Claim: Swishing plant oils in your mouth has been proved to ameliorate a variety of medical ailments.
Examples:[Collected via e-mail, March 2014]
I just read an article on Facebook today about Oil Pulling. They are saying to put Coconut or Sesame Oil in your mouth and swish around for 20 minutes, no shorter and no longer than that period. Says it Cures a hangover, whitens teeth, strengthens gums/teeth, prevents cavities etc and a general body detox. Is this true?
Origins: "Oil pulling" is the somewhat unusual term for the practice of swishing a type of unrefined plant oil (e.g., coconut, sesame, sunflower, olive, palm) around in one's mouth. This activity is touted, when practiced thoroughly (be sure to coat your teeth and gums!) and regularly as having a variety of oral hygiene benefits, such as whitening teeth, strengthening gums, and eliminating plaque. It is also claimed to have other medical benefits, such as pain relief, the prevention (or even the lessening) of ailments such as cancer and heart disease, and the purging of toxins from the body. (The term "oil pulling" refers to the notion that the activity "pulls" toxins from one's system and/or "pulls" them out through the teeth or mouth when the practitioner spits out the oil solution.)
The history behind oil pulling, as described at Skeptoid, is that:
The idea of rinsing one's mouth with oil is thought to have originated the in the ancient Ayurvedic Indian natural medicine text Charaka Samhita, where "oil gargling" was described as a natural remedy for oral diseases. It was unknown in the western world until the 1990's, when, as the story goes, a doctor named F. Karach gave a presentation to the All-Ukrainian Association for Oncology and Bacteriology on how he used it to cure his own blood cancer. Incidentally, I found no biographical information on Dr. Karach, and I’m not convinced he's even a real person.
Regardless, it didn't break into mainstream alternative circles until a naturopath and nutritionist named Bruce Fife started evangelizing it in his 2008 book Oil Pulling Therapy: Detoxifying and Healing the Body Through Oral Cleansing. Fife's breathless descriptions of the incredible things that swishing with coconut oil could do, done as part of his role as president of the Coconut Research Center (which is apparently a thing), worked wonders.
Oil pulling took off like a granola rocket in the natural cures crowd. There are now countless websites and blogs devoted to the benefits of this ancient Indian treatment, full of before and after pictures, tips and flowery testimonials from people who say it's drastically improved their health. Oil pulling is said to treat chronic pain, insomnia, cavities, allergies, thrombosis, diabetes, asthma, bad breath, gingivitis, digestive issues, meningitis, low energy, heart disease, kidney disease, "toxic bodily waste," PMS, leukemia and even AIDS. Oil pulling, it would seem, is truly a life-changing medical miracle.
That said, all the supporting evidence behind the supposed medical benefits of oil pulling is of the anecdotal variety ("This really works! Try it."), the same sort of testimonials one sees attached to a variety of dubious health nostrums. Scientific research documenting that oil pulling really works — and how it works — is
lacking. The topic has been the subject of a mere handful of clinical studies, primarily small ones performed in India that focused on oral hygiene and suggested, at best, a possible connection with minor improvements in gum health. But even that much benefit may simply be the residual effect of regularly rinsing one's gums with water (or any other fluid), not necessarily the results of specifically using a particular type of oil for that purpose. (The fact that several quite different types of oil are all proffered by various sources as the one "proper" substance to use in oil pulling therapies argues against the idea that some property specific to the type of oil used is actually producing the claimed effects.)
There's certainly no real evidence that oil pulling can prevent or ameliorate the effects of various diseases, "correct hormone imbalances," "reduce inflammation of arthritis," "support normal kidney function," "help reduce insomnia" or produce any of the other variety of beneficial medical effects claimed of it, nor is there even any sensible scientific explanation for how simply swishing oil around in one's mouth could accomplish any of those things.
Moreover, the endless stream of products and therapies touting detoxification benefits have been the bane of real medical science for many years. In any reasonably healthy person, the liver and kidneys already perform an efficient job of filtering out and excreting wastes and other substances potentially harmful to the body — herbal colon cleanses, foot pads, cupping therapy and the like don't improve on that or serve any function other than parting the gullible from their money.
That said, there's no real harm to oil pulling: Its benefits may be unproven, and it may perform no better a job of promoting oral hygiene than ordinary dental rinse or mouthwash will, but it also doesn't produce any known detrimental effects, so all one really risks in undertaking it is the cost of the oil.