Seven Seas are renowned for their cod liver oil supplements. They reckon that by taking one of their tablets every day for 3 months they could improve a person’s omega-3 levels. And what’s more, they could prove it. Of course, I was intrigued.
I have a love / hate relationship with supplements (and by supplements, I also include vitamins). I hear a lot of GP’s and nutritionist friends (even my dad who is the ultimate health freak) touting their benefits and relaying all the ones they take or advising me on which ones I should stock up with. I have absolutely no problem with this but the one question which I always have is ‘BUT DO THEY ACTUALLY WORK? After all, a lot of the time, supplements promise benefits which are more of a feeling, rather than anything you can actually really see.
So the fact that Seven Seas are willing to properly prove that their products work immediately caught my interest. And so, for the next 3 months, I’ll be taking one of their Maximum Strength Cod Liver Oil tablets. But first, I’ll take a blood test to measure the levels of fatty acids in my blood – to find out my omega-3 Index score. And after 3 months, we’ll re-take the blood test and see what’s changed.
But first, a brief overview on the importance of cod liver oil to our diet and why I’m doing this in the first place.
Why take Cod Liver Oil in the first place?
As the name suggests, cod liver oil is oil extracted from the livers of the Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua). As a kid, I remember my mum desperately trying to get this down our throats (in liquid form as I was very much opposed to tablets then) and for many years, I developed a fear of this fishy substance. However, people have recorded the benefits in the UK, even since 1789, when Dr Darbey of the Manchester Infirmary in England used it to treat rheumatism. Cod liver oil is considered to be one of the best sources of omega 3 fatty acids. There are 3 main types of fatty acids; EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ALA (α-Linolenic acid). Oily fish especially such as sardines and mackerel are rich in EPA and DHA, whereas you can get your ALA from foods such as vegetable oils, flaxseed and nuts. However, whereas EPA and DHA is used directly in your body, ALA must be converted first which can be a slow and inefficient process.
EPAs and DHAs are thought to have many benefits, with the main (for me) being that they can help support heart health. According to the British Heart Foundation, cardiovascular disease causes more than a quarter of deaths each year (that’s an average of 435 EACH DAY). More than one in four people in the UK will die from heart and circulatory disease. These omega 3’s can help reduce the inflammation in your body which can damage your blood vessels and lead to heart disease and strokes. Omega 3s can also help maintain normal blood fats called triglycerides. Triglycerides are a type of fat in your blood and having a high level of these can increase your risk of heart disease. Whenever you eat food, any calories your body doesn’t need immediately gets converted into triglycerides and stored for later.
Considering that my grandad died from a stroke and with my mum having had several mini strokes (she also has Alzheimers), I’m especially considerate about keeping my heart healthy.
Dr Darbey’s initial learnings about cod liver oil are still used today and it’s very much recommended to help keep joints healthy due to its inflammatory properties
DHA also supports the maintenance of normal vision as well as brain function and because the cod liver is derived from Atlantic Cod, it has beneficial levels of vitamin D too which support the maintenance of normal bones and helps maintain muscle function and a healthy immune system.
The Blood Test
I really don’t know why I sign up for things which involve needles and blood. I have no problem with other people’s blood but when it comes to mine, I go all weak! And don’t get me started on needles!
I was sent a finger-prick device and what looked like a folded credit-card piece of blotting paper. After taking the blood (I really should have got my husband to help me with this – I faffed about for at least 10 minutes before just going for it. Give me obstacle courses any time!) I squeezed out 2 drops of blood and carefully placed these on the card. This was immediately sent off in the post to Stirling Univerity and Professor Philip Calder, a Professor of Nutritional Immunology within Medicine at the University of Southampton, and also a specialist in omega-3 fatty acids, reviewed the results.
The results are in!
A week or two after I sent the samples off, the results arrived! They test for the omega-3 fatty acid content of the red blood cells which is a good indicator of your intake of omega-3s. And a higher level of EPA and DHA in the red blood cells is linked with better health, including heart health. The most accurate way of testing for EPA and DHA for heart health would be to look at the tissue of the heart but since the amount in red blood cells mirrors the amount found in the heart, a blood test (thankfully) suffices.
The results come based on an index which takes into consideration the combined amounts of EPA plus DHA in the red blood cells. An omega-3 index of 4 or below would be a cause for concern whereas anything at 8 or above would indicate good levels.
My index reading was 4.8, so there is definitely room for improvement. This reading doesn’t necessarily surprise me – I generally stick to a mostly veggie diet, eating fish once every 3 weeks or so. And when I eat fish, I often favour something which is easy – usually canned tuna.
My issue with fish
Whilst I appreciate the irony of being OK with taking cod liver oil capsules and not being OK with eating actual fish, I am also concerned that some fish can be contaminated with heavy metals. I put these questions to dietician Helen Bond, who advised that for the general population, no more than four portions of oily fish should be eaten. However, for women who are trying to get pregnant, currently pregnant or breastfeeding (me), no more than two portions of oily fish should be consumed a week as these can affect the development of the baby. Helen also advised to minimise portions of swordfish too, to no more than one portion a week and to avoid this completely (along with shark and marlin) if you’re a child, pregnant or trying to get pregnant as they contain more mercury than other fish which can harm the baby’s nervous system.
So what I gather from this is that contaminants in certain types of fish can be a concern if too much than is recommended is eaten, but that the benefits of eating some fatty fish can outweigh the benefits of eating none, especially if no additional omega-3 supplements are taken.
What I’ll be doing for the next 3 months
Professor Philip Calder has advised that for optimal health, I should increase my intake of omega-3 fatty acids. There’s two ways I can do this:
- Add fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines or mackerel, to my diet. The general advice for this is to eat 2 portions of fish (140g) a week, with one of them being a fatty fish. However, there’s part of me who’s torn between eating fish and wanting to improve my health.
- Add a daily dose of cod liver oil supplements.
I’ll be taking Seven Seas Cod Liver Oil Maximum Strength capsules each day for the next 90 days and ideally, I’ll be supplementing it with a portion of fatty fish each week or so.
I’ll report back in three months time after I’ve done the final blood test. Will the cod liver oil capsules improve my omega-3 levels? You’ll have to wait and see!