Your Horse’s Gut-Brain Connection

Our bodies – and ours horses’ — depend on a vast army of living organisms (microbes) to stay alive and thrive. This microbiome of cells (including bacteria, viruses and fungi) is responsible for protecting against germs, and for breaking down food to release energy, produce vitamins and more. The biggest populations of these microbes reside in the gut. This complex community is known as gut flora. Healthy gut flora fosters healthy gut function overall, and has been linked to normal central nervous system (CNS) function in humans and horses. Conversely, a lower diversity of gut flora has been linked to an increased occurrence of CNS disorders such as anxiety, depression, aggression, memory loss and other problems.

Here’s how it works. The gut sends signals to the brain via hormones, neurotransmitters and other immunological factors. These signals can become impaired by inflammation of the GI tract and an imbalance of gut flora, known as dysbiosis. Intestinal permeability (leaky gut) results from dysbiosis, allowing proteins and bacteria to escape through intestinal tissues and circulate systemically. These rogue molecules then increase the permeability of the blood-brain barrier, negatively impacting brain function which can lead to the development of CNS disorders.

Communication between the gut and brain is bi-directional, so it can work in the reverse order – signals sent from the brain to the gut will also impact gut health. Positive thinking is therefore a powerful practice; later, we will discuss ways to foster this in the equine.

3 steps to creating a gut-healing environment for your equine

Common contributors to an unhealthy equine gut include stress, a poor quality diet, synthetic vitamins and minerals, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals. Optimizing your horse’s diet, properly managing pharmaceuticals, and supporting her through periods of high stress will each have a positive effect on her gut microbiome. Creating an environment that is conducive to gut healing is the first step toward improving your horse’s neurological and overall body function.

1. Optimize her diet

An ideal diet is modeled on how horses would eat in the wild, but this can vary depending on individual needs. To cover the basics, 24/7 access to naturally-grown grass or hay forage, fresh water and mineral salts is crucial. When considering feeds and supplements for your horse, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the ingredients. Marketing lingo can be very convincing, but does the ingredient list on the packaging paint a different story? Learning to identify pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory ingredients can also help determine how a feed might impact your horse’s GI health.

Grains are naturally inflammatory and can be challenging for horses to digest. This is especially true for horses with a history of ulcers or other digestive disorders, so it is wise to limit their grain intake. Organic grains are easier on the gut than conventional or genetically modified grains. In the US, there are no requirements for labelling GMOs, so familiarity with current GM crops will help you identify them. GMOs and conventional wheat carry many risks, including glyphosate contamination. Glyphosate is an herbicide, a probable carcinogen, and a contributing factor to leaky gut and inflammation. Popular horse feeds and supplements often include wheat, GMOs (soy, corn, alfalfa, beets and canola) and synthetic vitamins. They can even legally contain things like formaldehyde (as a “pellet binder”) and anti-freeze (propylene glycol). Yikes!

Alternative feeds such as those made with coconut meal, hemp hearts, chia seeds and flax offer an easily digestible, gluten-free, anti-inflammatory meal with many benefits. Coconut feeds, such as Stance Equine’s Cool Stance®, are chemical-free, low in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) and rich in medium chain triglycerides (MCT) and lauric acid, which may kill harmful pathogens in the GI tract. Hemp hearts (hulled seeds) are rich in high quality protein, are alkaline-forming and contain all ten essential amino acids, which are building blocks for synthesizing body proteins for healthy blood, hooves, organs, hormones and more. Chia and flax are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and minerals. “Including fresh vegetables can also help dramatically with your horse’s intestinal health,” adds Equine Nutritionist, Claudia Garner. Additionally, these feeds are all prebiotics, which means they nourish healthy gut flora. They are also safer options for horses with allergies, which often stem from a weakened GI state.

2. Properly manage pharmaceuticals

Reserving pharmaceuticals, including vaccines, for specific and necessary situations can limit negative interference with the gut. Alternatives such as herbs, essential oils, superfoods and medicinal spices typically support the whole body while promoting the healing of specific ailments. The herbal tincture, Bor L Immune by Sustenance Herbs, is an example of an exciting alternative to allopathic medicine. It effectively eliminates Borrelia burgdorferi (the spirochete bacterium that causes Lyme disease) from tissues while supporting the gut and enhancing CD-4 white blood cells and vital organ function. Herbs benefit the body in many ways, and horses typically love the taste as they consist of plants they would have naturally sought in the wild in order to self-heal. Natural antibiotics that can be considered for use in horses include colloidal silver, oil of oregano, apple cider vinegar and unrefined coconut oil.

If you offer probiotics (see sidebar above), it is critical to halt their use while delivering antibiotics. Synthetic antibiotics do not have the ability to recognize “good” or “bad” bacteria and use a one-for-one ratio when eliminating bacteria. Probiotic supplementation with antibiotics brings the risk of persistent infection. On the other hand, it is safe and beneficial to feed prebiotic foods and herbs as they will not interfere with antibiotics.

3. Support your horse through periods of stress

During periods of stress, you can help your horse remain mentally and physically healthy by consistently supporting her gut. More specifically, herbs such as yucca, chamomile or slippery elm, and essential oils such as frankincense, peppermint, lavender or copaiba, can all help to calm the mind and heal the gut.

Another impressive supplement for stress management is organic CBD oil. Interestingly, studies have demonstrated that the gut microbiota uses the intestinal endocannabinoid system to control the degree of intestinal permeability. CBD oil supports the practice of replenishing this naturally-occurring endocannabinoid system for GI and neurological health.

It’s also important not to underestimate the power that your voice, love and presence have on your horse’s well-being. Reassure her that she is safe and doing well, and whenever possible, be there to enjoy life with her. For some horses, especially those without pasture mates, the human-equine bond can play an integral role in their health.

Hippocrates wrote in the 4th century B.C. that “all disease begins in the gut”. Begin the journey of healing your equine partner by nourishing her digestive system and supporting the complex cross-talk between her gut and brain.

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