Ask a group of senior citizens about their experience with cod liver oil and you are likely to see them wrinkling their noses at the distasteful memory. People of a certain age were frequently dosed as children with cod liver oil in the winter time.

Going back hundreds of years, mothers in northern climates such as Norway, Sweden and Scotland relied on cod liver oil to keep their families healthy when the weather turned bleak. They may not have understood why this foul-tasting oily liquid seemed to be beneficial, but their powers of observation told them that children given cod liver oil were less susceptible to colds and flu.

Although this practice has fallen out of favor, scientists are now confirming that the old wives might have been on to something. Old-fashioned nasty-tasting cod liver oil contained vitamin D along with vitamin A and omega 3 fatty acids. The vitamin D might have been key against infection.

A study from Sweden just put vitamin D to a stringent test. People with impaired immunity were recruited for a year long trial (BMJ Open, Dec. 13, 2012). These people had spent at least 42 days of the prior year ill with respiratory tract infections, averaging more than four infections a year. The 140 volunteers were randomly assigned to take 4,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily or a look-alike placebo.

The results were encouraging. The researchers used a score to summarize the number of days sick, symptoms, complications and need for antibiotics. Those getting the vitamin D3 supplement had significantly lower scores on average than those on placebo.

They also needed substantially fewer antibiotics–16 days on antibiotics for those taking vitamin D3 compared to 33 days for the placebo group. Vitamin D3 was also associated with fewer ear infections, sinus infections and overall sick days, as well as secondary infections due to Streptococcus aureus and the fungi Candida and Aspergillus.

The Swedish study subjects were adults, but there have also been studies in children. Japanese investigators conducted a double-blind trial a few years ago in which schoolchildren were given 1200 IU of vitamin D3 or placebo daily for four months (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2010). The scientists were interested in how many of the youngsters came down with influenza A. In this case 10.8 percent of the children getting vitamin D caught the flu, compared to 18.6 percent of those on placebo. The vitamin-treated children also had fewer asthma attacks.

Many health professionals doubt that Americans need vitamin D supplements. But deficiency in this critical nutrient may be more common than they realize. A study of 4495 Americans revealed that more than 40 percent were seriously depleted of vitamin D (Nutrition Research, Jan., 2011).

To learn how to tell if you are low in this important nutrient and how much supplementation is optimal, you may wish to consult our Guide to Vitamin D Deficiency. It could offer a path to a healthier winter season.

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  1. gordon

    I am British born in 1946 now living in France. I recall being given concentrated cod liver oil regularly by my mother from a very small bottle. Like some others here I loved it, and it seems to have kept me reasonably fit & well so far. I recall also the government giving out concentrated orange juice and my school giving up a small bottle of delicious milk each morning. I lost the habit of taking cod liver oil and decided to re -establish this ritual.
    I found that liquid CDO is not sold in France but only in pills. Consequently I ordered on line from UK but eventually found it too expensive for me. It is now an expensive product ! I have resorted to ordering in in pill form from UK as its rather expensive here. I have noticed my nails grow much quicker and hope its doing me good.

  2. Claudia Y.
    Washington state

    This is my true story…I was born in 1950, the middle child of 7 kids. Every night after we donned our p.j.s, all 7 of us would get in line in the hallway leading to the bathroom as my mom stood in the doorway of the bathroom with that big, dark brown bottle of Cod Liver Oil in one hand, and a tablespoon in the other. One by one we’d get our tablespoon of c.l.o. then happily run off to our bedrooms. I loved it, as did the rest of my sis’ & bros, I think. (weird because I have never been very fond of seafood) Every one of us ‘kids’ are still kicking, aging from my ‘baby’ sister, 65, to my eldest sister, 78, (and she looks younger than I do!) We’re all close, and most of us are pretty healthy. Only one brother, 71, is very unhealthy, but knowing him, I wouldn’t doubt that he held that c.l.o. in his mouth and spit it out in his bedroom garbage basket!

  3. Ellen
    Las Vegas. NV

    Born in 1938, still in the depression my mother did her best to keep her children healthy. Every morning she put a teaspoon of cod liver oil in a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice. We had to drink it. Or else. Today I will eat an orange, they are good, But orange juice makes me nauseous.

