Adaptogens and Digestive Health

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Can you use adaptogens for horses to maintain and support a healthy digestive system?  A healthy fore and hindgut are vital for top equine performance. 

The equine digestive system needs to be resilient to cope with the demands of domestication, stabling and performance work which includes work at speed and perhaps over jumps.

Adapted from an article by Christine King, BVSc, MACVSc, MVetClinStud

Equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS) remains a serious problem in racehorses and other performance horses. Sometimes in overt ways, but often in more insidious ways, it robs both horse and owner by compromising the horse’s appetite, feed efficiency, condition, comfort, and willingness to work. Were we to be able to accurately calculate it, the amount of money lost to this disease would probably be breathtaking.

GastroGard (omeprazole) paste has been a great leap forward in our ability to treat and prevent EGUS, particularly in horses that must remain in training, but over time the benefit of this drug can be outweighed by its cost. Changes in diet, feeding schedules, housing, exercise, and other management factors are important and they help many of these horses, as can the addition of antacids to the diet. But the fact remains that strenuous exercise is an important contributing factor for EGUS, and it simply cannot be avoided in horses in race training.

Why are racehorses prone to ulcers?

Why galloping increases the risk for EGUS is still not fully understood, probably because it encompasses a number of different factors.

One theory involves the piston-like effect of the abdominal contents during the gallop: the rhythmic forward-and-back movement of the intestines with every stride repeatedly compresses the stomach against the liver and diaphragm, in the process, sloshing the acidic contents of the stomach all over its upper wall, where most gastric ulcers occur. (This effect probably occurs at the canter, as well.)

In horses, this upper portion of the stomach—the squamous mucosa—is lined with several layers of flattened cells called squames, similar to the outer layer of the skin (the epidermis). The lower portion of the equine stomach, the glandular mucosa, is similar to the stomach in humans and is the site of acid, enzyme, and mucus secretion. It is the upper, or squamous, portion of the stomach that is most prone to ulceration in horses, with the notable exception of ulcers caused by nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as phenylbutazone, which typically occur in the glandular portion.

Strenuous exercise also causes transient elevations in stress hormones, changes in fluid and electrolyte balance, and a reduction in blood flow to the gut, all of which may slow the rate of cell turnover and repair in the squamous mucosa. In other words, the squamous cells which protect the upper portion of the stomach lining are replaced more slowly than normal, so the effects of minor or intermittent acid erosion can accumulate over time, eventually resulting in ulceration. To make matters worse, the damage is repaired more slowly if the horse remains in training.

adaptogens for horses
Jiaogulan herb for horses (Gynostemma).

How can adaptogens help?

Adaptogenic herbs can help with the management of horses living in environments that might make them prone to equine gastric ulcer syndrome because they help moderate the stress response, increase the body’s overall resistance to the various physical and psychological stresses of athletic training and competition, and support the rate of cell turnover and natural repair in bodies under stress.

Some of these herbs, such as Aralia species, have been shown to be particularly effective for maintaining a healthy stomach free of gastric ulcers.

Many different herbs have adaptogenic properties. The most commonly used and extensively studied include these:

  • Asian and American ginsengs (various Panax species)
  • Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus, aka eluthero; not a true ginseng)
  • Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea, aka rose root and arctic rose)
  • Aralia (various Aralia species)
  • Schizandra (Schisandra chinensis)
  • Maral root (Rhaponticum carthamoides)Several of the medicinal mushrooms also have adaptogenic properties.

The benefits of adaptogens for horses

The properties and potential of the adaptogens can be summed up simply: they support good cell function,  healthy repair and resistance. That translates into resilience — of tissues, organs, and the system as a whole.

The practical benefits for horses in performance work include:

  • Restoration and maintenance of healthy, lean muscle mass during the intense work
  • Supported resistance to illness and injury
  • Supported fast recovery from illness or injury (including gastric ulcers)
  • Increased resistance to wear-and-tear injuries and overtraining
  • Optimization of exercise capacity (speed and stamina) without the use of artificial stimulants
  • Restoration and maintenance of a good appetite and a general feeling of well-being.
  • A positive effect on bone metabolism to support and maintain horses who may be at risk from shins splints, fractures, and other bone damage.

Adaptogens are among the most widely researched nutraceuticals, with a long track record in human athletes.  Tables 1 and 2 summarize the most common effects of the adaptogens that are particularly relevant in human athletes.

The Physical Effects of Adaptogens for Athletes
Antioxidant; helps protect against oxidative damage, which can be considerable with strenuous exercise
Better endurance, delayed onset of fatigue
Better work capacity when tired or stressed
Facilitates healthy carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism for optimal energy production and maintenance of lean muscle mass with training
The faster rate of tissue repair following injury
Faster recovery from strenuous exercise
Improves blood glucose regulation and facilitates the movement of glucose into muscle cells
improves cardiovascular function and oxygen transport mechanisms (counters anaemia, improves oxygenation, maintains healthy blood flow)
Improves immune function when stressed, which improves resistance to, and recovery from, illness
Improves resistance to physical stressors (e.g. heat, cold, low oxygen, harmful chemicals, radiation)
Table 1
Better resistance to mental/emotional fatigue
Better focus and accuracy when tired or stressed
Better learning and memory, particularly when tired or stressed
Calming in those prone to anxiety, nervousness, irritability, or aggression
Antidepressants in those prone to depression
Improves enjoyment of work
Improves quality of life and a general sense of well-being
Table 2

When used as part of a good management and training program, adaptogens can help get and keep the hard-working horse performing well and going strong over a season and for a lifetime.

Where to find adaptogens for horses

Most of the adaptogenic herbs listed above can be found singly or in various combinations wherever herbal products are sold for humans. However, for convenience, it’s usually best to stick with products that have been formulated specifically for horses, with good quality control and appropriate supplementation instructions.

One of my favourites is APF Pro, which was formulated by an equine veterinarian, Dr Mike Van Noy, for use in equine athletes. I do still buy individual adaptogenic herbs and use them either singly or in custom combinations, but I use the APF products in most cases. Not only are they convenient for use in busy yards and at events, but I appreciate the fact that the company is committed to quality control, the effectiveness of its products, and to veterinary research. Also, these products can safely be used in athletes competing under FEI rules.

Final Thoughts

In closing, GastroGard or other veterinarian-recommended medication is usually the best way to go when ulcers are present. And while GastroGard may also be used at a reduced dosage for ongoing ulcer prevention, adaptogens are well worth considering for helping to support a healthy stomach and digestive tract free from ulcers.  

They help further by supporting the entire system under the stress of training and competition, increasing the horse’s resilience and thus his overall capacity to stay healthy and compete to the best of his ability. That makes the adaptogens good nutrition sense.

We have many more articles on Horse Health here.

Last Updated on January 27, 2022 by Forageplus Team

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