A balanced ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids should be 3:1. What ratio is in your horse's diet?
There may be an imbalance in your horse's intake of essential fatty acids (EFAs), primarily linked to the family of Omega 6 vs Omega 3. Most commercial equine feeds contain corn, wheat, oats, bran, sunflower, canola, soy or safflower, which provide much more Omega 6 than Omega 3, negating the benefits of both.
The practice of feeding a toxic fat, like corn oil, to add coat shine (and excess corn in processed feed) has greatly contributed to much of the EFA imbalances in today's domesticated horses.
Why is the Omega 6/Omega 3 ratio important?
EFAs cannot be synthesized from other fats by the body and must be supplied in the diet, usually in the form of supplements. Half the fat in most equine cereal grain includes Omega 6 because it tastes good, is stable, and is inexpensive. Excess Omega 6 contributes to inflammation. Omega 3, on the other hand, inhibits inflammation AND blocks the production of Omega 6.
Humans have a 20:1 to 50:1 imbalance of Omega 6 over Omega 3. The average human diet is 30% fat, while a typical Equine diet consists of 5% (or less) fat. Forages contain 2-3% crude fat. Roughly 40-55% of the fat in fresh pasture is Omega 3; 18-35% in hay. Significant open range organic grazing may supply a balance of EFAs to your horse, although there is no control over the variety and availability of the forages.
There are 4 types of fat from food: cholesterol, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fats. Extra virgin olive oil has limited EFA yet contains 75% of Omega 9 in the form of an important nonessential stable monounsaturated fatty acid called oleic acid. Oleic acid assists Omega 3 to penetrate the cell and helps maintain fluidity to keep the membrane stable and soft. In contrast, supermarket processed polyunsaturated fats easily oxidize to produce toxic lipid peroxides, become rancid even at low temperatures, and create massive inflammation when ingested!
Additional EFA-containing foods for your horse include almonds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, macadamia nuts (use moderation), wild purslain herb and sea buckthorn berries (in supplement form). Other sources offer greater Omega 3 content such as flax, linseed, hemp, spirulina (blue green algae; contains gamma linoleic acid only), New Zealand green lipped mussel (note: extracts are less allergic than powder forms) and cold water fatty fish, especially salmon, trout, and mackerel. Fish stands out due to its rich Omega 3 content from plankton; the colder the water, the greater the Omega 3 levels. Flaxseed and linseed contain 50% Omega 3 and 15% Omega 6.
Flaxseed is one of the highest natural vegetable sources containing 55% of Omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (ALA), substantial phytoestrogen (lignan) content, plus flavanoids, various amino acids, easily digested protein, magnesium, potassium, lecithin, B vitamins, fiber and minerals. Flax seed is linked to immune stimulation, increased vitamin D levels, and the retention of calcium, magnesium and phosphate. Flax oil helps to lubricate a dry bowel. Choose ground or milled organic flaxseed oil (from whole flax seed). Flax should originate from fresh pressed seeds and be stabilized with an antioxidant (Vitamin E). Refrigerate after opening. Flax lignans have shown to play a role in cancer prevention, reduce everyday cellular damage in tissues, and act as free radical scavengers in humans. Its high mucilage content soothes the digestive tract. Horses show relief from dandruff, sweet itch and cracked hooves, as well as increased bone strength and coat sheen when fed flax regularly! Feed 1-2 tbsp flax oil per 100 lb or 2-8 oz whole seeds.
Flax should be certified free of hexane (an allergy causing chemical solvent).
- Flax should be free of heavy metals (i.e., mercury).
- Flax should never be processed at high heat. Choose cold processed (also called expeller-pressed).
- Flax should not be exposed to light or oxygen. Select dark or opaque packaging.
- NEVER buy ready-crushed flax seeds because the quality deteriorates rapidly.
- Flax meal/cake (unless specified as ?milled seed?) is a by-product of crushing flax to obtain oil and is nutritionally inferior.
- Linseed (unless specified) is extracted under high heat using petroleum-based solvents.
- Trace amounts of prussic acid in linseed can be potentially toxic in large doses. Presoak seeds and boil them into a glutinous mass to assure safety.
