As you may know I am studying an assortment of alternative medical modalities, some of which are not scientifically substantiated, though they often claim to be. Sometimes, when leaving a lecture, I will remark to my friends that it was another "snake oil" presentation. The term is derogatory, implying that the treatment is quackish, fraudulent and scientifically unsound. A snake oil salesman is generally known to be an even lower life form than a used car salesman.
But yesterday I learned that the medical use of snake oil is scientifically substantiated. The oil is a traditional Chinese medicine made from a water snake called Enhydris chinensis. It is widely used to treat arthritic joint pain. Snake oil was also used medicinally in ancient Egypt.
Snake oil is a very rich source of an essential fatty acid known as EPA, eicosapentanoic acid. EPA is used to synthesize series 3 prostaglandins, which are anti-inflammatory, pain relieving, and can be absorbed through the skin. EPA can be derived in the body from omega 3 fatty acids, but it's much easier to get in your food. The next best source of EPA is fish oil, which contains approximately 12-18% EPA. Salmon oil tops that list at 18%. Chinese water snake oil contains ~ 20% EPA, whereas rattlesnake oil is said to contain 8.5%. American water snakes supposedly have a much lower EPA content than Chinese water snakes. Because of its EPA content, Chinese water snake oil could be an effective treatment for auto-immune disease, depression, high cholesterol, hypertension, and lots more.
Snake oil became synonymous with quackery in the west because roving salesmen were selling all manner of products that were certainly not the real thing. Competitors selling "modern" medical treatments disparaged snake oil in the media until it was universally known to be bogus. In China it does not have the same dubious reputation, but it is also not seen as a panacea.
A Chinese Snake oil sold in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1989 was found to contain 75% carrier material and 25% oil from the water snake. The carrier material was mostly unidentified but contained camphor. The snake oil portion broke down to 20% EPA, 48% myristic acid (14:0), 10% stearic acid (18:0), 14% oleic acid (18:1ω9), and 7% linoleic acid (18:2ω6). There was also a small fraction of arachidonic acid (20:4ω6).
OTHER SOURCES OF EPA
EPA is usually obtained in the human diet by eating oily cold-water fish or fish oil. Many people take supplements of cod liver oil. You can also get EPA from herring, mackerel, salmon, trout, pilchards, menhaden and sardines. EPA and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) combined make up 15-30% of the oil content in these fish. EPA is also found in human breast milk.
It turns out that fish to not make EPA, rather they get it from algae that they eat. We humans can also get EPA from spirulina and microalgae. EPA is not generally found in plants.
The human body can manufacture EPA from ALA (alpha linolenic acid), but this depends on enzymes that are not consistently functional in all people. So some people are better converters than others, and everybody gets more if they eat it than if they have to make it. ALA is also an essential fatty acid, meaning that we must obtain it from the diet, we cannot make it from scratch. Diabetes and some allergies limit a person's ability to convert ALA to EPA.
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ARTICLE (notes)
title: Snake Oil Salesmen Were on to Something
subtitle: Snake oil really is a cure for what ails you, if that happens to be arthritis, heart disease or maybe even depression
author: Cynthia Graber
19th century salesmen traveled the U.S. peddling medical cures
the peddler was assisted by shill in the crowd
shill would claim that he had been cured by the product
after the people had bought the potion, the "doctor" and shill would move on
snake oil was one of the most common cure-alls
it didn't work so well-->acquired connotation of meaning "fake" or "worthless"
who knows what the hucksters were selling
might have been rattlesnake oil, or might have had no snake oil in it at all
but the real Chinese snake oil is not fraudulent
snake oil = folk remedy in Chinese medicine for centuries
used to tx jt pain from arthritis, bursitis
intro to US dt arrival of Chinese laborers
working on Transcontinental Railroad in mid 1800s
California psychiatrist, neurophysiology researcher
interested in omega 3 fa's in 1980's
omega 3's proliferate in cold blooded creatures living in cool environments
omega 3 fats don't harden in cold temperatures like omega 6's do
snake and fish both cold blooded
(maybe Chinese water snakes have more EPA than American dt living in colder climes?)
Kunin bought fish oil at San Francisco's Chinatown to analyze
also tested fat of two rattlesnakes
percentages listed above (from wikipedia) are the result of his 1989 analysis
published in the Western Journal of Medicine
lots of research since the 80's showing omega 3's are important
reduce inflammation: arthritis pain
improve cognitive function
reduce blood pressure, cholesterol
omega-3's behave very differently in cell membranes than any other fat
they move around more, let membranes be fluid, let enzymes work
The Queen of Fats: Why Omega-3s Were Removed from the Western Diet and What We Can Do To Replace Them
recent research in Japan: 2002
Japanese National Food Research Institute
lead researcher: Nobuya Shirai
evaluated composition of oil from Erabu sea snake (TCM source of snake oil)
analyzed snakes from Pacific Ocean and South China Sea
amount of beneficial omega-3s in sea snakes stays same vs 2 locations
published in the Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism in July 2007
effects of Erabu sea-snake oil on a number of outcomes in mice:
control fat: lard
snake oil sig improved ability of the mice to swim and learn mazes
still in US snake oil known as fraudulent
more omega 3's in brain and heart than many other tissues
but omega 3's are in all tissues
Dr Miller lecture