The benefits of fish and cod liver oil

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My weekly trawl through the scientific literature quite often brings in evidence for the health-promoting properties of the fats found in oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel and sardine. Studies show that these so-called omega-3 fats help keep a range ailments at bay including depression, hyperactivity, heart disease and cancer. However, despite their healthy haul, fish oils are not for everyone: I get a steady stream of letters from individuals who don’t eat fish, and quite reasonably want to how they might compensate for the fishy favours they appear to be missing out on. This week, I have resolved to rise to the bait, and offer some advice on boosting omega-3 intake to those not hooked into the idea of eating fish.

One option for those who do not partake in fish suppers is to get their omega-3 fats in supplement form. Both fish oil supplements (derived from the flesh of fish) and cod liver oil are rich in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – the two omega-3 fats thought to provide the bulk of the benefits associated with eating oily fish. In fact, studies suggest that fish oil supplementation has effects similar to those ascribed to the consumption of oily varieties of fish, and in particular has been shown to protect against heart disease and depression. 1 teaspoon of cod liver oil or 4 g of fish oil each day will provide the body with doses of EPA and DHA that are likely to bring supplementary benefits in the long term.

Obviously, not even fish oil supplements are an option for vegans, some vegetarians, and those who are allergic to fish. However, the good news for such individuals is that the body has the capacity to make DHA and EPA from a form of omega-3 fat found in some nut and seed oils known as alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Studies show that only a relatively small proportion of any ALA taken into the body will ultimately make the conversion into DHA or EPA. However, even if this is true, the evidence suggests that ALA has benefits for the body in its own right. For instance, ALA appears to have the ability to ‘thin’ the blood, lower blood pressure and help maintain a normal heart rhythm, and studies have found an association between higher intakes of ALA and a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke.

One foodstuff that contains a very rich stash of ALA is flaxseed (linseed) oil. Supplementation with flaxseed oil (available in health food stores) at a dose of about 1 tablespoon a day offers plenty in the way of ALA, and may well swell levels of DHA and EPA in the body too. Apart from its healthy properties for the heart and circulation, another of flaxseed oil’s effects is to help maintain moisture in the skin. This body benefit may have particular significance at this time of year in that flaxseed oil often proves useful in combating the dryness in the skin induced by wintry weather conditions. Daily supplementation with flaxseed oil will almost certainly bring benefits to the body, and represents a viable alternative to those wanting to get the benefits of fish oil – without a catch.

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