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What Happened to Cod Liver Oil as a Home Remedy?

A reader who remembers home remedies of long ago wonders what happened to cod liver oil. Although doctors no longer prescribe it, people still take it.
Cod liver oil omega 3 gel capsules isolated on white background

The origin of many a home remedy is lost in the mists of time. Usually we don’t have a good record of who started using it or when, and we also rarely have information on when and how it falls out of favor. Have you ever wondered, for example, what happened to cod liver oil, once a popular home remedy?

What Happened to Cod Liver Oil?

Q. Are there drawbacks to cod liver oil consumption? I was wondering since it was a classic home remedy for a number of things many years ago. In some families, everyone got a spoonful of cod liver oil daily, but now that isn’t the case.

A. If you have spoken with someone who was given a spoonful of cod liver oil every day during childhood, they will tell you it tasted terrible. Perhaps that helps explain what happened to cod liver oil.

History of Cod Liver Oil:

Cod liver oil is not a recent innovation. An article published in the London Medical Journal in 1782 touts its benefits for painful rheumatism. No doubt it had been in popular use for some time before that. Tradition has it that the Vikings prepared cod liver oil by steaming the livers over kettles of boiling water. Since Norway has very little sunshine during the winter, the vitamin D in this product would have been helpful in preventing deficiency during that long season.

By the 19th century, people in England and America embraced cod liver oil produced in Newfoundland, Canada. As you have noted, it was an extremely popular remedy. Doctors recommended the oil to treat arthritis, gout and other painful joint problems. In the era before the discovery of germs, they also used cod liver oil to treat tuberculosis. (In those days, they referred to different symptoms of tuberculosis as “phthisis” and “scrofula.”)

By the early 20th century, cod liver oil was recognized as a helpful remedy for rickets, caused by a severe lack of vitamin D. In 1923, the Archives of Pediatrics (now JAMA Pediatrics) published an article on The History of Cod Liver Oil as a Remedy that made reference to “newly awakened interest concerning its action.” Researchers then reported on its value for wound healing and hemorrhoids. By the 1970s, however, cod liver oil had once again fallen out of medical favor. A recent medical article points out the dangers of excessive vitamin A intake from cod liver oil (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2018).

Downsides of Cod Liver Oil:

Some people react to cod liver oil with digestive distress. High doses may interact with aspirin or other anticoagulant medicines to increase the risk of bleeding.

Scandinavians have long embraced the use of cod liver oil rich in both vitamin A and vitamin D. There have been some concerns that high levels of vitamin A might contribute to osteoporosis, but epidemiological data show no increased risk of hip fracture (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Nov. 2015). Many readers have found that taking cod liver oil can ease joint pain, prevent colds and improve immune response.

Memories of Cod Liver Oil:

One reader shared this testimonial that may help explain what happened to cod liver oil:

Q. My father grew up on a small island in Norway in the 1940s. In winter the teacher in their one-room schoolhouse gave each child a tablespoon of cod liver oil daily. When my father told this story, he remarked at how beautiful the wood floors in that schoolroom were. They shone with the oil kids managed to “accidentally” spill off their spoons every day!

When I was growing up in Ohio, my dad made me take a tablespoon of cod liver oil every winter day. Why mess with tradition? I was mad when I found out cod liver oil now comes in easy-to-swallow capsules.

A. Cod liver oil is rich in omega 3 fats and vitamins D and A. Evidence suggests that it bolsters immune function, as demonstrated by a recent study from Sweden.

No doubt many other readers sympathize with your reaction to having to swallow cod liver oil by the spoonful. Do read the label of the capsules, as some cod liver oil has had much of its vitamin D removed in the process of making it taste better.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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Our mother gave us Cod Liver Oil in Tomato Juice, so we did not mind it at all. She is gone now, so I do not know the reason for taking it.

I am hard pressed to understand how oil from a liver would not be full of toxins.

I take cod liver oil daily for the omega oil benefit. The orange-flavored is delicious, and the lemon isn’t bad either. It is just one of many things I do for my arthritis, so I can’t attest to that being a huge help. My lipid panel (chol., trig) is perfect; I don’t get colds, even though I spend my days surrounded by sick people; and my skin isn’t nearly as dry as it used to be before the oil. I’m 62 and intend to keep taking it. I use an emulsified oil because I read that it is better than regular oil. I also take iy before my breakfast because eating takes all trace of fishiness away.

I am mixing cod liver oil with cough syrup.

Mom always gave us cod liver oil in the winter and especially for colds. It was the liquid form. Yuk! Nevertheless, it kept colds down and helped with my respiratory problems. As an adult, I stopped taking it until recently. I am now in my 70’s, and I started getting a cold every month. Prayed. Then, it came to me to go find and take cod liver oil. Luckily, it’s in the capsules form. I take it as needed, and it works along with my vitamin C and D. It strengthens my immune system, and the colds stopped.

Do you rub codlLiver oil on dry skin or take it in capsule form?

