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Ben there DONE that

How cod saved the Vikings

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Vitamins are essential to our health and wellbeing. We acquire the majority of these vitamins through the foods we eat; however, there is one vitamin that we get from the sun. A deficiency of this essential nutrient can be disastrous, and yet, somehow a group of people living in a place with too little sun figured out how to survive. Any guesses which vitamin I’m talking about? Vitamin D. 

What exactly is this significant vitamin? D vitamins are a group of fat-soluble compounds that dramatically improve our body’s ability to absorb minerals like calcium, magnesium and phosphate. It is found in a few foods, but our bodies produce vitamin D by exposure to the sun. The sun’s rays break apart cholesterol molecules not far under the surface of our skin. This process creates vitamin D in quantities that are sufficient for humans. 

If a person doesn’t get enough vitamin D, the resulting lack of mineral absorption causes serious problems in bone structure. The resulting condition is called rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. An affected person’s bones become soft and misshapen. Excavations of ancient gravesites across Europe, dating back as far as the Roman empire, in the northern hemisphere, above 42 degrees latitude, have revealed skeletons of people who suffered from this condition. The further north you go, the more common and severe osteomalacia cases become. 

Yet, in a time when this bone deforming deficiency was widespread across much of Europe, a certain group of seafaring warriors seemed to be immune. Out of Scandinavia, came the Vikings: fierce and huge invaders. The fossil records confirm that not only were the Scandinavians much larger on average than the rest of the Europeans, but there were virtually no signs of osteomalacia across the many excavated burial sites. How did the Vikings escape these bone deformities while living so incredibly far north?

In Scandinavia, life was not easy. Despite the inhospitable nature of their homeland, cod was one of the few plentiful food sources. In a lot of ways, cod was an ideal source of calories. It could be gathered in large quantities and preserved to last for months. At some point, the Vikings discovered that a yellowish oil could be distilled from the livers of the cod. This oil was highly nutritious and prized. There are even records of cod liver oil being referred to as the “Gold of the Ocean.” The Vikings didn’t realize all the other amazing things this oil was doing for them. A mere tablespoon of the stuff is packed with loads of both vitamin A and D, along with Omega-3 fatty acids, which had wide-ranging positive implications on the health and bone development of the far northerners. 

The knowledge of this “Gold of the Ocean” was passed down from generation to generation, eventually becoming a part of the Viking cultural lore. In the absence of other methodologies of information storage and transmission, the lore served as a sort of collective research database. Eventually, more Nordic people took notice of some benefit granted by the consumption of cod liver oil. This led to the prolific consumption of cod liver oil. 

It wasn’t until the 1920s, in Austria, that sunlight exposure was discovered as the cure for osteomalacia, and vitamin D’s role in skeletal health was finally understood. Isn’t it crazy that the Vikings had happened on a solution many centuries prior to any other medical understanding? 


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