Fish oil is clearly the most acclaimed EFA source for humans, yet there is little to scientifically substantiate its use with horses. Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS, of Harmany Equine Clinic in Virginia states, "We do not know if horses use fish oil better until a true study gets published putting flax, hemp and fish oils next to each other, preferably in a crossover test (where the same horse gets each different oil over an extended period). Icelandic horses for centuries have eaten fish meal; they are adapted to it and when they come to other countries they have all sorts of insulin resistance and skin and respiratory allergies, most likely partly because they do not have access to their natural diet. But all the other horses in most parts of the world grew up without fish."
As with most products, it is imperative to research product ingredient sources; otherwise you may be feeding a potentially toxic substance to your horse! In years past, Omega 3 was primarily extracted from the liver of cod. Cod liver oil tastes and smells bad, and must be limited due to high Vitamin A content. Today Omega 3 is extracted more from the muscles of whole fish. Quality fish swim WILD in unpolluted DEEP waters. Once caught, proper processing should be chemical free and include molecular distillation (or a brief low temperature steam or boil) to assure purification, remove odors and eliminate hazardous heavy metal toxic contaminants such as mercury and pesticides. Added antioxidants, vitamin E and ascorbic acid support stability. Feed a normal horse 1 oz daily; 2 oz for chronic or low immune and stressed animals.
- Fish should be packaged in a special container because the lipids in standard plastic let oxygen in. Oxygen enters unavoidably when opening and closing containers. Buy small sizes like 32 oz, NEVER 1 gallon.
- Beware of any product that says not for children or pregnant women because the product is NOT PURIFIED!
- Don't use farm salmon. Fish farms may use cheap/inadequate feed unless specified.
- Farmed salmon, north Atlantic salmon, even near the Arctic Circle, has confirmed high levels of mercury, PCBs and dioxin.
- Do not feed capsules; they likely contain very high lipid peroxides which greatly stress your horse?s antioxidant defense mechanisms.
- Do not feed oil that has a strong odor (= poor quality)!
- NEVER consider cheap fish oil in large sizes. You would do harm to the horse by introducing such poisons!
Omega 3 in flax is not the same as in fish oil
Omega 3 in flax seed is called alpha linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is an antioxidant known to raise the levels of other antioxidants, reduce scarring 60-80%, and decrease inflammation. ALA is also shown to significantly reduce the effects of endotoxemia in horses, therefore inhibiting the occurrence of laminitis, colic and other systemic complications.
ALA requires an enzyme, delta-6-desaturase (D6D), along with adequate zinc, to complete a metabolic transformation to become EPA/DHA. This conversion limits the EFA your horse receives; a very important distinction between Omega 3 in fish oil, which has a direct source of EPA/DHA, and those in flax seeds or oil. DHA can also be found in seaweed.
The richest source of Omega 3 is breast milk which contains full spectrum EPA and DHA; yet your foal doesn't need D6D to utilize it. The mare passes along EFA and immune boosting benefits. In contrast, there is evidence that stress, the elderly, diabetics (note: insulin is also known to depress D6D) and those in ill health may not be able to convert ALA to DHA/EPA. Additionally, heredity, aging, viral infections, diets high in transfatty acids and chronic disease can eliminate your horse?s D6D altogether! Even in a horse in peak condition, only 20% ALA can be converted to a usable form.
Hemp merits serious equine EFA consideration because its Omega 6:Omega 3 (LA:LNA) ratio is 3:1. It is also extremely rich in nutrition! Often controversial due to confusion, rest assured hemp is not marijuana. Marijuana includes the bud, leaves, and flowers which are illegal to possess in the US due to the 5%-15%+ THC (Delta-9 Tetra-Hydro-Cannabinol) whereas hemp generally includes the root, stem and stalk of the Cannabis Sativa plant. Seeds aren?t illegal if they are sterile or not whole, which renders them unable to produce plants. Also, hemp crops are naturally grown without chemicals.
Consumed for more than 5,000 years by both people and animals, hemp contains higher-potency omega derivatives and conjugated LA than that of flax. Hemp contains 23 fatty acids, 20 amino acids (including the 8 essential), easily digested protein, vitamins, enzymes, antioxidant flavonoids, 70 non-psychoactive cannabinoids, and 120 terpenes whose collective benefits are linked to: cell protection, immuno-suppression, anti-inflammation, antibacterial, anti-hypertension, anti-tumor, anti-allergic, antiviral and analgesic properties. Horses with issues of insulin resistance, immune deficiencies, inflammation, skin problems, and weight imbalances show benefit from hemp. [Listen to an informative Podcast about Hemp for Insulin Resistance by Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS, at www.holistichorse.com ]
Sea Buckthorn contains Omegas 3, 6, 7, and 9 in a 1:1:1:1 ratio! It is a wild whole fruit (Hippophae rhamnoides) grown in the high mountain meadows of Tibet, China and Mongolia. The ingredients work synergistically and show support of hoof growth, digestion, fertility, joints, bones, ligaments, immune boosting, ulcer prevention and assist. The berries and plant contain 180 bioactive nutrients to include quercetin, flavanoids, carotenoids, phytonutrients, 22 essential minerals, vitamins A, B, B2, B6, B12, C, D, E, P, and K.
