Oil Pulling: A 3,000-Year-Old Oral Hygiene Practice

As published in Common Ground Magazine, January 2014

How wonderful when ancient practices flow into the contemporary mainstream. However, as with any game of telephone, the facts and founding principles usually get lost in perpetuation. “Oil pulling” is quickly becoming a popular daily practice, but it’s worth a moment to get the prescription right before passing it on.

As a 3,000-year-old Ayurvedic practice that is part of a set of daily health rituals collectively called dinacharya, oil pulling is designed to maintain balance as well as to prevent and treat disease. The mouth and tongue are a reflection of the health of the digestive system; therefore, treating the mouth impacts the entire body.

As described in the ancient medical text Charaka Samhita, there are two main techniques for cleansing the mouth. One is called gandush, which involves filling the mouth with about a cup of oil or medicinal preparations— depending on the capacity of the mouth—such that the mouth is stabilized. The second method, kavala, involves a lesser amount of oil or water that is easily swished inside the mouth, but not in the throat, as in gargling. Prior to either practice, it is important to scrape the tongue to remove its stagnant properties.

The benefits of gandush include reducing tingling sensations in the teeth, increasing stability of teeth, decreasing tension in the jaw and neck, and reducing ringing in the ears. The benefits of kavala include stimulating the sense of taste, strengthening and stabilizing the teeth and jaw, improving the quality of the voice, preventing tooth sensitivity, decreasing nausea, and reducing inflammation of the gums.

In gandush, a large amount of oil, warmed to body temperature, is held in the mouth for three minutes, or until secretions build in the mouth or emerge from the eyes or nose. In kavala, 1–2 teaspoons of oil or water is swished around the teeth and mouth, ideally for three minutes, but for at least one. The practice concludes by swishing another small amount of water, which is spit out.

Sesame oil is specifically mentioned for its subtle, penetrating, preventive, and curative effects. Modern Ayurvedic practitioners have included other oils with positive results, including sunflower and coconut. Ayurvedic texts tell us that this is best performed on an empty stomach before breakfast, ideally without a breeze or fan but in sunlight, after having neck and shoulders massaged with oil. The modern-day compromise may be to sit in a warm, relaxing place, and stretch or massage the shoulders and neck with warm sesame oil.

Gandush and kavala are generally prescribed to all people, though using oil is contraindicated for those with phlegm congestion, oral infection, diarrhea, or active alcoholism. In these cases, it’s better to use water. In the event that burning sensations or wounds in the mouth are experienced, use ghee, milk, or diluted rosewater. For mouth ulcers, lukewarm milk or milk with licorice root is advised