few days and never returned. Just stick with it and it will be worth it!"

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    What the Professor Says

    Edmond Hewlett, DDS, a Professor of Restorative Dentistry and Associate Dean of Outreach and Diversity at the UCLA School of Dentistry, has a different take on the technique.

    "The short answer: There is no evidence to support the use of oil pulling to improve oral health," he says.

    Though a 2006 study in the claims that oil pulling does have positive effects, Dr. Hewlett cites several problems with the study. Things like the small sample size of 10 people, a flawed control group, and a vague description of methodology disqualifies it from being listed as medical evidence.

    So why are believers raving about it?

    "During the swishing of the oil for the typically recommended 15 to 20 minutes, saliva breaks down some of the oil and mixes with it to form what is essentially a soap," Hewlett explains, which may be attributable to that fresh and clean feeling you get post-pulling.

    Bottom line for Hewett: Stick to flossing, fluoride, healthy eating habits, and regular dental checkups and cleanings.

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    What the Dentist Says

    For Luke Cronin, owner and principal dentist of a private practice in North Sydney, Australia, and founder of the site Ask the Dentist, a free online resource that allows people to have their dental-related questions answered by a qualified professional, the lack of substantial clinical data on oil pulling is the primary concern.

    "The data coming out of the limited clinical studies to date infer that brushing and flossing remain more effective than oil pulling," he says. "The question people need to ask themselves is even if oil pulling could reduce bacteria to the same extent as brushing and flossing, would they choose and maintain a daily routine of 20 minutes oil pulling every morning prior to eating breakfast?"

    The good news: while Dr. Cronin doesn't buy into the supposed benefits of oil pulling (nor does he recommend it) trying it out once or twice probably won't do any harm. "There are no reported negative side-effects of edible oils on soft or hard oral tissue," he says. "I can't comment on the extensive range of other health benefits oil pulling purports to deliver."

    His take: "Nothing beats a modern-day toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss."