Opinion » Antidote

Consider it Liquid Sushi

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I've been taking cod liver oil to lower my cholesterol, but I burp it up all morning and it's kind of gross. My wife says she can smell it on my breath and I think I'm starting to reek of fish. Can I take fish oil capsules instead, and will that stop all this disgusting stuff?

—Jerry

Unless it's on a bagel, I agree that fish doesn't taste that great in the morning, and the nautical reflux probably doesn't win you friends in the office elevator. The fact that the cat pounces on you without warning might be yet another reason to make a change.

Whenever cod liver oil is mentioned, most people are reminded of the indignity their grandparents are still grousing about over their own childhood forced feedings. Today, few would consider adding it to their diet willingly, but fish oils now get frequent recommendations from traditional MDs. Oily fish, like salmon, mackerel, trout and sardines are rich in the essential Omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, compounds that are known to reduce cholesterol and triglycerides. Ideally, equal amounts of Omega-3 and a similar group, Omega-6, work together to form cell membranes and help regulate our body chemistry.

Research has been going fast and furious over the 30 years since a study showed heart protective benefits of the fish heavy diet of the Greenland Eskimos compared to the Western-type diet of nearby Denmark. Repeated studies have conclusively demonstrated that fish oil reduces triglycerides (the circulating fat in the blood) and markers for inflammation (found in arthritic and other conditions). Respected research publications like the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine have reached the same essential conclusion: Those who get more fish oil are less likely to die of a heart attack. Never ones to let an opportunity go unexploited, drug companies have now created Omacor, a new prescription medication that contains 90 percent Omega-3 fatty acids. Bam! Your daily dose now costs more than the salmon veracruzana at Emeril's.

Other research shows promising benefits for blood pressure, depression and in lessening painful menstrual cycles in young women. In fact, the FDA has taken an unusual step and announced a qualified health claim for foods and supplements that contain Omega-3, giving the industry a real boost. All this good news has actually prompted the seafood company Bumble Bee to move into the fish oil business, presumably putting leftover tuna heads to a much better use than bouillabaisse.

Conventional fish oils are made using all body parts of the fish, while cod liver oil is made from (you guessed it) only the livers of the cod. This difference results in cod liver oil containing considerably more of vitamins A and D. Though they may seem a free bonus, surplus amounts of these vitamins can be dangerous because the body stores, rather than eliminates, any excess. Too much vitamin A can be harmful for the elderly because of bone-thinning osteoporosis and fractures, and an overload of either A or D in pregnant women results in increased risk of birth defects. Another caution: Because fish oils are thought to work their magic by reducing stickiness of the blood, people who are on blood thinners, including aspirin and ibuprofen, should first discuss supplementation with their doctor.

As for the fish burps and your bait bucket bouquet, there are a few things you can try. Some brands of cod liver oil are fresher and purer than others. So if switching brands doesn't help, the fish oil capsules you mentioned, stored in the freezer, have a better reputation for reducing odors from the mouth, skin and other more private places. Failing that, you can simply try to eat broiled, baked or grilled fish from the above list two or three times each week (a fried Filet-O-Fish value meal doesn't count). As an alternative for the seafood allergic or fish phobic, canola or flax seed oil both provide some of the same benefits. Although their oils can be transformed into the essential Omega-3s, conversion is only about 15 percent efficient and that may not be enough to get heart protective benefits.

All in all, changing to fish oil capsules sounds like a good idea in your case. In fact, you'll probably be relieved not to have so many seagulls flying over the house. But if you still continue to taste fish all morning long, you might consider telling the folks at IHOP to hold the caviar from your Rooty Tooty Fresh 'N Fruity.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send fish heads and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).