What Is Snake Oil Good For?

Snake oil has more going for it than folklore would suggest.
Snake oil has more going for it than folklore would suggest. (Image: snake image by pearlguy from Fotolia.com)

A purported remedy for any number of ailments, but most often those associated with inflammation, snake oil originally came out of China in the 18th century, according to the website HealthMad. Snake oil isn't necessarily all smoke and mirrors. The oil taken from snakes is high in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), an omega-3 fatty acid important for reducing inflammation, clotting the blood and regulating the body's cholesterol levels.


According to the Auckland Society, snake oil has rather a far-reaching history. Before showing up in Chinese medicine, there's evidence that the Greeks made use of the oil. It was later introduced to the United States by railroad workers. These railway men brought it to the Native Americans. The first patent for a remedy containing snake oil was granted to Englishman Richard Stoughton in 1712.

Ingredients Then

Snake oil was sold in San Francisco’s Chinatown at the turn of the century, reports HealthMad. The main ingredient was said to be an unidentified oil as the conveyance for the other substances in the solution, which included camphor, the omega-3 fatty acid EPA, arachidonic acid, linoleic acid, myristic acid, oleic acid and stearic acid.

Ingredients Now

It wasn't until 1989 that a modern incarnation of the Chinese snake oil recipe was truly analyzed, says the Auckland Society. The main ingredient, which made up 75 percent of the solution, was a harmless, functionless oily carrier. The remaining 25 percent amounted to substances such as camphor, clove oil, menthol and the omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid.

EPA and Prostaglandins

The richest source of snake oil EPA is said to be the Chinese water snake. The snakes used by American snake oil salesmen were known to have far less EPA. The acid is essential for the creation of series 3 prostaglandins in the body. These substances are the biochemical messengers that control key cardiovascular functions, including inflammation of the joints.

EPA's Effects

EPA works much the same as aspirin does, affecting the prostaglandin system by calming inflammation and ultimately boosting systemic immunity. EPA doesn't have to be ingested by mouth to be effective. It can be absorbed via the skin, where it swiftly makes its way into the bloodstream. As a point of comparison, it's interesting to note that the next best source of EPA, almond oil, contains roughly 18 percent EPA components. Rattlesnake oil contains 8.5 percent, according to HealthMad.

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