Brighten your smile and freshen breath with this ancient Indian remedy.

The most common first reaction to swishing a tablespoon of coconut oil around the mouth is often disgust and even a little gagging. So why do it? Turns out, this is the latest natural health craze, taken up by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, a weathervane for trendy practices if there ever was one. Yes, it is a little foreign, and takes a little getting used to, but it’s over pretty quickly and feels benign. Most of today’s trendy mouth swishers like the results so much they add it to their morning routine.

Oil pulling is an ancient Indian remedy said to improve oral health. It’s the new kale, so you’ve probably heard about it. The procedure? Hold a tablespoon of just about any kind of natural edible oil in your mouth. Coconut and sesame oil taste good, so you might start with one of these. Swish the oil around in your mouth and pull it through your teeth and gums for about 20 minutes. Swish while you’re getting dressed, taking a shower, or reading your email. When you’re done, spit out the used oil, which by now will be white and foamy. Aficionados claim their teeth are a little whiter, breath a bit fresher, and the mouth feels squeaky clean.

Oil pulling is a part of the traditional morning cleansing routine recommended by Ayurveda, along with body massage and tongue scraping. This oral oil rinse is used in Ayurveda to draw toxins from the mouth tissues and strengthen the nerves of the mouth, face, head, and lips. In fact, Ayurveda likes oil treatments for just about any nerve concerns, so using oil is thought to support nerves in the whole body, benefitting issues including aging, insomnia, and anxiety.

Oil is also thought to be a natural antimicrobial when used orally. An Indian study confirmed this benefit. After two weeks of oil pulling, subjects had less cavity-causing bacteria in their plaque and saliva than those using a standard antibacterial mouthwash. Another study found that oil pulling with sesame oil was better than a drug-containing mouthwash for gum inflammation. That study was followed up by one in which sesame oil pulling alleviated bad breath better than mouthwash. A likely mechanism for the benefits is that the oil is converted to natural soap, which cleans the teeth and tissues.

Sesame and almond oils are suitable for the largest percentage of people. According to Ayurvedic principles, coconut oil helps those with a tendency toward inflammation (known as the “pitta” body type), while those who tend to retain water and have oily skin (“kapha” body type in Ayurveda) do well with less oil, instead using hot water with honey, or hot water with turmeric and salt.

Above and beyond this routine morning oil pulling, Ayurveda uses mouth rinses for more targeted treatments. To relieve a tingling sensation in the teeth, tooth weakness, oral pain, and/or dry oral tissues, use a tablespoon of sesame seed made into a paste. Add this to 1 cup of water and use this mix to gargle. Pulling with milk with a little added honey is useful for burning sensations, ulceration, and wounds to the oral membranes.

President of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, Gwen Nagano, LMP, of Seattle, says, “Seven years ago, I adopted the practice of oil pulling with sesame oil. My dentist often asks me what has changed, as I have siince not required any dental work.” Whether or not you experience the same benefits, oil pulling is an inexpensive, safe practice that can easily be added to your morning routine.

Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, DN-C, RH, who specializes in Ayurveda and herbalism, has more than 40 years’ experience in holistic medicine. His website is kpkhalsa.com.