  4. Gerry

    Nobody I know ever took this or had their parents force it on them that I knew. I was born in the fifties. when was this happening? Was this some time before 1953? I’m at a loss here, and I feel so sorry for all of you!!!! It sounds so awful

    • Doug

      I was born in 1960 and my mother gave all us kids a tablespoon once a week. We thought it was nasty…we healed our noses and swallowed. Not sure if it helped in any way but I guess it didn’t hurt.
      Doug, Pa.

  5. CW

    I gave it to my oldest, now 28, when she was a little girl, and she was very smart! I remember her smacking her lips, she liked it so much. I take it now for the omega 3’s, but I supplement the vitamin D, as the brand I have is way higher in vitamin A than D proportionately.
    I wonder if overfishing of codfish also led to the decline in people taking cod liver oil. I just read an article today about a possible connection with lack of vitamin D and autism. Vitamin A is very important in both preventing and treating measles, and for protection of the vision during measles, I have read.

  6. pauline

    I took it daily as a child during WW11 in England. It was given out by the government.. It was mixed with malt and was almost like a treat, so good. I am 79 now and still very active and flexible.

  7. VJ

    I took it as a child in England, and thought it disgusting. Then I got older… A few years ago I started back on it to hopefully slow down or prevent the aches and pains that seem to jump on you as the years go by. This is how I take it, Pour out a small amount of orange juice, get a tablespoon and fill with cod liver oil. Take a mouthful of orange juice and swish around and swallow. Then put the spoon of cod liver oil in your mouth and immediately follow with a mouthful of OJ.. swallow at once and then drink the rest of the OJ.
    I get only a trace taste of the oil that way, plus no aftertaste. It is better than the nasty taste that most cough syrups leave. I do not take the pills as I feel there is not enough in them to do any good.
    I credit the CLO with keeping me flexible and in great health at 72. In a store, I can go into a crouch to read labels on the bottom shelves and then return to standing without using any support whatsoever, I know people in their 20s that can not do that.

  8. cpmt

    I think not everyone absorbs vit. D the same way. I was always low in this vit. and always needed some cold liver oil.

  9. cpmt

    Castor oil? For what is it good for?

  10. RF

    In the early 1940s, my sister and I were given our daily dose of cod liver oil and we both loved it. I never understood why so many people had bad memories of it. I have since learned that it was flavored with peppermint to make it more appealing. The flavoring seemed to do the trick.

  11. JB

    I too remember getting cod liver oil when as a child I did not feel well enough to go to school….I still remember the yuk taste after 70 years!

  12. pjd

    YUCK! I remember my mom giving us Castor Oil! Just saying the name makes me “yuck”. I am now 69 and how funny that just saying castor oil still makes me want to upchuck. This has to be a psychological unpleasant memory…….

  13. DS

    I’d like to hear more. My mother got capsules that I could NOT swallow as a child. They seemed the size of marbles to me at age seven. So my mother stuck a pin in the capsule and squeezed it onto a spoon. Plan B was ever worse! I think she gave up.

  14. Diane

    During WWII I was in London, England. Started when I was 3 years old and ended when I was 9 years of age…. since there was shortage of food the Government issued cans of Cold Liver Oil and Malt and it was delicious! It was the Malt that gave it that flavour and the high-light of my day was when my Mum gave me my daily tablespoon…. I drool to this day thinking about it!

  15. Betty

    Well, I know it helped me not to skip school. If I didn’t want to go to school I would say to mother in the morning “I don’t feel good” and she said “well, stay in bed then.” It worked once. The second time she said “okay, I will give you a dose of cod liver oil and you can go back to bed.” I went to school, and I never tried that trick again.

  16. elaine f

    Now here’s a topic and is near and dear to my heart:
    My Father grew up on a small island in Norway, in the 1930’s and 40’s. Every day in the Winter the teacher in their schoolroom (yes a one room schoolhouse) would have each child drink a tablespoon of cod liver oil. They didn’t know if it prevented polio, but they always took the cod liver oil and the island had no cases of polio. That possible correlation between the two was a good enough reason to not mess with fate and keep the tradition going.
    When my Father told this story, he remarked at how beautiful and radiant the wood floors in that school were. They shone with the oil kids managed to “accidently spill” off their spoons every day!
    When I was growing up in Ohio, you guessed it — each Winter my Dad made me take a tablespoon of cod liver oil. Why mess with tradition? Boy was I mad the day I was in a store and found out that they made cod liver oil in easy-to-swallow tablets!
    Elaine F.

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