Historical hucksters gave it a bad name. Snake oil is good for you!
The irony is rich. The term "snake oil" has come to mean everything that is fraudulent. The infamous "snake oil salesman" pitched and sold cure-alls from the back of a wagon to the unsuspecting villagers of the American west. These historical hucksters gave good medicine a bad name.
Snake oil has real value. It was used as medicine before the North American continent was on the map. Centuries ago the Chinese used an oil made from a cold water snake called Enhydris chinensis to treat joint pain and bursitis.
It was introduced to the US by Chinese laborers who worked on the Transcontinental Railroad in the mid 1800's. There's evidence that the ancient Egyptians used it too. In the early 1700's the English had a patent medicine made from snake oil.
Snake oil was sold here as a panacea in the early 1900's, but the products sold were probably more filler and adulterant than they were actual snake oil.
Depending on the snakes used to derive it, snake oil can be a rich source of an fatty acid known as EPA (eicosapentanoic acid). EPA is used by the body to synthesize hormone-like fats that relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
EPA is so important that it's in human breast milk. It works for treating depression and improving cognitive function, helps people with autoimmune diseases including rheumatism, and lowers cholesterol and blood pressure.
EPA can be made in the body from other fatty acids, but it's much easier to eat in your food. The richest sources are fish, especially herring, mackerel, salmon, trout, pilchards, menhaden and sardines. Fish do not make their own EPA. They get it from eating algae like spirulina, which we also can eat. Plant foods don't contain any EPA at all.
Human genetics is part of the reason it's easier to eat EPA than to make it in your body. Some people have the gene to make the enzyme which lets them convert ALA (alpha linolenic acid) into EPA. Other people have mutations that limit their ability to do the conversion.
Diabetes and some allergies also limit a person's ability to convert ALA to EPA. ALA is an essential fatty acid, meaning we all have to get it from our diet.
If we don't make EPA very well, and we don't eat much fish, we another source to keep our cell membranes happy. Many healthcare professionals recommend that we take fish oil. Fish oil contains 12-18% EPA. Salmon oil tops the list at 18%.
Chinese water snake oil has been shown to contain approximately 20% EPA. Rattlesnake oil had only 8.5%. Cod liver oil has more DHA than EPA and is best reserved for specific uses like building baby brains or healing brain injuries.
Some snakes have more EPA than others because of the temperatures they live in. Snakes and fish are cold blooded. Their bodies stay at the same temperature as their environments. Omega three fats like EPA don't harden in cold temperatures like omega sixes do.
They help keep cell membranes flexible. Flexible membranes function better and don't get injured as easily. Cold water fish and snakes will contain more EPA than those that live in warm sunshine, like rattlesnakes. That way they can swim in cold water.
The next time someone tells you that a treatment is "snake oil", remember this. Public attitudes reflect our history, not our future. Science continues to give us reason to revise what we believe and erase myths.
We aren't about to start harvesting oil from snakes, but we are happy to know that the ancient Chinese remedy was based on something other than hucksterism.
This article was originally published at Teresa Gryder's FunMed blog. Reprinted with permission from the author.