The History of Fish Oil: A Viking-Laden Tale

Published: Mar. 26

If you’re a fan of HISTORY channel’s “Vikings,” pay close attention to this historical piece. It brings a little modern-day science to Ragnar’s ancient European roots.

The Viking Experience

Unknown to many, Vikings were among the first to use cod liver oil as a supplement. Important in Norse diets, the innovative Vikings consumed this healthy oil during the long, cold winter months. Winter was peak fishing season, and fish livers stayed fresh, and the oils were high quality. To extract fish liver oil, a common method was to place water in a large pan and bring it to a boil. They would then take birch tree branches, put them over the pan and place the liver on top. As the steam rose, the liver began to cook, and the oil would then drip into the water. The Vikings would then dip whole cod livers into the cod liver oil. In fact, pure raw fish oil was highly coveted by these Nordic warriors, valued for it is strength, healing and energy and was called “Gold of the Ocean.”

Inuit Cuisine

Since ancient times, Inuit’s have relied on diets heavy on fish and animals that were local to their indigenous northern region.
In the 1970s, an epidemiological study on Greenland’s Inuits revealed that they have substantially reduced levels of myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) when compared with Western civilizations, which were the control group. This parent study spawned more than 4,5000 other studies, exploring the effects of Omega-3 fatty acids on human health and metabolism.

A Medicine is Born

Rewinding and going back in time for a moment, by the 1700s, apothecaries and infirmaries were using and prescribing cod liver oil to patients that suffered from rheumatism. In fact, in a letter written in 1782 by Robert Darbey to Dr. Thomas Percival, the following was noted:
“A woman, who labored under the most excruciating rheumatism, and was an outpatient of the infirmary, being advised to rub her joints with the oil was induced to take it, at the same time, internally. A few weeks restored her to the use of her limbs, and she was cured.”
Later, papers were published praising cod liver oil for curing rickets, scrofula, gout and other illnesses. It wasn’t until 1822 that cod liver oil was accepted and officially recognized by medical professionals for its undeniable curative powers. However, at the time no one understood exactly how the oil worked to cure these ailments.

Modern Day Medicine

Fast-forward to modern-day medicine and cod liver oil is a supplement readily recommended by healthcare professionals.
Here are the top eight health benefits linked to fish oil, which is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids.

  1. High in Vitamins A and D – Cod liver oil is different from regular fish oil. Regular fish oil merely is extracted from the tissue of oily fish, such as anchovies, herring, mackerel and tuna. Cod liver oil is obtained from the livers of cod and is a source of fat-soluble vitamins A and D. Vitamin A is necessary for healthy brain function, eyes and skin and vitamin D plays an essential role in bone health.
  2. May Reduce Inflammation – While inflammation isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s a natural process that helps our bodies fight infections and heal from injuries, chronic inflammation is harmful and may lead to an increased risk of heart disease or high blood pressure. Omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce chronic inflammation by working to suppress the proteins that cause it, such as TNF-a, IL-1 and IL-6. Studies also show that people with vitamin A and D deficiencies may be at high risk of chronic inflammation. Since cod liver oil is an excellent source of vitamins A and D, this may help reduce inflammation in those with deficiencies.
  3. May Reduce Joint Pain – Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes joint damage. While it is incurable, studies show that cod liver oil may help improve the symptoms of RA, such as swelling and joint stiffness and reduce joint pain.
  4. May Improve Bone Health – Humans start losing bone mass after the age of 30. This can lead to a variety of medical conditions, including osteoporosis, which can lead to bone fractures later in life. A diet high in calcium and vitamin D can reduce bone loss in adults and even help strengthen weak bones in children.
  5. May Support Eye Health – Over 285 million people worldwide are affected by vision loss. The two leading causes are age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and glaucoma. It’s possible that both of these diseases can result from chronic inflammation. Studies show that vitamin A helps protect the eyes against harmful inflammation. Since cod liver oil is high in vitamin A, doctors recommend it for helping protect the eyes.
  6. May Reduce Heart Disease Risk – People that regularly eat fish have a lower risk of developing heart disease. Omega-3s help the heart by:
    • Reducing Triglycerides – It may reduce levels by as much as 15 to 30%.
    • Lowering Blood Pressure – It may help lower blood pressure and high cholesterol.
    • Increasing HDL Cholesterol – The Omega-3 fatty acids found in cod liver oil can help increase good HDL cholesterol, which may lower the risk of heart disease.
    • Plaque Formation – Several animal studies have found that high-quality cod liver oil may reduce the risk of artery plaque, which narrows the arteries and causes strokes or heart attacks.
  7. May Improve Anxiety and Depression Symptoms – Affecting more than 615 million people worldwide, studies are showing links between chronic inflammation and depression and anxiety. There are also studies that found a relationship between higher blood levels of vitamin D and a reduction in depression.
  8. May Help Heal Ulcers – Ulcers do not result from worry. In fact, they’re small breaks in the lining of the stomach, which then makes people susceptible to getting bacterial infections. Animal studies show that cod liver oil may help treat both ulcers in the stomach and gut, as it helps reduce inflammation and ulceration.

If you’re interested in learning more about heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids to your diet, consult your healthcare professional for more information.

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