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Oil pulling: The wellness ritual that's always trending

This ancient Ayurvedic practice pops up back in the news every few months courtesy celebrities who swear by it. Experts advice caution instead of following the trend blindly

The practice of oil pulling involves swishing a spoon of coconut or sesame oil in the mouth for 4-5 minutes
The practice of oil pulling involves swishing a spoon of coconut or sesame oil in the mouth for 4-5 minutes (Unsplash/Towfiqu Barbhuiya)

In addition to walking, running, hitting the gym and eating healthy, there is one practice that entrepreneur couple Savitri and Sivakumar from Trichy, Tamil Nadu, follow every morning that they say has improved their health drastically. They take a spoonful of sesame oil and swish it around their mouth for a couple of minutes. “This has immensely cleared my nasal passage and throat and even if I catch a cold now, the intensity of it is much lesser,” observes Sivakumar while Savitri says, “It has helped me overcome bad breath that I used to experience as soon as I got up in the mornings.”

What is this practice?
Better known as ‘oil pulling’, this ancient Ayurvedic practice has existed for centuries and is constantly in news these days – thanks to various celebrities vouching for it time and again and people becoming more health-conscious post covid. Usually practiced the first thing in the morning on an empty stomach (some experts suggest before brushing teeth while some say after), oil pulling involves taking a spoon (around 10 ml) of any unrefined, cold-pressed oil (preferably sesame or coconut) and swishing it in the mouth for 7-8 minutes to start with. This can later be increased even to 20 minutes, suggest some experts.

As the oil mixes with the saliva in the mouth, it is believed to pull out all the toxins from the body, which may have been created thanks to several factors like the food we eat, our lifestyles, the environment we live in etc. After a couple of minutes, the oil in the mouth doubles in quantity, becomes thin in consistency and turns milky white – a sign of that the toxins are out. This detoxification process is supposed to strengthen one’s oral and general health.

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“Our mouth is the mirror of our entire body. The germs in it can cause problems in the rest of the body. Hence, maintaining good oral health is extremely essential for a good overall health and oil pulling is one of the best ways to ensure that,” says VR Muthu, CEO of Idhayam Oil, a company that produces sesame oil and promotes the practice of oil pulling. “It’s one of those ancient practices like oil bath, mud bath and brushing teeth with neem sticks that allows one to be in harmony with nature,” adds the entrepreneur, who also says that he has seen many people cure themselves of serious ailments with this simple practice.

From an age-old practice to a Western trend
“The earliest mention of oil pulling is in Charaka Samhita, written around 100 BCE where it is mentioned as Gandusha,” informs Ayurvedic expert Dr. Pranit Ambulkar, R&D Health & Wellness, Netsurf Communications Pvt. Ltd, a direct selling company that sells several natural products. “It’s simple and beneficial and that’s the reason why people still follow it. All those who have tried it have found it helpful for treating dental and several other issues,” he notes.

Many wellness brands too have started to produce oils specifically meant for oil pulling but experts believe that cold-pressed oils are the best. “It is ideal to use sesame oil. However, in south India, it is common to see people use coconut oil or any generic pure cold-pressed edible oil. Flavoured oils, branded oils, or blends from any wellness brands will not be of any use,” says Dr Ambulkar.

Like several other Indian practices that get global popularity with Western approval, oil pulling too has gained mileage with many celebrities speaking about it. Hollywood actress Gwyneth Paltrow has repeatedly advocated for it in several of her interviews and closer home, actresses like Shilpa Shetty Kundra, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, Anushka Sharma and Aditi Rao Hydari have spoken about it.

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Consult an expert before you start
However, ayurvedic practitioners feel that it’s better to consult an expert before blindly following any practice, even if it is something as simple as oil pulling. 

Dr Megha KS, an Ayurvedic doctor who runs a clinic called Srushti Ayurvedalaya, says there are certain times when she doesn’t recommend oil pulling to her patients. “While in cases like sensitivity of teeth, bleeding gums or mouth ulcers, oil pulling works extremely well; in cases of sinusitis or cold, I don’t advise it as it may increase the ‘kapha’ or phlegm in the body. In such instances, I would recommend a simple warm water or salt water gargle,” she informs.

Although it’s good that viral trends are helping people focus on their health, one must also keep in mind their body’s requirements, she notes. “Social media trends – whether it’s intermittent fasting, consuming detox teas or oil pulling – are good as long as you know whether they suit your body or not. 

Every individual is different and has different health requirements. So don’t blindly follow trends without consulting an expert,” she sums up.

Some points to keep in mind 

  1. Oils like sesame and coconut are recommended for the practice.
  2. Don’t swallow the oil that you have gargled with. 
  3. Spit the oil into a trash can instead of a sink as the oil can clog the water pipes. 
  4. Oil pulling shouldn’t replace a regular dental routine. 
  5. Swishing the oil for too long may lead to jaw ache. Start small with 4-5 minutes and slowly increase the time.

Deepa Natarajan Lobo is a Bengaluru-based writer.

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