By Danielle Grear, PharmD Student
Super-food, super-health, or super-hype? Coconut oil has been a trending topic in today’s society with its recent health claims for improving weight, fighting bacteria, treating Alzheimer’s, moisturizing skin, and the list goes on.1 Perhaps the most recent way coconut oil is being used today is in a process called “oil pulling,” which requires swishing a tablespoon of oil in the mouth for several minutes in order to detox the body and improve dental health. While the FDA has not yet approved the use of coconut oil for the treatment or prevention of disease, many consumers swear by the positive effects coconut oil has in improving their health.2
A recent article published by The Huffington Post explores the use of coconut oil pulling as a means to whiten teeth, reduce bacteria, strengthen the gums and jaw, and prevent bad breath.3 “It can be a good way to supplement recommended practices like tooth brushing, flossing, and regular dental visits,” says Michelle Hurlbutt, RDH, MSDH, an associate professor of dental hygiene at Loma Linda University in Southern California. Hurlbutt conducted a pilot study and found evidence that showed oil pulling can decrease the bacteria associated with dental cavities. Contrary to popular claims of coconut oil, however, she found that sesame oil had a 5-fold decrease in the level of Streptococcus mutans (a common bacteria associated with a high risk of cavities) compared to only a 2-fold decrease in the bacteria with coconut oil. Furthermore, after daily oil pulling stopped, the bad bacteria began to reemerge in both groups. While I believe that some may indeed have evidence supporting their experience of oil pulling’s benefits, I agree with Hurlbutt that the scientific evidence behind this process is lacking and needs further research to back these claims. The article does a good job in addressing that issue, and even states that oil pulling should not be used to replace regular oral health care.
To further investigate the use of coconut oil in oil pulling, a research study published in the Asia Journal of Public Health studied the effects of coconut oil pulling on oral microorganisms in biofilm models.4 A biofilm is a thin, slimy film of bacteria that adheres to a matrix. The bacteria that were used in this study on a saliva-coated plate were: Streptococcus Mutans, Lactobacillus Casei, and Candida Albicans, which are all predominately found in dental plaque and associated with infections. The study found that as coconut oil was exposed to the bacteria for one minute, it exhibited antimicrobial (anti-bacteria) activity on S. Mutans and C. Albicans. This allowed researchers to conclude that oil pulling therapy could be used as a preventative home therapy to maintain oral hygiene, especially in developing countries. However, while this article certainly shows the benefits of oil pulling, the study has its fair share of limitations. Predominately, because the mechanisms of oil pulling action are not known, further studies are needed to investigate the action of coconut oil on dental plaque and other microorganisms. Long-term effects in clinical trials on humans are also needed to provide significant data for its use in practice.
In addition, one of the main components of coconut oil is lauric acid. This saturated fat is a medium length fatty acid and has been shown in other studies to have an antimicrobial effect against certain bacteria (gram-positive) and yeasts.5 Even compared to other acids, lauric acid ultimately gave better results in fighting infections and inflammation.6 Because the bacteria Streptococcus mutans has been found in association with cavities3, there is a great possibility that further research can prove the benefits of lauric acid in oil pulling.
So what does this all mean? While the evidence for coconut oil in the use of oil pulling and treatment of various diseases is certainly unresolved, oil pulling has been found to have limited side effects as long as the technique is properly conducted.3 However, contrary to popular advertisements today, the articles studied showed that coconut oil is not a “means to cure all.” In fact, it should only be used as a supplement and not a way to treat serious conditions or infections. As a future pharmacist, I would inform patients inquiring about coconut oil pulling that while there have been reports of people experiencing benefits, this technique has not been fully researched and approved by the FDA. Patients must understand that while oil pulling will likely not harm them, it may not help them either. As research continues, hopefully more conclusive evidence will be produced, giving healthcare providers a better understanding of what to expect from the use of coconut oil in oil pulling.
Let’s hear from you. Have you had success with coconut oil pulling? Where else have you seen this product used to improve health?
- Spera R. The best ways you’re probably not using coconut oil. ABC13 Eyewitness News Web site. http://abc13.com/society/the-best-ways-youre-probably-not-using-coconut-oil/315760/. Published September 29, 2014. Updated 2014. Accessed October 5, 2014.
- Select committee on GRAS substances (SCOGS) opinion: Coconut oil (packaging). U.S. Food and Drug Administration Web site. “Food.” Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS) Opinion: Coconut oil (packaging). N.p., 18 Apr. 2013. Web. 16 Oct. 2014. <http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPacka. Published April 18, 2013. Updated 2013. Accessed October 16, 2014, 2014.
- Almendrala A. Oil pulling might be the next big thing–or not. The Huffington Post Healthy Living Web site.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/12/oil-pulling_n_4943808.html. Published 3/12/2014. Updated 2014. Accessed October/16, 2013.
- Thaweboon S, Nakaparksin J, Thaweboon B. Effect of oil-pulling on oral microorganisms in biofilm models . Asia Journal of Public Health. 2010;2(2).
- Salleh E, Muhamad II. Starch-based antimicrobial films incorporated with lauric acid and chitosan. AIP Conference Proceedings. 2010;1217(1):432-436.
- Huang W, Tsai T, Chuang L, Li Y, Zouboulis CC, Tsai P. Anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of capric acid against propionibacterium acnes: A comparative study with lauric acid. J Dermatol Sci. 2014;73(3):232-240.