Cod Liver Oil: Not Just an Old Home Remedy
I remember my grandmother threatening me with a dose of cod liver oil if I didn’t finish my dinner. I mentally added cod liver oil to her litany of medicinals—mecurochrome, gentian violet, tincture of iodine—that had questionable healing properties and usually tasted badly or left a telltale mark on your skin.
It turns out that my grandmother and those of her generation may have been onto something when they reached for the cod liver oil bottle and a teaspoon.
What is cod liver oil?
Well…as the name implies, it is oil from the liver of the cod fish. There are two main ways to ingest the oil. The first and probably the least appetizing way is to eat the liver of the cod fish itself. (That makes the teaspoon of cod liver oil sound absolutely delicious!)
The more appetizing option is to take it as a supplement, either as a liquid, a tablet or a capsule.
How can you benefit from cod liver oil?
Cod liver oil is marketed to remedy everything from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high triglycerides, and kidney disease in those with type 2 diabetes to things as varied as osteoporosis, lupus, depression, heart disease, irregular heartbeats, ear infections, glaucoma, and wound healing.
The potential benefit that most piqued my interest, however, was its use to ease joint pain and inflammation in those with arthritis. This runner’s knees are getting a little creaky!
What’s so good about cod liver oil?
Like regular fish oil supplements, cod liver oil supplements are high in omega-3 fatty acids. The fish used for supplements—anchovies, cod, herring, mackerel, salmon, and tuna—get their omega-3s from their own diet of phytoplankton. This phytoplankton absorbs microalgae which are the initial source for the fatty acids.
There are two types of fatty acids in fish oils: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Both EPA and DHA are “good” oils that support a number of bodily functions in humans.
Because the body doesn’t make its own omega-3 fatty acids, however, you need to either eat foods rich in omega-3s (two to three servings of non-fried fish per week) or add supplements to your diet.
The main difference between cod liver oil and other fish oils is that cod liver oil contains both EPA and DHA but also high levels of vitamins A and D.
Putting cod liver oil to the test
There have been numerous studies on the purported benefits of cod liver oil. And as is the case with many supplements, some studies support adding cod liver oil to your diet and other studies are neutral.
Because of the sheer numbers of studies and the limited space here, I am going to focus on two studies that back up the claim that cod liver oil can benefit joint health.
For instance, the study, “Effect of cod liver oil on symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis,” the findings of which were published in the March/April 2002 journal Advances in Therapy, reported that 43 patients benefitted from taking one capsule of cod liver oil per day for three months.
Of the study participants, more than 52% reported a decrease in morning stiffness, more than 42% reported a decrease in painful joints, 40% reported a decrease in swollen joints and 67.5% reported a decrease in pain intensity.
A 2008 study showed that patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) were able to curb their use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) when they added a cod liver oil supplement to their daily dietary regimen. Titled “Cod liver oil (n-3 fatty acids) as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug sparing agent in rheumatoid arthritis” the findings were published in the May 2008 issue of the journal Rheumatology.
During the study, 97 patients were followed for nine months. Some patients received cod liver oil capsules while others received placebo capsules. Documentation of how many NSAIDs they took as well as their RA symptoms were taken at the outset of the study and again at 4, 12, 24 and 36 weeks. At the 12-week mark, patients were encouraged to decrease NSAID use if possible.
In the group of participants who took the cod liver oil supplements, 39% were able to cut their daily NSAID use by at least 30% and 10% of participants in the placebo group decreased their NSAID use by the same amount.
Too much of a good thing?
Keep in mind that cod liver oil differs from regular fish oil in that it contains quite a bit of vitamins A and D—90% and 113% of the recommended daily requirements respectively.
Because of its high levels of those two vitamins, if you are already taking singular vitamin A and/or D supplements, you might want to stop taking them. In addition, you might want to check any multi-vitamins you are taking to ensure you aren’t getting too much of either vitamin.
For those who are currently taking high blood pressure medication or blood thinners, check with your doctor before beginning a cod liver oil regimen as it can act as a blood thinner on its own.
For those with diabetes, taking too much fish oil can result in an increase in blood sugar. Large amounts of fish oil or omega-3s can stimulate the body’s production of glucose.
Cod liver oil should not be taken by pregnant women as too much vitamin A can be harmful. And those with fish or shellfish allergies should probably steer clear just in case. You will want to check with your pediatrician before administering cod liver oil to children, despite what grandmothers might think.
For those who don’t have any chronic conditions or are not pregnant, adding one capsule or one to two teaspoons of cod liver oil per day is safe.
Minor side effects of taking cod liver oil may include heartburn, burping and nosebleeds. All small prices to pay, in my opinion, for the ability to continue to train at a certain level while cutting down on my reliance on NSAIDs both before and after my runs.
- What’s the Difference Between Cod Liver Oil and Fish Oil?, website ,
- 9 Science-Backed Benefits of Cod Liver Oil, website ,
- Effect of cod liver oil on symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis., website ,
- Cod liver oil (n-3 fatty acids) as an non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug sparing agent in rheumatoid arthritis, website ,
- 8 Little-Known Side Effects of Too Much Fish Oil, website ,