The deep and shallow benefits of Ayurvedic oil pulling
By Rachel Dowd
Let’s be honest: superficial perks often make the strongest selling points. Take oil pulling, an ancient Ayurvedic practice of swishing oil around the mouth that has been used for thousands of years to treat everything from gingivitis and receding gums to allergies, headaches, and general malaise. For someone who sneezes at the mere thought of ragweed, it seemed worth a try. But it wasn’t until I caught wind that oil pulling can also whiten your teeth—not to mention lighten the dark circles under your eyes, give sweetness to the voice, and provide clarity to the eyes—that I hotfooted it to the nearest health food store for a bottle of organic, cold-pressed sesame oil.
At its best, oil pulling sounds bizarre; at its worst, nauseating. There are various methods, but essentially the idea is to put two tablespoons of oil in your mouth first thing in the morning before you brush your teeth or drink or eat anything. For the next 5 to 30 minutes, you roll the oil gently around in your mouth, coating the tongue, mucous membranes, gums, and teeth. During that time, you create a ball of phlegm, which you spit out when you’re done. Then you brush your teeth, rinse, and go.
Like much of Ayurveda, this simple process speaks to a variety of principles held by the ancient Indian system of medicine. For example, “Ayurveda loves oil. It uses it in every imaginable way,” says Felicia Tomasko, R.N., an Ayurvedic practitioner in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. “Oil is nurturing. Energetically, it’s heavy, unctuous, emollient, soothing. And oil is considered to have a sweet taste, which nourishes and feeds the core levels of our body’s vitality and strength.” By rolling the oil around your high vascular mouth, it simultaneously supplies rejuvenation and detoxification—two qualities critical to counterbalance the depletion and buildup that underlie all illness.
“Oil is able to penetrate into the tissues and lubricate and allow the release of toxins and other things that have built up in the tissues,” explains Valencia Porter, M.D., M.P.H., director of women’s health at the Chopra Center outside San Diego. So people with periodontal disease, gingivitis, or swollen gums can extract whatever is causing the issue.” Case in point: An Indian study published in 2008 in the African Journal of Microbiology Research found that oil pulling with sesame oil for anywhere from 3 to 20 minutes a day reduced the number of cavity-causing bacteria by 20 percent on average.
While oil pulling functions locally as oral hygiene, it also works systemically to release toxins throughout the body by stimulating the tongue. “Where in western medicine the tongue is a block to seeing the back of the throat, from an Ayurvedic perspective, it is a map of the body,” Porter says. “Individual areas of the tongue correlate to the heart, lungs, or other places.”
By nourishing and detoxifying the tongue, “it affects every part of the body,” Tomasko adds. “If you look at diseases, whether acute or chronic, many are the result of toxins, metabolic waste building up in the body, and depletion. When we do something very localized in the mouth that both detoxifies and rejuvenates, it has a systemic effect.” Oh, and it whitens your teeth.
Oil Pulling FAQs
There is no perfect way to oil pull, says Tomasko, so don’t obsess over your technique. Here, a few guidelines to help you get started.
What kind of oil should I use? Sesame oil is the traditional choice, because it works well with all constitutions. Look for organic, cold pressed, and untoasted. Consider switching oils from time to time to see how they perform differently in your body. Bruce Fife, N.D., author of Oil Pulling Therapy, swears by coconut oil. Others like safflower or hemp.
How long should I pull? Anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes is recommended. The low end is good as a preventative oral hygiene regimen. For specific illnesses, pull for longer.
How forcefully do I swish? Both Porter and Tomasko advise you to work the oil around your mouth actively, though there’s no need to mimic a mouthwash commercial. Use your tongue and cheeks to continually coat your whole mouth—gums, teeth and tongue—with oil.
What do I do to keep the phlegm from going back down my throat? This takes a little practice—mentally and mechanically. If it slides down, don’t worry. It’ll work its way up later in the day. If you catch it moving to the back of your throat, bend over at the hips, place your hands on your thighs or shins and wait for the phlegm to fall against the back of your teeth.
Do I have to do it in the morning? Morning is beneficial because your tongue builds up a thick white coating of toxins, called ama, while you sleep. But oil pulling can be done during the day or night. Just be sure to wait at least an hour after eating to prevent nausea.
What do I do after I spit out the oil? Brush your teeth, scrape your tongue using the bristles of your toothbrush or a tongue scraper (also helps to remove ama), and rinse well with water or tepid herbal tea. Tomasko likes to rinse with mouth-strengthening licorice, Trpahala, or tulsi tea.
Rachel Dowd is a freelance writer and oil puller whose teeth are “now whiter than anything Crest White Strips could accomplish.”
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