Omega 6 EFAs
Omega 6 fatty acids or linoleic acid (LA) are derived from the fat content of feed in the form of highly processed soy, corn, safflower, borage, black currant, flaxseed, evening primrose, and fungal oils. LA metabolizes into gamma linoleic acid (GLA). GLA is thought to reduce inflammation (including eczema), regulate blood pressure, plus aid in fighting rheumatoid arthritis, PMS, skin disorders and cancer. Borage oil contains more GLA then Evening Primrose oil, and is high in potassium. Both are valuable supplements. Eczema indicates an inability to work with EFA, so GLA is suggested because it's active without D6D. GLA needs adequate zinc, magnesium, C, B3 and B6 to convert GLA to beneficial dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA); otherwise it can convert to detrimental arachidonic acid (AA). AA is found in egg yolk, meats (especially organ meats) and other animal-based foods. AA produces type 2 prostaglandins that create an injury-prone, pro-inflammatory immune-suppressed state that includes catabolic muscle wasting. DGLA is part of the prostaglandin Omega 6 gamma-linolenic substances that can:
- reduce inflammation
- transport oxygen from red blood cells to tissues
- synthesize hormones
- regulate pain response
- maintain cell membrane fluidity
- dilate or constrict blood vessels
- regulate almost every bodily function at the tissue level.
- Too much LA and AA can lead to chronic inflammation, as well as use up your horse's D6D enzymes.
Eliminate the Guesswork
For those who want to confirm your horse's EFA ratio, or test results of your feed or supplement, your veterinarian can take blood samples from your horse to confirm if EFAs are in the blood. An additional test confirms EFA absorption into the cell membrane.
In summary, your goal is better balanced EFA of Omega 6:Omega 3 at 3:1. Nutritional synergy is vital. Don't create a new problem by eliminating Omega 6 altogether; Omega 6 deficiency is linked to confused thinking, eczema, hair loss, kidney problems, liver problems, and reproductive and growth issues. Consciously include a variety of EFA foods for your horse, especially those rich in Omega 3. Always choose organic flax (or linseed) and hemp when available. Scrutinize your fish oil sources. Adequate Omega 3 in your horse's diet is essential, NOT OPTIONAL, for overall equine wellbeing!
Omega 6 = linoleic acid (LA) and arachidonic acid (AA); Omega 6 active ingredients are derived from linoleic acid
Omega 3 = alpha linolenic acid (ALA in flax or LNA in fish oil); Omega 3 family of EFAs are derived from ALA that is metabolized to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Does Research Support EFAs?
There is well-documented research on human benefits of EFA in the diet:
- cardiovascular support
- cholesterol assistance
- mood stabilization
- brain health
- CNS support
- balanced insulin
- arthritis prevention and much more! Lack of EFAs would create the opposite of its benefits. EFA/electrolyte imbalance is linked to autism.
Equine studies are less in number, yet no less convincing of EFA attributes:
- increasing cell membrane permeability to insulin
- balanced hormones
- improved focus
- greater joint, hoof, skin, coat, mane and tail health
- increased strength, stamina and shorter recovery
- greater sperm count of higher quality which produce larger healthy offspring.
- EFAs and magnesium assist horses prone to founder.
Omega 3 has shown similarities to NSAIDS and bute, assists with lupus, ulcerative colitis, and chronic allergies. Omega 3 consists of three major types: alpha-linolenic acid (LNA) which is found in flaxseed oils, dark vegetables and some vegetable oils, as well as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both found in cold water fish and fresh seaweed.
Once ingested, the body converts LNA to EPA and DHA. Many studies have shown that DHA plays an essential role in the normal development of the brain, eyes and nerves while EPA provides an anti-inflammatory benefit, prevents degradation of joint cartilage, helps to maintain/repair cell walls. Together, EPA and DHA aid in the maintenance of cardiovascular function.