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Fish Oils

Good for the brain, good for the joints.

Oils extracted from, or eaten in, fish have proved effective in arresting arthritis and heart diseases.  Its efficacy as an alternative remedy has been clinically tested, and the message is clear: 'eat more fish'. The mackerel – is one of the oil-rich fish which has declined in popularity.

Giving children cod liver oil is an old tradition well worth carrying on.  But limit the daily dose to 2.5 ml (1/2 teaspoon) oil – or 5 ml (1 teaspoon) emulsion – more can be toxic. The high fish intake is part of the reason why, although most Japanese people have the life-style of an industrialized society, they also have one of the lowest heart disease rates in the world.

Eskimos get most of their food from the sea.  The fat of cold water marine animals, unlike land animals, contains special polyunsaturated fats. The vital fatty acids in fish oils originate in marine algae.

Although life has evolved over millions of years, and man and other animals have adapted to living on the land, much evidence remains of our earliest origins from the sea.  The sea can evoke our strongest emotions and has inspired many great musicians, artists and poets.  Many of us feel a simple yet strong need 'to see the sea' from time to time.  Physiologically, our blood – like the sea – is a solution of sodium chloride, together with various other substances, in water.

Astrologers maintain that as the seas' tides are governed by the gravitational pull of the moon, so our 'inner seas' are, in part, regulated by the pull of planetary influences.  The sea also provides us with vital nutrients which are not easy to obtain from non-marine sources.  Seaweed is the richest source of natural iodine available, and many sea plant and animal extracts are used as effective alternative remedies for a variety of ailments, for instance, kelp to treat thyroid problems, as well as gastric and duodenal ulcers (see KELP); the green lipped mussel to treat arthritis (see GREEN LIPPED MUSSEL) and spirulina for protein deficient diets.  More recently, researchers' interest has focused on fish and the properties of their oils.

Cod Liver Oils

Cod liver oil holds a place of honour among well-known folklore remedies.  As with other traditional remedies, fish oil first became established as worthwhile simply because it worked.  Fishermen in Scotland, Iceland, Norway and Greenland have used it for centuries to help protect their health during periods of long exposure to intense cold.  Our grandparents and their forebears took cod liver oil daily to relieve complaints such as rheumatism, aching muscles and stiff joints.

The first clinical tests carried out on fish oils were done by Samuel Kay, a doctor at the Manchester Infirmary in the UK from 1752 to 1784.  At that time 222-273 litres (50-60 gallons) were dispensed annually.  Dr. Kay reported that '…. its good effects are so well known among the poorer sort (of people) that it is particularly requested by them for almost every lameness.  Except bark, opium and mercury, I believe no one medicine . . .  is likely to be of better service.'

A German physician, Schenk, carried the research further and cod liver oil began to be used for treating rickets, a bone disease that causes serious deformities due to vitamin D deficiency.  Rickets was rife in England during the 1890s and nine out of ten malnourished children suffered from it.  By the 1920s more was known about essential dietary nutrients and doctors were aware that cod liver oil was rich in some that other foods often lacked – namely vitamins A and D and polyunsaturated fats.  Doctors were soon urging parents to give cod liver oil to their children as a form of prevention, rather than a cure.  Up to the 1950s, children were given a daily spoonful of cod liver oil for its high content of vitamins and to ward off winter coughs and colds.  It was sometimes mixed with malt or orange juice for extra nourishment and to disguise its unpleasant taste.

In 1956 research into the non-vitamin ingredients of cod liver oil was sparked off by the discovery that many tuberculosis patients benefited from taking it.  The usefulness of polyunsaturated oils derived from plants and fish, including cod, had already become established and research into the full range of their properties finally began in earnest.

Further research revealed that cod liver oil was effective in lowering blood cholesterol levels.  fish oil seemed to hold the secret, and this was further suggested by the discovery that the blood of Eskimos contained two special essential fatty acids (EFAs) in which the Western diet is deficient, since it includes relatively small amounts of fish from which the EPAs are derieved.


Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) is a vital component of the membranes (cell walls) of every cell of certain body organs and it is found in particularly high concentrations in the brain.  It appears to be necessary for normal brain function and very subtle 'wave' changes have been found in the brains of some vegans who avoid all animal products, including sea food and fish.

Together with other polyunsaturated fats, DHA seems essential for the normal development of the brain of the unborn baby.  A recent UK study showed that mothers who have very low levels of polyunsaturates, including plant oils, Evening Primrose Oil (EPA) and DHA, give birth to smaller babies.  Breast milk supplies some DHA to the developing child, so it is possible that the quantity present is affected by the mothers' diet.


In past centuries fish was very common in the British diet, and heart disease was a rarity.  Herring, mackerel, sprats and other oily fish were consumed daily and in large quantities as they were cheap and plentiful.  Sir William Osler, a 1890s, said that throughout his years of consultant medical practice, he had only seen a handful of patients with heart disorders.

