Did you know that there are more bacteria in your body than human cells?
Yes, really. Microbes outnumber them, 10 to 1.
That’s not a bad thing. For not all “bugs” are bad (despite what you see and hear in some ads). Some are essential to human health, doing things like
- Synthesizing and excreting vitamins
- Preventing colonization by pathogens (“bad bugs”)
- Inhibiting or destroying pathogens
- Stimulating tissue and antibody development
The human mouth alone contains an estimated 10 billion bacteria. Yet most of us grow up thinking that a “clean” mouth is a germ-free mouth. As professor of oral microbiology Dr. Phillip Marsh puts it,
What we’ve been brought up with is “Plaque is bad – get rid of it.” But it’s actually too much plaque and plaque in the wrong places that are bad for us. We want to prevent the buildup of levels of organisms, particularly in hard-to-reach places of the mouth, that could lead to disease. Pushing to have an ultraclean mouth isn’t beneficial to us; we should be trying to maintain our natural microbiota at levels compatible with oral health in order to preserve their beneficial activities.
Dr. Aaron Weinberg, dean of the School of Dentistry at Case Western Reserve, agrees:
You don’t want a sterile mouth; you want a mouth that has primarily good bacteria in it, in order to keep exogenous microorganisms out and prevent them from colonizing the mouth.
Seems common sense, doesn’t it? Keep the good, control the bad. And that’s what dental hygiene is really about: not eliminating but controlling bacteria, especially those that contribute to tooth decay and gum disease. As mentioned before, the mechanical actions of brushing and flossing are crucial in this, breaking up microbial colonies. Mouthwash, on the other hand, is often meant to kill – or at least slow down the proliferation of – pathogens, whether by chemicals or herbal extracts and essential oils. While rinse is seldom necessary, it can be a help, especially when periodontal (gum) disease is an issue.
But there are traditional, natural alternatives for controlling oral flora, as well – practices such as oil pulling.
Oil pulling comes to us from Ayurveda, a system of traditional medicine developed in India thousands of years ago. Often described by Western holistic practitioners as a way to “pull out toxins,” it effectively cleanses the mouth by controlling oral bacteria, especially along the gumline and in the periodontal pockets. Vitamins and minerals in the oil are absorbed, while pathogenic microbes are bound up in the oil and ultimately removed from the mouth. The natural balance of oral flora is restored, which allows tissues to regenerate.
Research (PDF) has demonstrated a marked decline in levels of decay-causing microbes after oil pulling. Other studies have found oil pulling to be at least as effective as chlorhexidine in controlling bad breath.
We’ve seen remarkable results in patients who have turned to oil pulling to take control of their periodontal health – much healthier gums, much smaller pockets.
Although some recommend using coconut or other oils, sesame oil is often preferred. According to a short paper published in the Indian Journal of Dental Research,
The sesame plant (Sesamum indicum) of the Pedaliaceae family has been considered a gift of nature to mankind because of its nutritional qualities and its many desirable health effects. The seeds of the plant are commonly known as ‘gingelly’ or ’til’ seeds. Sesame oil has a high concentration of polyunsaturated fatty acids and is a good source of vitamin E. The antioxidants present in it are mainly sesamol, sesamin, and sesamolin. Sesamin has been found to inhibit the absorption of cholesterol as well as its production in the liver. It reduces lipogenesis and exhibits an antihypertensive action.
Likewise, from the first study cited above,
Sesame lignans have antioxidant and health promoting activities (Kato et al., 1998). High amounts of both sesamin and sesamolin have been identified in sesame (Sirato-Yasumoto et al., 2001). Both sesamin and sesamolin were reported to increase both the hepatic mitochondrial and the peroxisomal fatty acid oxidation rate. Sesame seed consumption appears to increase plasma gamma-tocopherol and enhanced vitamin E activity which is believed to prevent cancer and heart disease (Cooney et al., 2001).
Even so, a good number of naturopaths advocate sunflower oil instead. It also contains vitamin E, as well as a number of nutrients key to good dental and oral health, including vitamin D, calcium, magnesium and trace minerals.
Sesame or sunflower, whichever you use, do be sure to use a good quality oil: organic, cold-pressed and unrefined.
The technique itself is simple:
- Anytime between waking and breakfast, brush your teeth or scrape your tongue.
- Put 1 tablespoon of oil in your mouth and slowly, gently work it around the oral cavity – like using mouthwash but in slow motion, less vigorously. Do this for 10 to 20 minutes.
- Spit out the oil (which will look thin and milky white).
- Rinse with warm salt water. (Optional)
The first time you try it, you may find the practice feels slightly uncomfortable. Don’t worry. Most people quickly get used to it. If it becomes too uncomfortable, though, just spit out the oil and try again.
One last note: Oil pulling can have detoxifying effects, so you might want to start off with just a few days a week and gradually work up to daily practice.
Images by wellcome images and FotosVanRobin, via Flickr