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Carol, a reader from West Akron, Ohio, called recently to pass along her late grandmother's advice for arthritis relief: a teaspoon a day of cod liver oil until the stiffness subsides.
Carol mixes the cod liver oil with a small glass of orange juice so it goes down easier; sometimes she does this for two to three months at a time. (Her husband is a retired physician, and she once worked as a nurse.)
Carol also passed along a book first printed in 1951 and popular in its time: "Arthritis and Common Sense" by Dale Alexander. The book cited published references to the use of cod liver oil in treating chronic rheumatism going back to 1849.
It noted that when the oil is combined with fresh orange juice, "it travels more readily from the stomach into the bloodstream and reaches arthritic joints in greater supply."
The book listed 16 rules on how to mix the orange juice and cod liver oil. In particular, it warned not to mix cod liver oil in lemon or grapefruit juice; only in milk or orange juice (not concentrated). And it recommended taking the mixture three to four hours after an evening meal.
Well, more than a half century later, you can still find references here and there to cod liver oil in the treatment of arthritis. However, the evidence is conflicting.
In a small study published in 1992, doctors in London looked at cod liver oil as a supplemental treatment to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in managing osteoarthritis. No significant benefit was found for those taking cod liver oil in place of a placebo.
Yet in 2001, researchers in Wales published findings on why cod liver oil is effective in easing arthritis pain and inflammation. Their work concluded that the presence of omega-3 fatty acids, as found in fish oil, helped reduce the activity of certain enzymes that cause cartilage damage.
A rheumatologist I know told me that he seldom gets questions from patients anymore about cod liver oil, and that he hasn't read anything about it in medical journals for years, although he did believe it has mild anti-inflammatory effects.
For a good rundown on the benefits of various kinds of oils in treating arthritis, go to the Arthritis Foundation's Web site at www.arthritis.org. In the search box, type in "cod liver oil." That takes you to an article titled "Medical Oils" that first appeared in the magazine Arthritis Today.
On the cautionary side, the article warns that fish oil can thin the blood, which could mean problems if you're on blood-thinning medication. It also says cod liver oil should have been stripped of vitamins A and D, because those vitamins can be toxic in large doses.
Finally, it warns to check with your doctor to be sure you're doing what's right for you.
(Diane Evans is a staff writer at the Akron Beacon Journal. Though she has researched the information in this column, she has no training in medicine or science. Readers should consult carefully with their physicians before relying on anything in the column. If you have questions or suggestions for Evans, contact her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(c) 2003, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.