Snake oil is a term that has come to mean a medical treatment that is a scam. This term was coined to describe the goods sold by traveling drifters posing as doctors, chemist or healers in the late 19th century. These hoaxsters would peddle their patent medicines – which were expensive placebos or highly alcoholic tinctures. Sometimes, real snake oil (Chinese water snake oil brought over from Chinese railroad workers) was sold as a treatment for aches and pains, but the fake ointments, elixirs and salves and other patent medicines were far more rampant in the United States.
In 1906, the Food and Drugs Act was passed and medications needed to undergo more rigorous testing before they were sold. Although these patent medicines have been in decline for more than a century, we may have discounted the healing effects of literal snake oils too soon.
Pythons are gigantic snakes, often reaching twenty-five feet in length. They can eat prey that are larger than themselves, and when they do, the fat and oils in their blood increases to astronomical levels and their organs drastically increase in size and how much work they do. Amazingly, the organs return to their normal size after a few weeks, no worse for wear. Researchers studying how this occurs have found that the cells in python’s hearts increase in size, not number, to accomplish this amazing and rapid growth.
The process of cells increasing size, leading to growth is called hypertrophy, and human hearts undergo hypertrophy in two major ways: One is when an athlete trains his or her heart to be stronger, an example of healthy hypertrophy. By contrast, when humans have high blood pressure, the heart hypertrophies in order to deal with the increased strain. This unhealthy hypertrophy leads to growth of the heart where it eventually cannot pump blood effectively, leading to heart failure. When snakes gorge themselves they experience the healthy kind of hypertrophy and that has caught some medical scientists eyes.
In a long shot experiment, these scientists injected the plasma (blood without any cells) of feasting pythons into pythons that were starving. To their surprise, the starving snakes organs underwent hypertrophy just as if they had been feasting. After that, they injected the feasting snake’s plasma into mice and their hearts underwent healthy hypertrophy, just like the snakes. Upon further analysis, they discovered that only a precise mix of three fatty acids, the main components of python snake oil, lead to these changes. They are now studying how these changes occur and hopefully what they find could lead to a potential treatment to the unhealthy hypertrophy that failing hearts experience.
Surprisingly there are some possible health benefits from snake oil beyond the hypertrophy python experience. As it turns out, Chinese water snake oil, the type classically known as snake oil actually has the highest levels of Omega-3 fatty acids of any animal. There is some evidence that oils with lots of omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties.
There’s a chance those Chinese rail workers were on to something good that was distorted and slandered by greedy American conmen. Perhaps someday snake oil will overcome its bad reputation, but unfortunately for now, it will remain synonymous with greed, quackery and deception.
Dr. Bruce Feinberg