I am a practicing orthomolecular nutritionist and discovered about 6 years ago that a company by the name of Carlson has a lemon flavored liquid Cod Liver Oil that my son (who is now 13) and I have been taking each morning. We both take a tablespoon and have been over the past 6 years since my discovery of it. Rich in omega 3’s (especially EPA and DHA), it is a quick and easy way of getting several grams of omega 3’s on a daily basis. I recommend this brand to the patients I see in my practice, many of which have taken regular tasting Cod Liver Oil in the past. It also is great for those who have difficulty with large gram size capsules that my be challenging to swallow. I have always believed in the effectiveness of Omega 3’s since I completed my Doctorate in Health & Nutrition back in the mid 1980’s. So many excellent benefits!

I took cod liver oil for years, but stopped because of the worry about too much vitamin A
Is there any cod liver oil that is low in vitamin A?

One way to take it easily.. get a small glass of orange juice. Pour the oil into your spoon. Take a mouthful of OJ and rince it around your mouth and swallow. Take a small sip of OJ and hold it in your mouth, do not swallow. Slide the spoon with the cod liver oil into your mouth and swallow the mix of OJ and oil.
I found that it killed the taste and oily residue.

When I was a kid I was given cod liver oil daily as well. I loved the taste. Given a choice of treats.I always chose the cod liver oil. Doubt I could do that today.

I found immediate relief from joint pain by taking a swig of cod liver oil. It was bad tasting but the relief of pain without side effects was miraculous. I discovered that if I didn’t smell the oil while taking it, there was no taste! Plug your nose. That’s all it took! And no prescription, no high costs, no problem!

Back in the 60’s my son 9 picked a pepper from an ornamental plant on a neighbors porch. .On opening the pod the liquid/oil shot out into his eye. He came screaming home in pain .Called the doctor as to what to do and his wife said to get Cod Liver Oil and put a few drops in the eye . Rushed him to drugstore still screaming , grabbed bottle opened it and put a few drops in eye and instantly pain was gone.

I was given cod liver oil daily when I was a child. I really liked the taste. I guess we all have different taste buds.

Me, too.

How is cod liver oil different from many of the Omega 3-6-9 supplements out there that often are made with fish oils? Maybe it’s just a different kind of fish, and other ingredients are added in, like borage, flax seed, etc. I find the Omega supplements are good for my skins and hair, as well as for lubricating the digestive tract. Sometimes I notice a fishy smell. You can find cod liver oil in pill form, so you can avoid the horrible taste cod liver oil is famous for. I guess the Omega version is just an updated cod liver oil. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

Sometime ago, I read comments on this forum that Cod Liver Oil would help lower high triglycerides. I take a statin for cholesterol that brings those levels into the normal range, but I still had high triglycerides.

I started taking one 415 mg gel-cap of Cod Liver Oil daily – no bad taste or aftertaste, no fish smell, and now my triglyceride levels are normal.

I don’t know if it’s helping my arthritis, but maybe it would be worse if I didn’t take it.

In August, a blood test revealed that my level of Omega 3 was almost zero. Regular fish and krill oil supplements have made me dizzy in the past, so my integrative medicine doctor recommended cod liver oil capsules. I’m happy to report that I haven’t experienced any dizziness, aftertaste, or odor.

I have taken liquid cod liver oil (lemon flavored) for a number of years. I’m seventy and it helps my arthritic joints.

I grew up in the 40’s, in an area of the Catskills in NY where victims of Tuberculosis from New York City came to recuperate. Every August my mother would order 2 quarts of Cod Liver oil from a bug catalog store, and, as the 4 of us lined up at the front door to catch the school bus, our mother would block us with a bottle of the oil and a tablespoon. Before leaving the house, we’d have to take Cod Liver oil or miss the bus. This continued throughout the school year. We rarely had colds or other illnesses, and none of us developed any allergies or sensitivities, or broken bones.

We too grew up – four siblings – during the years after WW-II with a spoonful of cod liver oil every day. I remember the awful taste. Then after the age of 10, the daily ritual disappeared,and life had changed.

Fast forward 65 years (I’m now 77) with two arthritic knees and one shoulder. Read about Cod Liver Oil somewhere and decided to try it. Can’t say it improved the arthritis dramatically, but we are hanging in there. Two surgeons recommended surgery on one knee and the shoulder years ago, but I’m on status quo, and I can live with that.

So, what about the terrible taste? Found an oil on Amazon without a hint of it. They claim they mix a bit of Lemon oil into it. But $34 – Whew!!! Found another brand, also on Amazon, for about 1/3 that price – but with that strong fish taste. Then an epiphany – bought a 1 ounce bottle of Lemon baking oil from King Arthur Flour for $7, mixed may be 6 drops into the fish oil and the taste is gone, totally neutral, thank you very much. I’d estimate one bottle of lemon oil will last for 10 bottles of fish oil.

Thank you! I am going to try exactly what you said. Quite ingenious and informative!




I take it daily by capsule. To a person, my doctors all give affirmative reactions when I disclose that in my medications list.

Internet suggests a drop of cod liver oil at bedtime IN the eye when the formation of cataracts is young, but cannot find much more info, and wondering the safety of such an application. Anyone?

As a child I was one of those subjects to take cod liver oil every night after dinner by the spoonful – sheer stomach churning! Seems Mom thought we should be tortured because she was tortured as a child with cod liver oil by the spoonful.

Cod liver oil is fantastic for seriously dry skin.

We don’t think you should put cod liver oil in your eyes!

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