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Snake Oil Salesman: Misconception on a Grand Scale.


This term is used incorrectly almost universally to convey the impression of fraudulent or worthless practices, and yet reality is the complete opposite. It is so commonly applied to practitioners of alternative medicine, as to be the standard for implying sham nonsense therapies. Its infiltration into modern day language is so total that even The Oxford English Dictionary defines it by this meaning rather than the real one.


Today we get beyond the tittle-tattle to understand where the phrase came from, and why for those using it, the ball really is ‘on the other foot’, as the saying goes.


During the 1800s, thousands of Chinese immigrated to the US to help build the railroads, as they were known then. They brought with them oil made from the Chinese Water Snake (enhydris chinensis) which contains by volume about 20% eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), being one of the beneficial constituents of Omega-3 oils. (the other being DHA). By comparison, salmon contains a maximum of about 18%.


The Chinese workers used the oil for effective relief of their aches and pains, as indeed they would, given the known anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 oils for humans.


The misconception began however, when Clark Stanley was pulled up by the equivalent of the FDA in 1906 for selling a product, purporting to be snake oil, rich in omega-3. His product had been sourced from American rattlesnakes however, which not only has a much lower concentration of EPA, Stanley’s product contained none of this anyway!


The advertising clips found in the ‘classifieds’ of the day for Stanley’s oil, were inevitably printed with and unfortunately associated with those for the genuine Chinese article. The difference being that the genuine article contained a very healthy concentration of EPA, which millions pay good money for today, sourced mainly from salmon.


Thus snake oil itself, rather than being a scam, is in fact one of the best things we can take for maintaining optimum health. It was the sales man who was a con artist, NOT the purveyors of real snake oil.


This bit of history highlights a comment and a problem that I, as a well informed practitioner, hear from clients all too often. “I hear so many conflicting opinions; I don’t know who to believe anymore”

My comment on this is: Diagnosis is difficult; it takes years of training and experience to be good at it. If it were as easy as the internet would have you believe we wouldn’t need doctors, and everyone would be healthy!! So, unless you are exceptionally well-informed or have medical training, DO NOT self diagnose from the internet, or let your friends do it. Get expert advice for your health complaints.


Here are some guide-lines to choosing a good practitioner:


• Don’t visit practitioners who give you the hard sell or have stands in the shopping centre.

• Try and find a practitioner through recommendation rather than adverts.

• Communicate verbally or on-line before treatment; decide for yourself if they sound competent.

• Ensure the practitioner has qualifications from a renowned school.

• Ensure the practitioner is registered with a professional body.

• Don’t sign up for a treatment package. That’s just about dollars!


Article written by David Wells, Osteopath & Applied Kinesiologist.

The perspective shared in this article comes not just from medical training but from symptoms and treatment protocols observed over more than 20 years of clinical experience.

If you found this article interesting, this topic and many more are explained in depth in the book, 'Finding Awesome: Proven Steps to Extraordinary Health'. Read more about it here.

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