The Health Benefits of Cod Liver Oil

Fish oil capsules

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Cod liver oil may be consumed by eating the liver of a codfish—a common fish that lives near the bottom of the sea. Cod liver oil is also a popular type of fish oil supplement available in liquid and capsule form. The oil is rich in vitamin A, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Due to its high omega-3 content, cod liver oil is found in many natural products marketed as omega-3 supplements. Cod liver oil is consumed to treat a wide range of conditions ranging from high blood pressure to depression and certain types of infection. Some people also use cod liver on the skin to aid in wound healing. Some, but not all, of these uses are supported by scientific evidence.

Health Benefits

In the 1800s, cod liver oil became popular as a dietary supplement for children whose lack of sunlight exposure increased their risk for rickets, a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency. Today cod liver oil is a popular supplement used for a wide range of conditions.

Cod liver oil is one type of fish oil. If you buy a common fish oil supplement, the oil contained in the product usually comes from cold-water oily fish, such as salmon, herring, or sardines. Codfish oil is a slightly different type of oil, specifically sourced from the liver of the Pacific or Atlantic codfish. Each type of oil provides healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been widely studied for their health benefits. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the omega-3s available in different types of fish oil are probably effective for the prevention of heart disease. In addition, the NIH states that fish oil may help:

However, the NIH does not specify whether cod liver oil in particular (rather than fish oil sourced from other types of fish) might produce these health benefits.

Although research on the specific health effects of cod liver oil is somewhat limited, some studies show that cod liver oil may help with certain medical conditions.

Upper Respiratory Tract Infections

Cod liver oil may help prevent upper respiratory tract infections, according to a 2004 study of 94 children. Published in the Annals of Otology, Rhinology, and Laryngology, the study found that participants who received cod liver oil and a multivitamin-mineral each day from late autumn through early spring experienced a significant decrease in the number of upper respiratory tract infections (such as the common cold). These patients also reduced the number of doctor's office visits for the condition.

Diabetes

Fish oil, in general, is not associated with a decreased risk for insulin sensitivity or type 2 diabetes. However, there have been some small studies specifically looking at the association between cod liver oil and type 1 diabetes.

Taking cod liver oil during pregnancy may reduce the baby's risk of type 1 diabetes, suggests a 2000 report from the journal Diabetologia. Analyzing data on 85 expectant mothers with diabetes and 1,071 diabetes-free pregnant women, the study's authors found a significantly lower diabetes risk among children born to participants who had consumed cod liver oil while pregnant.

In addition, a 2003 study of 2,213 people published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that taking cod liver oil during the first year of life was linked to a reduced risk for childhood-onset type 1 diabetes.

Arthritis

For people with rheumatoid arthritis, taking cod liver oil may reduce the need for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). For a 2008 study published in Rheumatology, researchers assigned 97 rheumatoid arthritis patients to nine months of treatment with either cod liver oil or a placebo. Looking at data on the 58 people who completed the study, they found that 39 percent of the cod liver oil group was able to reduce their daily NSAID intake by more than 30% compared to 10% of patients in the placebo group.

In an earlier study from Advances in Therapy, scientists discovered that taking cod liver oil may help alleviate stiffness, pain, and swelling in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Cod liver oil is just one remedy for rheumatoid arthritis. 

Vitamin D Deficiency

There have been mixed results when researchers have examined whether or not taking a cod liver oil supplement may help boost vitamin D levels, particularly in post-menopausal women. Increasingly, studies are showing that the vitamin plays a role in the prevention of many diseases and conditions that are more common as you age. Vitamin D is also essential for absorbing calcium and building bones.

One population study showed that increased daily intake of a cod liver oil supplement is associated with higher serum levels of vitamin D. And another study on postmenopausal women showed that those taking a daily cod liver oil supplement are less likely to be vitamin D deficient during the winter and spring than those not taking a supplement.

However, other research showed that the increased vitamin D levels gained through supplementation may not be enough to provide a benefit.

Possible Side Effects

Fish oil may cause a number of side effects including bad breath, heartburn, nausea, and belching.

When overused, cod liver oil may lead to toxic levels of vitamins A and D.

Additionally, high doses of fish oil may prevent blood clotting, damage the immune system and increase blood levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol.

Cod liver oil may interfere with the treatment of certain conditions. If you take medications or herbs for hypertension or to manage blood clotting speak to your healthcare provider before taking this supplement.

Also, if you're considering the use of cod liver oil in combination with other supplements or medications, talk to your doctor before beginning treatment.

Lastly, it's important to note that avoiding standard medical care and self-treating a chronic condition with cod liver oil (or any other type of alternative medicine) may have serious health consequences.

Dosage and Preparation

There is no standard dose for fish oil or cod liver oil. Different amounts have been studied in research.

For example, in a study investigating hypertension, test subjects consumed 21 mL orally daily for eight weeks. In another study, subjects consumed 5 mL orally four times daily with meals for six weeks.

In a study investigating rheumatoid arthritis test participants took one gram daily for three months has been used. A 10-gram mixture of cod liver oil and fish oil was also used daily for 36 weeks in a different study.

The right dose for you may depend on your age, gender, and health. Speak to your healthcare provider to get personalized advice if you consider taking cod liver oil.

What to Look For

Many people choose to consume cod liver as a bottled oil or in supplement form. But some specialty markets sell cod livers in cans. Many say that the liver is mild and tastes nothing like the oil. But the product may be hard to find.

Cod liver oil is found bottled and in capsules. When choosing a product you may want to read the label to see if there are claims regarding purity or safety. Cod liver oil may contain other unwanted substances such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). PCBs are industrial products or chemicals that may negatively affect our health.

Some agencies, including International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS) test fish oil supplements for the presence of toxins such as PCBs. You can also look for a recognized certification by organizations like ConsumerLabs, The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, or NSF International. These organizations don't guarantee that a product is 100% safe or effective, but they do provide a certain level of testing for quality.

Other Questions

Is There a Difference in the Health Benefits Between Cod Liver Oil and Other Types of Fish Oil?

Both cod liver oil and fish oil (from other sources) provide omega-3 fatty acids. But cod liver oil contains a higher concentration of vitamin D than fish oil from other sources. For that reason, some medical experts have recommended that those with vitamin D deficiency choose cod liver oil rather than other types of fish oil supplements.

However, since some species of cod are thought to be endangered, getting your omega-3s from other types of fish oil (such as salmon) may be more ecologically responsible. If you're vegetarian, you can obtain omega-3 fatty acids from plant sources like flaxseed.

What Is Fermented Cod Liver Oil?

Proponents of fermented cod liver oil claim that this form of cod liver oil is more pure and higher in vitamin A, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids than heat-processed forms of cod liver oil. However, there is currently a lack of scientific evidence to support this claim.

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