Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cod liver oil

Yes, I'm talking about that traditional health tonic no kid ever wants to take.

When I was in college (as well as before then) I had crippling headaches. They lasted for days and were really, really bad. At one point I talked to a friend's mom who was a nurse and into natural healing, and she suggested I take a bunch of different vitamins. That did seem to help, unless it was the coming of spring that helped. (I only get these headaches in the winter, pretty much, and only on the East Coast. The cold triggers them.) But after awhile I stopped taking them and didn't notice any particular difference. When the headaches came back, I'd take them for awhile and then forget about them.

After graduation, my first winter on my own, I was sick all the time. First off, I was teaching, and being a teacher must be the most disease-prone career ever. You always get everything the kids have. Then I was cold all the time, because I didn't have a car and was walking everywhere ... and the cold set off those nasty headaches. I didn't get much sleep either, I didn't eat right, and I was under a ton of stress. So, small wonder I got pharyngitis and cold after cold. I also had bad skin and overall felt lousy even the few times I wasn't sick.

I couldn't afford to improve my diet much, and the stress and lack of sleep were inevitable for a new teacher with 120 students I saw every day. The one thing I could change was to add a supplement. I had read recently that vitamin supplements aren't really so great, because the vitamins in them are artificially derived and therefore not used as well by the body. I have no source for that, but I have noticed food does tend to work for me a little better than tablets.

I was looking mainly to improve my skin, and wanted vitamin A for that. A friend told me she'd cured her acne with it. But I wanted something naturally derived. My mom suggested cod liver oil, so I picked it a bottle of tiny capsules the next time I was at the store and started taking them every night along with the multivitamin I was taking already.

They worked well enough to clear up my skin in time for my wedding. My sicknesses also got better, but then, it was spring. I kept taking the cod liver oil until I ran out of the bottle -- by which point I was pregnant. I mentioned it to my mom and she said, "Make sure you get more -- you have to take it every day when you're pregnant, because it's good for baby's brain." So I took it every day, along with my prenatal vitamin.

That winter, I was sick once. For one day. I credited this to being pregnant, but I've since heard others say they were sick more often during pregnancy. And, definitely, the kids I taught, being younger, weren't sick any less often. The swine flu went through and gave us 50% absentee rates for awhile. All I got was a sinus thing that lasted 24 hours, with a slight fever.

I now know that cod liver oil is rich in vitamin D as well as vitamin A, and that vitamin D is an extremely important nutrient for the immune system. I have no doubt that this is one of the reasons why sickness is so rampant in the wintertime. Besides those two vitamins, it also has high levels of DHA and EPA, two omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for the brain and vision as well as other areas of the body. (source)

The problem is, I can no longer find it at the grocery store in capsules. And I recently discovered that almost all commercially-available brands are heat-processed, and the heat processing destroys some of the vitamins. The stuff to get, say real-food advocates, is the fermented stuff, made the way the Vikings and ancient Romans used to. They would mix fish livers with seawater in a barrel and leave it for as much as a year. The fermenting process breaks down the livers and releases the oil, which they would then take as a health tonic and a seasoning. To the best of my knowledge, there is only one brand in the US that makes it the old-fashioned way. I was reduced to buying it off the internet in liquid form at a higher price than I used to.

To mitigate the price factor, I got some on sale because they were discontinuing the "Mediterranean" flavor. The stuff is heavy on the basil, but also contains garlic and salt, all to mask the natural flavor, which I've heard from numerous bloggers is pretty nasty.

Okay, so the stuff arrived and I've started taking it. The first time, I loaded in a medicine syringe and shot it to the back of my throat, which is a technique others have recommended. It kind of made me gag having it way in the back of my throat there, but it didn't taste that bad. Just like basil, with maybe a hint of something else, not distinctly fishy, just unfamiliar. So the next time I just took it with a spoon. This turned out to be a BAD CHOICE. It tasted like spaghetti gone horribly, horribly wrong. I can't describe it. It's just a nasty, nasty taste that isn't like anything else I know of. Not much like fish, and not like liver either. (Let it be known, though, that I am picky about fish and detest all liver.)

My current routine is to take it before bed, about a half teaspoon (I'm working up to a teaspoon) out of the syringe. It has to be before bed, because if I take it in the morning, I have to deal with the smell of it in my nose for some time, and I find myself eating all kinds of things trying to forget about that smell. But if I take it really quickly at night, and then follow with my bedtime snack (a piece of bread and jam and a glass of milk), it really isn't that bad. I can hardly taste the cod liver itself, and the oiliness and basil-y-ness is easily washed away after a bite of bread and jam.

So, would I recommend it? You notice I didn't give the brand name, mainly because I don't want you to think I'm trying to sell the stuff to you. I'm not, because I don't use this blog to make money and the company doesn't know I exist. However, I think I would recommend it. I've only been taking it for a few days, but already John's had a truly wretched cold. The baby had it too when I started taking the oil, but I hadn't had it yet. The day after my first dose, I had a scratchy throat and a bit of congestion, and I thought "Here it comes!" But the next day, all that was gone, and the baby was also much better. John's the only one still hacking. True, it may be totally unrelated, or it may be a placebo effect. But the one undeniable fact is that it contains some really good vitamins. In the wintertime, it's hard to get any sunshine to make vitamin D, and there are few foods that have it. Nursing and pregnant moms are recommended to take vitamin D anyway, but I prefer to find naturally occurring vitamins as opposed to artificial ones. Cod liver oil fits the bill for that.

So, if you can find cod liver oil, it's a great supplement for the wintertime. You will probably have to go online or to a health food store, though, since it's hard to find lately. If you want the fermented stuff, follow this link. The Mediterranean flavor's discontinued now, but I have heard the cinnamon tingle recommended. Or, if you don't mind the extra price (and I totally wouldn't, if I had the money at all, which I don't), get the capsules and you won't have to taste it at all.


Sarah Faith said...

we're chickens and take the capsules. more expensive but at least it doesn't get washed down the drain when the kids spit it out! lol
taking with milk helps for the liquid though. really masks it.

Beth said...

I recently got the emulsified mint flavor of the "unnamed brand" and I can tell you that (a) I can choke it down with a nice swig of kombucha or other strongly flavored drink and (b) my 5 y/o son with the learning disabilities gobbles it up like dessert after his breakfast, with a glass of milk and a chocolate chip (literally, one. a reward).

I can definitely see progress in my son with regard to his spazziness and his insomnia (he has been taking it about 3 weeks) and as for me, well....I have been battling SAD my whole life so time will tell since it is now fall and I should be up against my old demons soon.

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