Is real snake oil a scam?

Question: Hearing people call natural medicine "snake oil" has made me curious -- where did this whole idea come from?

Dr. Wright: Those who use this phrase like to think they're so modern and so, so scientific, but what they're really doing is exposing their ignorance and unwillingness to investigate the facts.

While the term snake oil is often used to indicate a hoax or fraudulent medicine, snake oil itself has been used for centuries in China (and in North America during the 19th century) as a treatment for pain, especially joint pain. And the facts behind this ancient remedy should shame those smug naysayers.

My colleague Richard Kunin, M.D., exploded the snake oil myth nearly 20 years ago in a 1989 letter to the Western Journal of Medicine. Dr. Kunin did the obvious; he actually had snake oil tested.

Here's what he found:

  • Chinese water snake oil contained 19.4 percent eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and 4.4 percent linolenic acid.
  • California black rattlesnake oil contained 9.7 percent linolenic acid, 4.7 percent arachadonic acid, and 4.1 percent EPA.
  • Arizona red rattlesnake contained 20.8 percent linolenic acid, 12.8 percent arachadonic acid, and 5.4 percent docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Long-time readers know the many health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids (such as EPA, DHA, and linolenic acid), including reduced risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Kunin wrote, It is not unusual that an ancient remedy or a folk medicine turns out to have some merit. What is unusual is that this particular therapy, snake oil, has long been a favorite symbol of quackery. Perhaps our ancestors were wiser than we could appreciate when they wrapped a snake around the staff of Aesclepius.

So the next time you hear someone getting all worked up and inflamed about alternative medicine, pass him (or her) some Chinese water snake oil it has the most anti-inflammatory content!

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About the author


Jonathan V. Wright, M.D. has degrees from both Harvard University (cum laude) and the University of Michigan. More than any other doctor, he practically invented the modern science of applied nutritional biochemistry and he has advanced nutritional medicine for nearly three decades.

As of today, Dr. Wright has received over 35,000 patient visits at his now-famous Tahoma Clinic in Washington State.

To learn more about Dr. Wright, and to sign up for his free Health e-Tips eLetter, please visit


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