Triumph of the Snake Oil

In the United States starting with the expansion of the country to the Mississippi River and westwards during the early 19th Century the traveling Medicine Shows toured towns and cities selling exotic-sounding concoctions generally categorizes by the medical profession as “snake oil” remedies of doubtful, and sometimes dangerous, concoctions. These were often promised to cure everything from toenail fungus to failing eyesight contained in one bottle of their magic elixir derived from an ancient recipe obtained from an Indian Medicine Man or from some mysterious Asiatic source.

Often these were compounded from the cheapest alcohol that was available into which some opiate was dissolved and then flavored with a terrible tasting herbal working with the principal that if it tasted bad enough it must be doing you some good. The common phrase “taste like medicine” came directly from this practice. Some modern liquors today like Jägermeister were developed as medicinal products which for perverted reasons concerning a young person’s passage into adulthood applied this principal. The general thinking seems to have been, and still be, along the lines of, “If I can drink this revolting stuff, I must no longer be a child, but am now a real adult. “

The Medicine Show hustler was building on a grain of truth in that drugs that are now on pharmacy shelves today are often derived from plant-based materials such as Aspirin which was extracted from willow bark. In the Orient and in primitive cultures throughout the world, herbal remedies have been used for tens of thousands of years, some of which have progressed into modern drugs. Until very recently indeed, all drugs were based on naturally occurring compounds present in natural organisms or soluble mineral salts.

The 1960s saw an enormous increase in interest in so called “natural” remedies with this plant or that animal extract promoted to alieve the symptoms or cure various ailments. The U.S. Food and Drug administration ultimately prevented these products and their wild claims from being market as drugs, but unless they contained toxic compounds, allowed their rebranding and selling as nutritional supplements. These are now billion-dollar industries.

Just because something is derived from a plant does not imply that the product is either helpful or harmful for any given condition. Natural substances can be dangerous or even deadly depending on the material, the dosages that are taken and the purity of the product – all of which can be in doubt with products that have not passed strict testing and production standards, however slick their advertising may be. Have no doubt about it. These ARE drugs and can have significant consequences to those who are taking them. This is the reason that physicians as a rule are reluctant to recommend or approve the use of these not-so-strictly regulated products to their patients. Those who take them do so at their own risks and often after other treatments have failed.

Starting when I was in my late 60s and through my 70s, I noticed conditions that were ultimately identified as partial blockage of the blood vessels in my lower legs. At it worse I would wake with severe pain in my legs, very cold feet, loss of feeling in my feet and slowness of my feet to heal from any injuries. Concurrently with this I had two sets of heart stents installed, and the onset of type-2 diabetes. All of this seriously impacted my once active outdoor lifestyle. These are I think, mostly genetically driven conditions, although modifications of diet, stopping smoking about 25-years ago and weight loss have helped prolong my activity levels and longevity.

Progressively working this set of age-related disabilifications (new word), and having increased lower leg pain I consulted doctors at the VA and had a series of blood flow exams of my legs over a two- year period. They documented a restricted flow in the legs and in the second exam blockages to one leg along with blockages to the calf muscle in the other. After the first exam they recommended increasing my activity as much as possible and taking over the counter pain meds. After identifying blockages during the second exam, they referred me to a vascular surgeon.

The peak of my discomfort came after my second exam and before I had a consultation about the exam some four months later. I did not want to take more powerful pain meds and so sought out alternative treatments. YouTube adds from Livingwell offered free trial bottles of their diet supplement Heal-n-Soothe, and I ordered a bottle. After taking a bottle, I found I no longer had the night pains in my legs and the general circulation in my legs had apparently improved.

I told my VA doctor about the Heal-n-Soothe pills that I had been taken. He looked at the list of eight plant compounds in the pills, and he said that “There is nothing in there that will hurt you, and if you think they help keep taking them.” A few days later I received an appointment with an outside vascular surgeon for evaluation.

That visit was yesterday. After an examination of my blood flow with his fingers on various veins, his conclusion was that, “You do have restricted blood flow below the knee, but your condition does not warrant surgery at this time. Check back in six months and we will do some blood flow studies in your legs and neck and see where we have to go from there.”

His thoughts on when that surgery might be necessary were when I could no longer walk 30 yards without having to stop or if I started to have pains in the lower leg or foot. He asserted that my condition was largely related to natural aging and for a guy at 80 I was doing better than some of his patients in their 20s who had worse vascular disease. He examined the contents of the pills that I had been taking and recommended that I continue taking them.

I also gave a bottle to my sister who was having to use pain patches to relieve pain from knee-replacement surgery. After taking the bottle she said that she no longer needed the patches and was likewise convinced that the pills worked for her. Does this imply that they will work for everyone? No. We are obviously genetically related and just because something worked for us does not mean that it would work with the same effectiveness on anyone else.

The compounder of the Heal-n-Sooth preparation apparently took the approach that with a mix of eight ingredients something is likely to work to some degree on some human symptoms for something. In my case the “snake oil” is apparently working to some degree on the cause of the pain by reducing inflammation of tissues, or so the company asserts. It will be interesting to see if blood flow tests support this assertion. In the meantime my pain is reduced, and I am able to walk further without discomfort. In my case the pills worked. This is a report of my personal experience with this particular “snake oil” remedy that is still using the medicine show approach now applied to the modern advertising market on social media platforms. It may or may not work for others.

I am now getting ready for turkey season without having it interrupted by a surgery. After I report to the doctor on how I did with my mobility issues, the surgical option is still available. At best this seems to be improving my condition, but I would not go nearly so far as to declare it a cure. I am receiving no product or other considerations for these comments. This Heal-n-Sooth product may, or may not, work for you.

Author's Bio: 

Wm. Hovey Smith is the author of more than 20 books covering health topics, geology, architecture, business and outdoor life. His most recent is "Make Your Own Job: Anytime,Anywhere, At Any Age," and his novel "Until Death Do You Part: An American Family Meets Their Sicilian Cousins."