Old wives' tale or valuable autoimmune therapy?
These are questions I have been pondering for the past few weeks and, frankly, I still don't have the answers. But I'd like to share my thoughts so far with you and would be very interested to hear from anyone with their own stories to tell on the subject.
First - in case you have somehow managed to miss the buzz created in the media by “#oil-pulling” - I should start by explaining that it is a very old folk remedy, often used in Ayurvedic medicine for a variety of ailments and latterly popularised by Hollywood stars, notably Gwyneth Paltrow, for its teeth-whitening action. In short, it is both a modern health fad and a natural therapy with centuries of anecdotal success behind it.
But what is it exactly? It is the simple, if rather bizarre-sounding, practice of swishing a spoonful of good quality plant oil (usually cold-pressed, organic sesame, sunflower or coconut oils) around the mouth for a period of 20 minutes - on an empty stomach and without swallowing - then spitting out the residue before rinsing with salted water. The cleansing properties of the oil and the action of swilling and “pulling” it around the mouth and between the teeth are said to draw out germs and toxins leaving the mouth, breath and teeth so clean that even some dentists are beginning to recommend the process as part of (not a substitute for) a good oral hygiene routine.
Additional claims are that regular oil pulling benefits the whole internal system too, improving digestion, elimination, immune function and glandular health, to name a few. It is these claims that particularly interest me in my ongoing search to find and make available any and all therapies that might possibly help support recovery from #vitiligo. But that is not to say that the promise of smoother, whiter teeth and healthier gums wouldn't be a welcome bonus too :)
So, in line with my “tried and tested by The Vit Pro” philosophy, I have been trying coconut oil pulling for myself over the past few weeks to see what difference, if any, it would make to my general (and oral) health. I chose #coconut-oil for two reasons. The first is that coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, which is known for being antiviral, antibacterial and anti-fungal and therefore is preferred over other oils for clearing up candida, which can be a persistent problem for anyone with a malfunctioning digestive system. The second reason is that I am already totally sold on the many and varied uses and health benefits of good quality coconut oil and am always happy if I can make one product work hard for me instead of having to buy umpteen different ones.
What I found
Before I get into whether or not there is a sound scientific basis for oil pulling (a question that, for some reason, seems to have prompted more than a few grumpy, if not downright vitriolic, exchanges on various health forums) I will tell you what I have noticed, so far, after about 3 weeks of oil pulling (skipping the odd day here and there for good behaviour):
So, I would have to put a tick in the “improved oral hygiene” box. But what about any wider health benefits?
Did I notice any side effects?
I have not noticed any other adverse reactions. My only slight concern is that some advocates of oil pulling warn against it if you have amalgam fillings due to the supposed risk of mercury leeching into your body. I do have several of these fillings myself (replacing them with non-amalgam alternatives is on my wish list) and have certainly not suffered any symptoms of mercury poisoning since starting my oil pulling experiment but data on just how real a risk this poses is thin on the ground…Which brings me to the next point…
Is oil pulling just an Old Wives' Tale?
I am inclined to think not. (And, by the way, you have to ask yourself how come those Old Wives got to be that old – I am thinking ancient folk remedies just might have something to do with it!) Feelings on the scientific credibility of oil pulling seem to run exceptionally high. One website I came across absolutely hammers the concept and labels it “leg pulling”, citing the fact that research results supporting the therapy are few in number and don't match up to standard drug company protocols. But, for every scathing opinion like that one there are scores of positive testimonials from people who, in most cases, probably don't care who has the strongest argument for or against: they just want to feel better or look better… and, after oil pulling, they do.
I am not recommending jumping onto every passing health fad band wagon – especially not without asking some commonsense questions first. But I think it makes sense to question, just as carefully, the opinions of those who seek to debunk every claim made by the natural therapy community. Such critics sometimes hide their true motives behind an uber-rational and unnecessarily judgemental, if-it-hasn't-been-double-blind-tested-it-can't-be-effective argument which seeks to dismiss everything that isn't controlled by the drug companies and marketed at great expense to the patient.
It occurs to me that if I had relied on the kind of testing and research that the anti-holistic medicine critics would have us demand from every natural remedy ever discovered I would never have tried the supplements that enabled me to reverse my vitiligo. So my default stance is to be open-minded about folk remedies and not to dismiss thousands of anecdotal successes recorded over hundreds of years as worthless simply because they did not take place in a modern-day laboratory.
So, does oil pulling definitely do what its devotees say it does and is there a sound scientific basis for it? I don't know for sure. There is certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence (which, after all, is to medicine what eyewitness testimony is to the legal process) and there is some published research to back it up. The lack of thorough clinical research does not really concern me because this has less to do with the efficacy of the therapy than with the fact that there is no profit motive for any drug company to pay for clinical trials on substances that everyone has in their kitchen cabinet.
My own experience so far has put me firmly in the supporters camp as regards the benefits to oral and sinus health. Whether improved digestion and a resultant reduction in #autoimmunity and further improvements to my pigmentation will follow remains to be seen as these would, I am sure take longer than just three weeks.
With the exception of anyone who might be worried about their amalgam fillings, my opinion is that oil pulling is an easy, inexpensive and safe way of cleansing the mouth and potentially detoxing the body on an ongoing basis. If you suspect that your vitiligo is linked to poor digestion and leaky gut (which can lead to a build-up of toxins in the body, triggering a host of chronic conditions) then you will be as interested as I am in anything that could help as part of a wider vitiligo protocol.
Finally, I would love to hear from anyone who has been oil pulling for an extended period of time and has any results or observations they would be happy to share. As ever, you can contact me via the contact form on this site or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
A vitiligo blogger since 2011. My name is Caroline. I had vitiligo for nearly 50 years before finding an effective treatment. I created this blog to share my experiences with others affected by this skin condition.