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Grandma’s secret remedy: discovering the health benefits of cod liver oil

Historical knowledge of the health benefits of cod liver oil

Have you heard about grandma’s secret remedy for winter? I did not personally experience this, but the story is that moms lined up their kids and forced a spoonful of cod liver oil into each grimacing mouth. Even though kids resisted, they knew they’d better take it. Mom knew best and she knew that cod liver oil kept her children healthy all winter long.

And, people have known about the health benefits of cod liver oil for a very long time, at least since the 1700’s. Northern Europeans used it in ointments and salves  as well as in cooking. They’ve enjoyed robust health, even in the harshest conditions, for centuries before modern medicine confirmed the health benefits of cod liver oil.

Doctors discover internal uses for cod liver oil

Then, in the 1700’s, medical doctors in England began using it internally. They found it effective for chronic rheumatism and by the 1830’s, doctors used it to combat tuberculosis, rickets, malnourishment, osteomalacia (softening of the bones), and some eye conditions.

During World War II, the British government gave out cod liver oil for free to pregnant and nursing mothers, children under age 5, and those over age 40. Even after the war, Britain continued this program for another 30 years because it produced the healthiest generation of children England had ever seen.

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Currently known health benefits of cod liver oil

Over the last 100 years, research and observation have unraveled some of the mysteries hidden in food, including the health benefits of cod liver oil. While we don’t know everything, we know that this “liquid gold” contains vitamin A, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids.

But, so what? Most people don’t suffer from a vitamin A deficiency.

However, many people do suffer from insufficient vitamin D. In fact, an estimated 1 billion suffer from vitamin D deficiency worldwide. And, most people also don’t get enough EPA and DHA rich omega-3 fatty acids. Instead, they get too many omega-6’s. How do you know if you’re getting enough EPA and DHA rich omega-3’s? Ask yourself how much grass-fed beef, oily fish, oily nuts, or omega-3 fortified eggs or milk you’ve eaten this week. If you’re like me, you’ve had maybe two servings overall. Not enough! We can’t really overdose on these foods and even though we’re getting some omega-3’s, we probably need more.

What’s the big deal about omega-3 essential fatty acids?

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are fats that your body needs but can’t make itself. They must come from your diet. These fats are used in every cell of your body, but especially in the eyes and nervous system. The retina and the brain’s gray matter are rich with omega-3 type EFAs.

Omega-3’s also play an important role in the immune system, either promoting or inhibiting inflammation, with omega-3’s generally inhibiting inflammation. Interestingly, EFAs play a role in turning genes on and off as well. Therefore, some of the possible health benefits of cod liver oil is reducing inflammation and turning off genes for disease.

How it helps

Scientists have studied the effects of EFAs on: Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and immunoglobin A nephropathy. While you can eat more omega-3 rich foods or supplement, don’t expect a miracle cure. Most studies suggest modest improvements in health outcomes. EFAs are most helpful when eaten to prevent disease, not treat it. However, as I said, every cell in our bodies benefits from omega-3 EFAs.

Babies especially benefit from the EFAs in cod liver oil and some companies have created special supplements just for them. If a nursing mom is not ingesting enough herself, supplementation may be necessary. This brand makes a high quality liquid supplement for infants.

To see sources for this section, please click here and here.

Vitamin D or die?

Yes, vitamin D deficiency is associated with a shorter lifespan. But, here’s a fun fact: vitamin D isn’t a vitamin. It is a group of chemicals often thought of as hormones. “Vitamin” D starts out in the skin as a form of cholesterol that, in the presence of ultraviolet light, is converted by an enzyme into pre-vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). (Dietary vitamin D is already in this form). Then it travels to the liver, where another enzyme converts it to calcifediol. The kidneys convert it further to the active form of vitamin D, calcitriol, which travels around in the bloodstream. All this is to say that it takes cholesterol (yes, cholesterol!) and sunlight for the body to produce enough vitamin D. You need vitamin D to be able to absorb calcium and phosphorus, both necessary for healthy bones. But, our bodies use calcium in other places, too, which is why most of our tissues and cells have receptors for vitamin D.

How it helps

Scientists have found that vitamin D benefits those with cancer, heart disease, hypertension, depression, autoimmune diseases, and macular degeneration. In most studies, high levels of vitamin D had a preventative effect. Dosing with the vitamin after disease sets in isn’t as effective. For example, those who supplemented vitamin D at the start of winter experienced a 40% lower rate of influenza A than those in a control group without supplementation.

Of course, the easiest way to get enough vitamin D is to spend a lot of time outdoors, even in winter. But, if that’s not possible, vitamin D is one of the health benefits of cod liver oil.

To see sources for this section, click here.

 Vitamin A: I can see your beautiful, ageless face!

Most people have no trouble getting enough vitamin A from eggs, milk, liver, fish, and vegetables. Vitamin A comes in two major forms and the easiest for your body to use comes from animal sources. Vegetable sources need to be converted into a usable form. It makes sense that the form most easily used comes from animals because vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin. This means that, in order for the body to absorb it, it needs to be eaten with fat. That’s a good reason to eat vegetables with butter or oil. You probably already know that this vitamin is necessary for good eyesight. But, did you know that it also keeps your skin looking young and plays an important role in cell growth and differentiation?

How it helps

Some studies suggest that it may protect against sun damage, although others suggest that it may increase photosensitivity if applied to the skin. Most studies, however, show that vitamin A, specifically retinol, has anti-aging effects. It also speeds wound healing and treats acne.

So, look younger as one of the health benefits of cod liver oil.

Grandma knows . . .

Just a spoonful, that’s all it takes to enjoy the health benefits of cod liver oil. Make sure it says cod liver oil not just fish oil. Companies use a different process to make fish oil and it doesn’t have vitamins A and D. My kids love popping the gel caps from this company in their mouths! I know it sounds weird, but you know, whatever it takes. I have also tried this high quality brand. Looking at all of these applications, it’s easy to see how everything works together synergistically to keep us at our best. This is one supplement you’ll want to stock up on every winter, and even year-round.

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