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Slithering Science

Chasing snails around a glass tabletop may not be exciting, but hey, it’s a living. And apparently quite a nice one. All you have to do is collect the slime the snails leave behind, formulate it into a cream with some standard cosmetic ingredients, add a dose of hype about natural heaven-sent natural components and wait for the profits to roll in. And that seems to be happening, snail creams for the face are a hot item, especially in Korea. But over the years the supposed benefits from snails have not been limited to ironing out facial wrinkles.

The Roman Philospher Pliny thought that snails reduced to a pulp were a great treatment for burns and abcesses. He also recommended snails for nosebleeds and stomach pain. In this case the snails were to be boiled then grilled over a coal fire and eaten with wine. When it came to extracting arrows or darts, Pliny suggested placing a rat or lizard that is cut down the middle over the wound followed by application of crushed snails. Ambrose, a fourth century bishop of Milan, held snails in high regard. A snail, when eating snake intestines and feels the penetration of poison, cures itself with oregano and when a snail is in a swamp, it is able to find the appropriate antidote and knows the power of herbs. I don’t know what experience the bishop had with snails that dine on snake intestines.

Then in the 18th century things became more scientific. As described in the Universal Pharmacoepia by Lemery in France in 1738: “Place crushed snails in a large glass jar, positioned on a bain-marie, into which the fresh milk of a female donkey is poured. The whole is mixed well with a wooden spatula, and then left for digestion for 12 h before it is distilled. The resulting distilled water is exposed to the sun for several days in a glass bottle, and then kept in the bottle. This is a hydrator, and is refreshing, useful for skin redness, and can be used to clean up one’s face. It can also be used internally for the spasms of spitting blood accompanying tuberculosis, and for the urine ardour of nephritis. The dosage is between one and six ounces.”

One would have thought that by the 20th century snail remedies would have slithered away. But no. In the1920’s snail syrup was recommended for chronic bronchitis as well as for whooping cough. The snails were to be soaked in a 1% salt solution, the mucus collected, filtered and concentrated. Could this possibly have been an effective treatment? Snail mucus does contain various enzymes which in theory could have an effect on secretions and possibly have a relaxant effect on the bronchi.

How about eating whole snails instead of just their mucus? The island of Crete has one twentieth the cardiovascular death rate of the U.S. and the Cretans eat lots and lots of snails. These snails are rich in alpha-linolenic acid from the natural herbs that serve as their food supply and this omega-3 acid supposedly has a protective effect against heart disease by reducing ventricular fibrillation and platelet aggregation. “Supposedly” is the key word here because the evidence for alpha-linolenic acid being beneficial is weak.

Some snea snails on the other hand don’t extend life, they can end it with their prey-paralyzing neurotoxins. That’s why ziconotide, a peptide derived from sea snail venom is being investigated for its anesthetic properties. In one trial the compound reduced pain intensity by 53% compared with 18% for placebo even in patients who had failed to respond to morphine. The mucus snails secrete is indeed a fascinating substance. After all, it has the qualities of a lubricant, allowing the snail to crawl over rough surfaces, but it also has the properties of an adhesive, allowing the snail to crawl up trees or walls. Snail mucus is a very complex mix of chemicals and it should come as no surprise that some can have biological properties. But research about these chemicals seems to be proceeding at a snail’s pace.

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