Fish eating (and with it the fishmonger) has declined sharply in western societies, and when fish is consumed it is usually white kind – plaice, cod and haddock – which contain relatively little oil.

Figures compiled in 1980 show that the total amount of herrings caught in the UK during 1979 was 5000 metric tonnes, compared with 276,000 metric tons which were caught in 1938.  Over the same period white fish catches, such as haddock and cod, had also declined dramatically from 513,000 to 243,000 metric tonnes.


Nutritional experts are now urging us to eat more oily fish such as herring, mackerel, pilchards, sardines, salmon, whitebait and tuna, or to take a daily fish oil supplement in pill form to protect ourselves from heart disease.  Since many people unfortunately dislike fish, and its availability in fresh form has declined, a fish oil nutritional supplement enables us to gain the benefits of EPA without having to eat the fish that contains it.

Fish oils once derived from the livers of cod and halibut to provide supplements, are now made mainly from the fish flesh.  Fish liver oil is very rich in vitamins D and A, and both vitamins can prove toxic when too much is taken.

Learning from Eskimo Eating Habits

Heart disease has become an increasingly serious problem since the 1930s.  the death rate from heart attacks is higher in the UK than anywhere else in the world and 200,000 men and women die from them annually – many well before retirement age.  The problem has been studied widely.  Population studies in the 1960s revealed that Greenland Eskimos, who eat a great deal of saturated animal fat, rarely suffer from heart or arterial disorders.  Moreover, it seems to be that a healthy heart and circulation is associated in some way with a high consumption of fish.

Two Danish scientists, Jorn Dyerberg and H. O. Bang, travelled to Greenland to study Eskimos in their own environment.  Investigations into their diet, including an analysis of many food samples, revealed that the Eskimos consume a high proportion of fish oil – directly from fish and from the fat of other marine animals, such as seals, which in turn feed upon fish.

An analysis of samples taken by the Danish scientists showed that Eskimos' blood is far less prone to clot than that of other races and contains a lower level of certain fats than would be expected on such a high fat diet.

Dr. Hugh Sinclair, a British nutritional expert who accompanied Dyer and Bang to Greenland to study the Eskimo diet, carried out a now famous experiment on his return to the UK.  For 100 days he lived exclusively on an Eskimo diet of raw fish, shell fish, seal meat, blogger and water.  The results showed that diet was responsible for the properties of Eskimo's blood and that, by eating similarly, Dr. Sinclair could change his blood to resemble theirs.  The flipside of the argument was that when Eskimos emigrate to the USA or Europe and substitute a modern western diet – which has been termed a 'cardiologist's nightmare' – for their traditional diet the effect is lost and they suffer as many heart attacks and related complaints as Westerners.

Essential Fatty Acids

Research has identified that fish oil contains eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) which protects against heart and arterial disorders and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which is thought to be essential for the normal development of the unborn baby's brain.  Both are essential fatty acids (EFAs).

EPA and DHA originate in sea algae, minute plants upon which the fish feed.  The food chain consists of larger fish and other sea creatures eating one another in turn – and ultimately being eaten by man.  EPA, like all essential fatty acids, helps to keep the cell walls throughout the body healthy, including those of the heart, circulatory system and red blood cells.  Most importantly, EPA produces hormone – like substances called thromboxane and prostacyclin, which reduce the tendency of thrombosis (blood clotting), and it lowers the level of low density cholesterol (blood fat) – a major risk factor in atheroma (arteries becoming clogged with fatty deposits).  At the same time, levels of the high density, protective type of cholesterol are raised.

Other fatty acids, present in saturated and some unsaturated fats, give rise to harmful prostaglandins which encourage the laying down of atheromatous plaques.  When insufficient EPA is present to counteract their effect, they are free to cause maximum harm within the circulatory system.

Clinical studies using supplementary fish oil to treat heart disease have proved its value – both as a form of treatment and as a form of protection.  It has been found to be effective in lowering high blood pressure and in reducing the severity of angina (chest pain) caused by diseased


Fish oil is highly beneficial in treating arthritis – another scientific proof of an age-old remedy.  Elderly arthritic fold still swear by their daily spoonful of cod liver oil 'to oil their joints' and this, in fact, is exactly what they are doing.

Clinical tests at a Scottish medical school were carried out using Evening Primrose Oil (EPO) (see Evening Primrose Oil) alone and in combination with fish oil, to treat patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis who were taking NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).  The results revealed that 94 per cent of patients taking EPO and 100 per cent of patients taking EPO with fish oil, rated themselves as better.  Only 33 per cent in the placebo (dummy) group felt any improvement.  Osteoarthritis sufferers could also benefit from fish oil.

These results occurred despite drastic reductions in drug dosage – 59 per cent of the participants in both the EPO and the EPO plus fish oil groups were able to stop taking their drugs completely.  In addition, 24 per cent in the EPO group and 35 per cent in the combination group were able to halve their drug dose.  Only 28 per cent of those in the dummy group could stop taking their drugs altogether and only 6 per cent reduced the dose by half.