Snake Oil Salesman – The True Story

Aug 5, 2011Posted By: igorUnder: Complementary Alternative Medicine, Historical Notes

The term “Snake Oil Salesman” for most people brings to mind notions of a “charlatan”, the “huckster” who years gone by was noted for his peddling of worthless nostrums and quack remedies that made all manner of health claims.   The salesman’s character was that of a fast talker who with a certain twisted charm and verbal misdirection, could convince the consumers of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that his medicinals were capable of curing all manner of disease or for that matter, regain lost youth and grow hair on a billiard ball.  

It’s unfortunate that the term “snake oil” became associated with that description of salesman, because snake oil per se, has a very different story, based on some good science.   Historically, snake oil saw use by the Chinese who immigrated to North America, many to labour on the building of the railways.  Their labours were very physical, as they worked to lay the track that gradually connected all of North America. 

Of course, as a result of their labours, they found the need to alleviate muscular and joint aches, a result of this very physical work.  What they brought with them was in fact snake oil, that when rubbed on the skin above the area of pain brought relief, or at least as it was reported.  This story had to wait until 1989 before a nutrition-oriented physician from California; Dr. Richard Kunin decided to find out just what was in snake oil that may have given it this pain relieving ability.  

He went to San Francisco’s Chinatown obtained the snake oil and had it analyzed.  What he found was that it contains 75% unidentified carrier material, likely emulsifying ingredients which would help the oil mix with other ingredients and including the liquid base, as well as to aiding the oil to penetrate the skin and tissue when applied.  He also found this product to contain camphor, but the remaining 25% was oil from Chinese water snakes, which contains 20% of the important omega 3 derivative eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) as well as 48% oleic acid and 7% linoleic plus arachidonic acids.  At 20% EPA, Chinese water snake is the richest known natural source of the parent of Series 3 prostaglandins, which inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory Series 2 prostaglandins. 

These are naturally occurring lipid compounds in the body derived from the enzyme-controlled oxidation of fatty acids and have a long list of important functions.   At the risk of over simplifying, Series 1 and 2 prostaglandins are the “good” prostaglandins.  Where the Series 1 prostaglandins, made from linoleic acid lower blood pressure, decrease inflammation, improve nerve function, the Series 3 prostaglandins are derived from EPA and can prevent the production of the “bad” Series 2 prostaglandins.   

 Like essential fatty acids and their other derivatives, EPA can be absorbed through our skin.  Salmon Oil, the next-best source of EPA, contains a maximum of 18% EPA, with other fish oils containing less.

 Those eyeing our native Rattlesnake should approach with caution for several reasons, one being that not all snake oils contain 20% EPA and in fact, Rattlesnake oil contains only 8.5% EPA with many other snake oils never being tested. 

 The moral of this story – traditional snake oil is natural and therapeutic.  The true snake oil salesman you could say, has been vindicated.  What about the report by Dr. Kunin?  Well, he submitted his findings to the New England Journal of Medicine but they were unwilling to publish it.   Although we were certain that our readers would be interested in the information. 

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