Surveys show that in 2013 over half of all Americans personally used one or more ‘natural medicine’ methods. In the UK, 26% of adults have taken a herbal medicine alone in the last two years, according to research for the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Yet some physicians, lecturers and writers insist on referring to natural medicine as ‘snake oil’ in a derogatory way.
As most know, snake oil was a popular remedy sold by patent medicine vendors in the United States in the 19th century. Oddly enough, 19th century patent medicines were very rarely ‘protected’ by actual patents as is the case with nearly all of today’s pharmaceuticals, which truly deserve the patent medicine label. But I digress…
I’ve mentioned before that our ancestors as a group were just as smart as we are. Certainly, individuals vary, but overall we’re no smarter and no dumber than our grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents, and so on. The point is that in every generation and every century there have been health concerns, and physicians, herbalists, or medicine men whose job it was to treat them. And each and every generation has found remedies to address those health concerns.
Wiping snake oil’s slate clean
Snake oil was one of those remedies, and it actually did help many health problems. How did it work? The answer was at least partially given to us in 1989 by my colleague Dr. Richard Kunin from San Francisco in a ‘letter to the Editor’ of a medical journal, part of which read as follows: 1
Besides the fact that our healthcare ancestors were just as smart as we are, we should remember that most of them were sincere in their efforts to help the health of others. Sure, some probably had building their own wealth as goal #1, and effective health care as goal #2, but since there were no government agencies actively favouring certain types of remedies and actively suppressing others, people were able to use any remedies they chose.
Freedom of choice means better healthcare
Given that freedom of choice, word would spread about what really worked, and what didn’t work so well. The practitioners using really effective remedies – almost always those with effective health care as goal #1 – would attract more and more clients, and the practitioners whose remedies weren’t so effective – often those with making money as goal #1 – would not attract as many clients.
As more and more people sought out what really worked, the overall level of health would rise, and the cost would gradually drop, as more and more practitioners would adopt the effective remedies, if for no other reason than to stay in business, and with more and more practitioners using those remedies, prices dropped. Oh yes – that’s called a ‘free market,’ where everyone’s free to choose what’s best for themselves and their families!
That’s exactly what happened in the United States between the 1840s and 1870s, when there were no medical authorities favouring one category of health care. Also during those decades, very few States required strict licensure of healthcare practitioners. As a result, the practitioners using the most effective treatments of the time – homeopathic physicians – had the largest practices in most areas of the United States. (If you have doubts, or if you just want more information, please read Divided Legacy: Science and Ethics in American Medicine 1800-1914 by Harris Coulter.)
When the medical authorities favour patents over natural we all lose
But today, medical authorities overwhelmingly favour patent medicines and their producers and actively suppress the distribution of truthful scientific information about un-patentable medications and treatments. Since the overwhelming majority of medications and treatments ‘approved’ by medical authorities are patented (no competition for 17 years), the cost of healthcare inevitably goes higher and higher.
At the same time, government health agencies and departments vigorously prosecute ‘natural’ and ‘alternative’ doctors while taking a much more relaxed approach to both the prosecution and penalization of ‘conventional’ patent-medicine favouring practitioners. As a result many younger doctors who would otherwise adopt more effective natural means are intimidated from doing so (‘… after all, I have a family to feed…’).
What’s that got to do with snake oil? The next time you see, hear, or read that term, or some other derogatory remark about natural medicine like, for example, ‘fish oil causes prostate cancer’, ‘vitamin E raises risk of heart disease’, ‘calcium supplements aren’t safe’, ‘testosterone is hazardous for older men’, or any other criticism of a substance used by practitioners of the natural approach to healthcare, consider the source, and look more deeply at the evidence. What you’ll very frequently find, is that regardless of the substance being criticized, just like snake oil it’s likely to be good for us, as shown by experience and controlled – and properly done – research.
Wishing you the best of health,
Dr. Jonathan V. Wright
Nutrition & Healing
Volume 8, Issue 1 – January 2014
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.