I wanted to try it, especially after reading the stories about the bacteria in your mouth that travel to your brain and cause Alzheimer’s. Plus, the first person to tell me about oil pulling was my father, a pathologist more obsessed with disease prevention than I am. He puts a glob of coconut oil into his mouth right when he wakes up, keeps it there while he takes a shower (how do you breathe?) and gets dressed, all while swishing the same coconut oil. Disgusting. But he’s always right, so I was interested. Some of my smart and health-conscious friends were into oil pulling, too.
I was intrigued, but resistant to add yet another step to my morning cleansing routine. I am a “flossorexic” and my dentist tells me I’m a Type A tooth-brusher, so did I really need to detox with oil as well?
While meeting with Amy Bader, a naturopathic doctor who has clients all up and down the West Coast, I couldn’t stop staring at her teeth. It’s true, it was a coffee meeting and I was the only one drinking coffee, but her white teeth glowed. When I finally asked, I got the answer I dreaded: “I oil-pull every morning.” My fear of the spirochete bacteria couldn’t get me to try it, but the allure of white teeth clinched the deal. So I committed to the early morning glob.
Oil pulling dates back thousands of years to Ayurvedic medicine, which originated in India and promotes the use of herbal compounds for optimal health. But it’s been adopted lately among the health-erati as a way to detoxify the mouth and body, helping prevent everything from heart disease to sinusitis to digestive issues, mood swings, joint pain, eczema, PMS, migraines, asthma, allergies, diabetes, chronic fatigue and tooth decay, not to mention creating impeccable breath, gum health and white teeth, if you read the first-person anecdotes online.
My father, a practicing MD and scientific researcher in heart disease, explains that the micro-bacteria in your mouth have lipids or fats in their cell walls. Since they are fat-soluble, when you introduce oil into your mouth the bacteria is drawn or “pulled” into the oil. He says it’s much the same way LDL cholesterol works in your arteries, pulling pathogens into the oily substance, then metabolizing and destroying them.
Most oil-pullers use coconut oil—at room temperature, which is solid, or heated slightly to become liquid—because of its inherent antibacterial properties. But the jar from Whole Foods still sat unopened on my shelf. Then I heard about GuruNanda Pulling Oil, which contains coconut oil, sesame oil (some Ayurvedic practitioners suggest alternating these two oils based on the season), sunflower oil (the GuruNanda company says the three oils together balance your doshas, or the energies in Ayurvedic medicine believed to influence your physiology) and peppermint oil, which is what saves this from tasting like something your mother cooked with in the ’70s. Plus, they sell it in little ½-ounce travel tubs so you never have to skip a day.
The directions say to start by swishing a small amount of oil in your mouth for a minute or two, and then work your way up to a tablespoon for 15 to 20 minutes. Sometimes I can feel the sinus drainage happening and have to spit it out and start over. You should never swallow the glob because it’s now filled with toxins and bacteria, and never put it down the drain because it’s oil. (I use little paper cups for the discarded oil that goes into the trash.) Then rinse your mouth, brush your teeth and experience a clean-mouth feeling that’s better than a trip to the oral hygienist.
“Our oral health has such a profound effect on heart and brain health, and is connected to so many vital systems in the body—keeping your mouth healthy should be part of your primary care for yourself,” says the naturopath Bader. She recommends oil pulling to her patients and has seen a difference in everything from improved sinus and acne conditions to healthier throats and gums. “A healthy mouth is the gateway to a healthy GI tract, a healthy brain and a healthy heart,” she says, adding that’s why some people take antibiotics before having their teeth cleaned—to protect their heart valves from bacteria. She says that David Perlmutter, MD (author of Grain Brain), uses a graph to show the enormous amount of bacteria in the guts of people in First World countries overlapped with First World conditions such as Alzheimer’s, autism and heart disease. “Getting the bacteria right in the mouth is huge,” Bader says. “It sets the stage for all those diseases.”
It’s been almost three months and I haven’t missed a morning of oil pulling. I even did it while traveling to Portugal, which was easier than I thought, thanks to those little tubs. I feel super healthy and, yes, my teeth are whiter (I also quit the coffee again). I give my 81-year-old father the credit for teaching me about it and Bader for showing me her beautiful teeth. But honestly, I have to give myself a lot of credit, too; it’s the first thing I think of when I wake up—after Instagram, of course.
This article originally appeared on Living Healthy.