The mouth is the gatekeeper of the digestive system and like all reciprocal configurations; it should be concerned with eliminative processes as much as intake.
Motivation 1: to avoid physical diseases
The tongue dorsum, particularly, in the oral cavity represents a unique ecological niche as it offers a large surface area riddled with fissures that favor the accumulation of oral debris and colonization of (anaerobic) microorganisms. The normal appearance of the tongue is either pinkish or a thin white coating. Tongue coating (biofilm) is visible as a white-brownish layer adhered to the tongue dorsum and is comprised of desquamated epithelial cells, blood cells and metabolites, nutrients and bacteria. In fact, it has been described that more than 100 bacteria may be attached to a single epithelial cell on the tongue dorsum, whereas only about 25 bacteria are attached to each cell in other areas of the oral cavity. The degree of tongue coating has been reported to be positively correlated to dental diseases such as gingivitis and periodontitis.
Motivation 2: a healthy gut-brain axis promotes mental wellbeing
Furthermore, there is an emerging interest in the concept of “gut-brain axis” (GBA) that concerns the biochemical signaling between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system, which affects the indivudual’s mental wellbeing. Since the oral microbiome flows beyond the mouth into the digestive tract to join the gut microbiome, the healthier your mouth and oral microbiome, the healthier your gut, immune system and entire mind and body.
Ayurvedic Oral Care
Oral hygiene is an important component of Ayurveda as discussed in the ancient texts of Charaka Samhita and Sushrutha’s Samhitha. Ayurvedic oral care involves three steps:
- Tooth brushing (dantadhavana)
- Tongue scapring (jihvanirlekhana)
- Gargling (gandusa)
Step 1: Tooth Brushing
The teeth are cleaned with bitter, astringent and pungent herbs, which traditionally took the form of twigs that were chewed, and then the frayed end used to gently brush the teeth. It is believed that brushing the teeth specifically with bitter, astringent and pungent herbs has an antimicrobial effect on oral bacteria, as well as helps to clease the accumulation of kapha from the upper digestive tract and stimulate agni. Typical herbs include the chewed twigs of Pippala (Ficus religiosa; bodhi tree), Nimba (Azadirachta indica; neem), Arjuna (Terminalia arjuna; arjun tree) and karanja (Pongamia pinnata; karanja). Chew sticks are available to purchase online. If you do not have access to chew sticks, consider cleaning your teeth by gently rubbing herbal tooth powder or an Ayurvedic toothpaste with your regular toothbrush.
- 1 part cinnamon powder
- 1 part neem powder
- 1/8 part ginger powder
- 1/8 part black pepper powder
- 1/8 part Indian long pepper powder
- 1/8 part Himalayan rock salt
- Cold-pressed sesame oil – enough to blend powder into paste at each use
- Mix together all the dry ingredients and keep in an airtight container – ideally glass or ceramic rather than metal or plastic.
- Immediately before cleaning your teeth, put 1/2 teaspoon of the mixture in a separate bowl or your palm. Add two drops of sesame oil and mix into a paste with the bristles of your toothbrush.
- Use this paste for brushing your teeth. The taste will be salty, slightly bitter and pungent, and will leave your mouth feeling refreshed and awake.
- Alternatively, source out a fluoride-free natural/herbal/Ayurvedic toothpaste. Recommended brands include Himalaya Herbal Healthcare and Dr. Bronner’s.
Tongue scraping involves using a U-shape instrument called a tongue scaper with soft bristles to gently scape the tongue and remove accumulated toxins and microbial load in the fissures of the tongue dorsum. The cleaner your tongue, the better you can taste your food and the more satisfied you are with less.
The original Ayurvedic text Charaka Samhita recommends a tongue scraper made of either gold, silver, copper, brass or tin – these metals contain toxin-removing properties. However gold and silver are expensive, and copper is recommended to be minimum grade for tongue scaping. (See table)
There are three mediums for gargling in Ayurveda, and different mediums are recommended for each dosha.
Gargling with lukewarm water is said to alleviate kapha imbalance, which manifests as a feeling of heaviness or stickiness. Gargling with lukewarm water relieves this sticky feeling and replaces it with a sensation of lightness in the oral cavity, as well as clarifies the sense of taste.
Gargling with cool water is especially helpful for aggravated pitta conditions, where the mouth will feel hot and dry. Cool water alleviates the tendency toward chronic thirst and makes the mouth cavity feel fresh and light.
Step 3: Gargling with oil: pulling and pooling
Oil pulling is where an individual takes a comfortable dose of oil (1-2 tablespoons for adults and 1-2 teaspoons for children) and swishes and pulls it around the mouth and between the teeth for about 5-20 minutes before spitting it out. At the end of this activity if the procedure is done correctly, the spit oil will be milky white and thinner, which is evidence that the bacteria has emulsified into the oil that you are oil pulling with (bacteria is surrounded by a phospholipid membrane that is repelled to water but is attracted oil). The mouth is thoroughly washed with tepid water to remove oil residue completely. If the jaw aches and fatigue builds up, then the procedure can be done just for 1-3 min. It is the consistency of daily practice that is emphasised, not the length of time in any one session. In any case, the pulled oil should not be gargled in the throat or swallowed as it will be bacteria-laden; swallong pulled oil has been reported to cause lipid pneumonia.
The type of oil used for oil pulling depends on the individual’s dosha, but in all cases, organic, cold-pressed oils at room temperature should be used. You are going to absorb a certain percentage of oil into the body, so you will want to use a very high quality oil. Sesame oil is particularly recommended for vata imbalance, which manifests as pain or soreness in the jaw. Other types of edible oils that can be used for oil pulling include coconut oil, olive oil and almond oil. The common characteristics of these oils are that they contain compounds with antimicrobial properties – sesame oil contains sesamin, sesamolin and sesaminol and coconut oil contains lauric acid. Studies have shown that coconut oil gargling is as effective as using chlorhexidine mouthwash in reducing gingival and plaque indices. Moreover, it also seems that after a couple of months of using one type of oil, changing it to a different oil renews potency of the oil pooling procedure.
Essential oils can be added to the base pulling oil by adding a drop to the spoon, to enhance or add a therapeutic benefit. For example, lavender oil for insomnia, clove oil for toothache, oregano oil for candida and so on.
In contrast to oil pulling, oil pooling involves filling the mouth totally with the gargling liquid such that the cheeks are fully expressed – and then holding the liquid there for about 3-5 minutes until the eyes begin to water (the fluid puts pressure on the lachrymal ducts, bringing tears to the eyes). The liquid is not swished around, but as it is held in the mouth, it penetrates the oral mucosa and gums to exert its healing effect.
Oral care is an important aspect of health, not just for the sake of oral hygiene, but because it affects the health and wellbeing of the whole person. There are three main ways to oral care practices, all of which can be easily integrated as a daily habit – tooth brushing with bitter, astringent and pungent herbs, tongue scraping and gargling the mouth with water and/or oil. In Ayurveda’s three oral hygiene steps, they are always to be done in the order given: brushing, scraping and then gargling. The reason for this is the same reason you would clean cobwebs from the walls, then dust the furniture, and finally vacuum the carpet. The earlier processes dislodge dirt that the later processes can clean. So gargling is always the closing practice for dental hygiene.