Keeping horses healthy and free of disease and disorders is a hot topic of conversation in many popular press journals, magazines and on the internet. Horse husbandry advice ranges from nutrition to shoeing and veterinary care.
Other recommendations include the use of various medications and supplements to help combat a host of disorders, with one of the most common being a malfunctioning digestive tract. Frequently included in this category are colic, gastric ulcers and sub-clinical acidosis caused by too much starch in the hindgut of the tract which can also lead to laminitis if left unchecked.
These recommendations are all integral in helping the horse be and stay healthy. But can the role of nutrition be even larger? The answer is yes and here is how:
ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are compounds that are called essential because they are not synthesized by the body and, therefore, must be obtained from dietary sources. EFAs, omega-3 fatty acids in particular, serve as components of nerve cells, cellular membranes, and the very important regulatory substances known as prostaglandins.
A recent study using mice revealed that omega-3 fatty acids promote an immune response known as a T helper-1 response, or Th1 response. T helper cells are a type of white blood cell known as lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are important because they play a role in directing and activating other white blood cells, whose activity helps to prevent illness.
Animal experiments and clinical intervention studies indicate that omega-3 fatty acids have potent anti-inflammatory properties and, therefore, might be useful in the management of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Emerging science shows prebiotics and probiotics, such as live yeast and other strains of bacteria are powerful components of immune system health. Because as much as 60% of immune cells are located in the digestive tract, it makes sense that keeping those cells functioning well is vitally important for a horse to stay healthy.
The benefits of the bacteria Lactobacillus reuteri combined with the yeast Saccharomyces boulardii have recently been shown to help improve digestive health and immunity of the equine tract. L. reuteri has been shown to inhibit the growth of Salmonella and stimulate the immune system by preparing mucosal cells to respond to invasive bacteria. The yeast, S. boulardii, stabilizes the pH/acidity of the large bowel, helping to prevent gastrointestinal upsets such as colic and diarrhea. In addition, S. boulardii attaches to clostridial bacteria, eliminating them and neutralizes toxins produced by clostridium.
Prebiotics are a newer concept in feeds and supplements. They are non-digestible foods that make their way through the digestive tract and help the good bacteria grow and flourish. Prebiotics are not microbes, but ingredients that are helping the microbial populations in the hindgut remain stable and healthy.
Prebiotics that assist beneficial bacteria in the gut mostly come from carbohydrate fiber called oligosaccharides. They are not digested, so the oligosaccharides remain in the digestive tract and stimulate growth of beneficial bacteria. Sources of oligosaccharides include fruits, legumes and whole grains.
VITAMINS AND MINERALS
Extra supplementation of some vitamins and minerals can be extremely helpful in keeping the immune system healthy and fighting off infection. Zinc, selenium, iron, copper, vitamins A, C, E, and B-6, and folic acid have important influences on immune responses and may be needed in higher than maintenance requirements under stressful circumstances.
Phytonutrients are a wide variety of plant-derived substances that have specific immune-augmenting capabilities. Included in this category are:
- Garlic, Echinacea, arabinogalactan from larch tree bark, cat's claw, astragalus, maitake mushroom.
- Yeast-derived beta 1, 3 D-glucans. Beta-1, 3/1, 6 D-glucan (also known as Beta Glucan) from purified yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is clinically proven to activate the immune system by stimulating production and activation of macrophages, the natural pathogen scavenger in the horse.
HERBS AND IMMUNOSTIMULANTS
Herbs are typically used to treat short-term, acute infections through the stimulation of immune activity. Immunostimulants help the body to resist infection during the beginning stages of infection, as well as throughout the duration of infectious illness.
The Importance of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Increased strength and stamina, due to positive effects on the endocrine system producing the hormones and enzymes necessary for enhanced athletic performance.
- Increased insulin sensitivity and efficiency, promoting the synthesis of muscle, and the ability of cells to utilize nutrients efficiently.
- Increased neurological sensitivity and innervation of muscle fibers, contributing to strength and twitch responsiveness.
- Improved ability to transport and utilize oxygen, hence improved stamina, due to affinity of carbon chain of Omega-3 fatty acids for oxygen.
- Increased elasticity of connective tissue and bone density.
- Improved permeability of cellular membranes, allowing improved nutrient uptake and removal of toxic metabolites resulting from intense bouts of exercise.
The immune system acts to protect the horse from infectious agents that exist in the environment (bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites) and from other noxious insults. The adequate functioning of the equine immune system can be largely affected by nutrition, and therefore so is the increased risk of illness if excellent quality nutrition is not available. Providing optimal intake of energy, macronutrients and micronutrients and alternative nutrition helps to improve the immune system, and is fundamental to protect the health of the horse.
Dr. Amy M. Gill is a consultant who specializes in growth, metabolic and exercise related disorders. She is available for consultation, seminars, clinics and technical writing services. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.equiforce.com