What the heck is snake oil? 

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Traditional Chinese Medicine uses many different substances from the animal, mineral and plant world for their curative effects. Different species of snakes, such as Agkistrodon and Zaocys have a very strong medicinal effect, most commonly used for pain relief for arthritis and joint problems. The use of snake products for their medicinal effects first became well known in America during the time that Chinese immigrants were working on the railroad. They brought the snake products with them from China and most commonly used them as an analgesic (pain relievers).

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It was also around this time that people realized they could make a lot of money from the strong medicinal effect that comes from snakes, thus the “snake oil salesmen” was born. In Chinese culture, there is respect and understanding for the power of herbs. For thousands of years, the ways of preparing and using an herb have been refined to insure safety and effectiveness by people who devoted their life to the careful study of medical wisdom. Meanwhile in America, many snake oil salesmen were popping up overnight. Some of them may have had good intentions, but they were mostly known as frauds willing to cut corners in making their products and saying anything to get people to fork over their hard earned money for the promise of a panacea.

This reminds me of what happened to Ephedra in the 1990’s. Ephedra, also known as Ma Huang, is another Chinese herb in use for thousands of years in the treatment of colds at the initial stage. Ephedra is a very powerful diaphoretic and diuretic, which means it has a very powerful effect in making people sweat and urinate. This herb can be very effective and helping someone to get rid of a specific type of cold at the initial stage, however if used at the wrong time it can make the cold worse, and if used on the wrong person it could have a very negative effect. For this reason, this herb is prescribed with great care. During the 1990’s ephedra became a very popular diet herb in the USA. It increased the metabolism and was believed to help people lose weight. Many people started taking this herb on a a regular basis and it has caused a lot of people to end up in the hospital. Its misuse has been linked to heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and other heart problems. The most unfortunate thing of all of this is the scientific community uses these stories of the “snake oil salesmen” as fuel for why these “dangerous” herbs should be banned.

Check out this article to learn more about the history of snake oil:

http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/08/26/215761377/a-history-of-snake-oil-salesmen

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