Swimming in Oils

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My kitchen and bathroom cupboards are full of different oils – to sip, eat or smooth onto skin for the better. I’ve used them for years, yet have only recently discovered ‘oil-pulling’ and it’s been a bit of a revelation. Every morning as soon as I wake up, I take a tablespoon of oil – not to swallow, but to swish around my mouth. Sounds strange, but I’d heard from a few different nutritionists and natural health experts that it’s good for keeping the mouth clean. Also, that the Mayr Clinic (the Austrian spa renowned for its spartan retreats to kick start digestion), recommends doing this as part of a detox programme. It was an odd thing to do at first (just the thought of oil in the mouth when you get up….the sensation), but keeping the oil in your mouth without dribbling or swallowing for a few minutes becomes easy, and begins to feel therapeutic after a couple of days. As you swill, the oil thickens and emulsifies so it’s white when you spit it out, the thinking being that in the process, it ‘pulls away’ the bacteria which can cause bad breath and plaque formation. It works for me. After a few months, I’ve really noticed how healthy, toned and pink my gums look plus, it might be my imagination, but my teeth look a little whiter too. Even the dentist commented – I was in for a hygiene appointment and there was very little cleaning to be done – the appointment was over faster than usual, and I’m making the gap between appoinments longer in future.

Researching a bit further, I found out that ‘oil-pulling’ stems from ancient practices in Ayurveda where various techniques using different oils and liquids (chosen depending on constitution) are used as treatment for a wide range of complaints including loss of taste, bad breath, sore throat and impaired vision. A traditional Ayurvedic doctor works in-depth with the individual, and it would be used as part of a wider set of treatments – my version is superficial in comparison. Still, it has made a huge difference to the way my mouth feels. The only drawback: it took me a while to work out which oil to use. Often, sesame or sunflower are used in Ayurveda. Sesame is a little thick and strong tasting for me – so I’ve opted for good quality organic sunflower oil (at the moment, it’s Clearspring), which feels lighter and more neutral tasting in the mouth.

Other yogis I know swallow raw oil. At a Greek airport returning from a retreat with one of my favourite yoga teachers, I saw him stocking up on tins of the best organic extra virgin olive oil he could find – turns out, having suffered serious digestive complications in the past, he has the habit of taking a tablespoon every day as a healing aid for the gut. It does have to be great quality, as the more processed, the less polyphenols (research has shown the actives in olive oil reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the body, as well as making us feel full and satisfied). One snag – it contains long chain fatty acids which can readily be stored as fat in the body, so best to use in moderation but never miserly. The latest darling oil, coconut, on the other hand is a ‘medium chain’ fat meaning it’s more easily burned by the body as fuel for sustained energy. It’s also been found to contain lauric acid which helps support the immune system. Perhaps that’s why another glowing-with-health-yogi I know eats a tablespoon of it a day, as well as using it externally as a moisturiser to keep her skin and hair glossy.

If you want to be purist about natural beauty, then oils are a great choice. Either in their raw state, or blended. The great thing is hair, body and face oils need no preservatives or emulsifiers like most products, so they can be 100% natural and organic (and I’d always try to use them over petroleum based mineral oils which tend to be less well absorbed). Instead of thick, heavy creams, I love oil on my face at night – partly the ritual of taking time to massage it in and absorb the scent – my go-to is rose as a great all-round mood and skin softener. And even though I have super fine hair, I’m finding that a tiny amount of oil massaged into my palms and smoothed on after drying gives a great shine, and I can use it as a quick fix way to add gloss in between washes.

But it’s essential oil blends which are to me are the ultimate beauty product because they have such multi-benefits. They’re ‘inside out’ treatments – the molecules so small they can work on a cellular level, as well as psychologically via the limbic system. I have a stack of tiny roller balls, plain apothecary style or more beautiful frosted bottles containing various medicinal and intoxicating blends. I use them on my pulse points, or rub on my skin before I get into a hot shower to absorb the therapeutic aromas. I notice that they can improve my mood, sleep or energy levels. I also like them as on-the-spot healers or muscle tension removers, I’ve even got one called ‘Jaw Clenching Remedy’ which melts away computer neck, jaw and shoulder lock. They’re more than moisturisers. Essential oils in their raw form are not necessarily oily in texture, but are concentrated light liquid-y oils which capture the therapeutic essences of a plant (they’re then blended into more unctuous carrier oils to make them a safe concentration to massage onto skin). Their main role in plants is to protect and communicate. For us, they have many benefits either working on their own or in blends as anti-bacterial, insect repellant, or they can stimulate the central nervous system (to give an energy boost, focus, alertness) or act as a sedative (for relaxation, soothing). The ultimate is to have your own personal blend made by an aromatherapist. I treasure the one made for me by Geraldine Howard, co-founder of Aromatherapy Associates which has this soothing, intoxicating effect which just makes me feel better whatever is going on.

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