Many of us have heard of cod liver oil, perhaps through a story of childhood woes related by our grandparents or great-grandparents that went something like: “Every day my mother would make me take a spoonful of cod liver oil before I walked the five miles through the snow to school.” What this story doesn’t tell you is how lucky they were to have been given this historical super food. Yes, cod liver oil has been around for a long time.
You could even say it is the stuff of legends or, rather, the stuff legends were built on. The Roman soldiers were known to take fermented cod liver oil, Garum, on their marches across Europe. In the same vein, every Viking family had a barrel of cod livers fermenting by their front door and would take a spoonful of the oil upon leaving the house every day because they recognized its contribution to their vitality.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that the benefits of cod liver oil became better understood. Doctors in the 1920s recommended feeding children cod liver oil in order to prevent rickets (a crippling affliction caused by vitamin D deficiency, most notably endured by President Franklin D. Roosevelt). Studies have shown this nutrient-dense food (it is really more of a food, though we take it supplementarily) to contain high concentrations of naturally occurring vitamin A and D. DHA and EPA, two essential fatty acids particularly important for brain health and hormone production, respectively, are also found in cod liver oil. The importance and inherent practicality of consuming a food like this as a supplement is in the synergism of the components. Since vitamins A and D are fat-soluble, our bodies require fat to absorb them. The natural fatty acids in the cod liver oil act as the liaison for the absorption of A and D in your body, much as they did for the cod.
Although there has been some research indicating the possible toxicity of vitamin D and A that can occur from consuming large quantities, many cases are attributable to supplements created from synthesized A and D. This basically means the vitamins are not quite usable by the body (take D2, for example) and require your body to convert the supplement to a more usable form. Taking a supplement that requires your body to do more work seems counterproductive when there are nutrient-dense foods and supplements that can give you what you need without the extra bodily hassle. In addition, the unconverted portion of the synthetic supplement has nowhere to go but to build up in your body fat and create toxic concentrations that will lead to other problems.
As to the benefits of a daily dose of fermented cod liver oil, there are many. Research has shown that daily consumption of cod liver oil in northerly latitudes (particularly in the winter time when sun exposure is reduced) can improve vitamin D levels (thereby attenuating the Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that plagues so many of us), as well as increase bone density. A study in the Journal of Neurology looking at people living in the Arctic, found that supplemental cod liver oil taken during childhood may be protective against developing Multiple Sclerosis later in life. In addition, breastfeeding mothers taking cod liver oil show significantly higher levels of DHA and EPA in their breast milk. These higher levels have been shown to greatly benefit the developing fetus and baby. In “a double-blind, placebo-controlled study showed the use of cod liver oil during pregnancy and lactation to increase the child’s IQ at the age of four years. In this study, the control received the same amount of fat-soluble vitamins as the cod liver oil group, so the effects are most likely due to the DHA. In Norway, use of cod liver oil during pregnancy was associated with a 70 percent reduced risk of type 1 diabetes.”
I am an avid believer in the benefits of fermented cod liver oil because I have been using it myself over the last few years. At the beginning, I was not consistent, and although I suspected some benefits, I couldn’t be precise about what they were. During the summer, when I am outside more often, I take less simply because I feel that I get enough sun exposure and do not want to over-do my vitamin D levels that are already being accommodated by the sun and my skin. When the days get shorter and I am more bundled up during the cooler months of the year, I increase my intake, and make sure I am consistent. This Fall and Winter were the first that I have been consistent with my daily dose, and it is also the first year that SAD has not knocked on my door.
As a nutritionist, I believe that eating real foods, prepared using time-tested traditional methods is the only way to eat for vital health and well-being. In my ideology, fermented cod liver oil is an important part of building vital health, particularly for people who do not live in tropic zones of the world, where sunlight exposure is high. My preferred brand is Green Pasture because of the high quality of the livers (only wild caught fish livers from fish caught in clean Arctic waters are used), the high quality processing of the oil (using traditional fermentation methods), and the efforts in sustainability the company employs (they only work with companies that are certified members of the Marine Stewardship Council)
Luckily, this product is available at Rebecca’s, and costs less than ordering it online from Green Pastures or Dr. Ron’s. But, no matter how you get it, I highly recommend you do and start your daily dose of what your great-grandmother always knew was best!
Caitlin Howell, MS (Human Nutrition)
Assistant Grocery Manager
Rebecca’s Natural Food, Charlottesville VA