Gut health has become increasingly synonymous with overall health. As we continue to learn more about supporting gut health in both humans and animals, we have discovered that what happens in the gut can have a body-wide impact.
At its core, the digestive system has two main functions: 1) digest and absorb nutrients and 2) function as part of the immune system and prevent harmful substances from entering and spreading throughout the body. Both jobs are done by a single layer of cells that line the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) – or the intestinal barrier.
The gut can be resilient and can handle a significant amount of insult and injury. However, over time, if the gut is not properly cared for, small problems that might have been corrected naturally can turn into larger issues, such as Leaky Gut Syndrome (LGS) – impacting overall health and wellbeing.
What is leaky gut syndrome?
The epithelial cells that make up the intestinal lining are tied together by a series of “bonds” called tight junctions that create a barrier. A healthy GIT is selectively permeable, meaning it allows nutrients and other beneficial substances to be absorbed into the circulatory system but keeps toxic substances and pathogenic organisms out. LGS occurs when the lining of the intestine is compromised, allowing harmful substances such as toxins or pathogens to pass from the interior of the intestine into the bloodstream.
LGS can begin with small “leaks.” Typically, the horse will be able to manage, and the leaks are repaired. You would likely not even notice anything is wrong. Over time, however, these small leaks can begin to grow, and significant damage can occur. Often you don’t become aware that there is a problem until the injury is so severe that obvious impacts to health and performance are seen.
What causes leaky Gut syndrome?
Horses are constantly being exposed to a variety of environmental, biological and situational stressors. Stressors such as extreme weather, disease challenges, diet changes, medications, issues with water quality, exercise or travel can damage the epithelial cells and tight junctions. Your horse can likely overcome experiencing one or two of these stressors or if the stress is acute (short lived). If, however your horse is exposed to multiple stressors such as during a competition (exercise, diet changes and travel) or the stress is chronic (long term or repeated exposure), normal healing or immune function may not be able to keep up and the small, recurring leaks can develop into Leaky Gut Syndrome. You may be able to manage or reduce some of these stressors but there are likely times based on circumstances or issues beyond your control that the stress may be too much for the horse to handle.
What are the symptoms of leaky gut syndrome?
Each horse can react differently to the effects of LGS, so knowing what is “normal” for your horse is key. A symptom, for instance, may be that your horse is simply not performing as expected or as usual. As mentioned, one of the main functions of the GIT is the digestion and absorption of nutrients. When damaged, the intestine’s ability to absorb those vital nutrients is reduced, which can impact overall performance.
There might be changes in behavior, your horse simply seems “off ” or becomes girthy when saddled. You might also notice a reduction in feed intake or that your horse goes completely off feed for a period. Loose manure or diarrhea is often connected to LGS, as well as chronic or recurrent colic.
Leaky gut syndrome and systemic inflammation
Aside from some of the expected symptoms that go with GIT problems, there are also systemic or body-wide issues. When the immune system identifies a foreign particle, one of the ways it attempts to deal with this “invasion” is through the process of inflammation. Inflammation has an important role to play in immune function and healing. When we get a cut on the skin, for instance, it becomes red and inflamed when it’s beginning to heal. This is where inflammation is beneficial – immune cells and other mediators are rushing in to take care of any infectious elements like bacteria or viruses that might have made it into the body, as well as being part of the healing process. Within the gut, if there is a small leak or if the leak only lasts for a short period of time, acute and localized inflammation will occur and the immune system can work to protect the animal from further harm. If the leaks are larger or last for an extended period, however, the immune system continues to amplify its response which can result in chronic, systemic inflammation that may be harmful to your horse. At that point, the inflammatory cytokines released by the immune system in response to LGS can potentially spread and begin causing issues throughout the body including skin allergies, laminitis, insulin resistance and more. In this way, LGS can be an underlying condition for many of the health and performance concerns that we see in horses.
How to reduce the incidence and severity of leaky gut syndrome
There are several management and nutritional approaches you can take. Stress is a primary cause of Leaky Gut Syndrome – things as simple as extreme weather, diet changes or trailering can have a negative impact on your horse. Exposure to some of these stressors are inevitable, and so we identify methods to minimize their impact, such as trying to maintain a consistent routine when it comes to exercise and feeding. Ensure your horses have shelter (from wind or sun) and good air flow at all times and always provide clean water and mold free, high-quality forages.
If we get a cut on the skin, we can clean it, apply an antibiotic and bandage until it heals. Things are a little more complicated for an injury to he intestinal lining. Since we often cannot treat the injury directly, we need to utilize nutritional approaches. Feeding for proper gut health gives your horse the nutrients needed to maintain the protective intestinal barrier and be able to absorb crucial nutrients.
These nutrients include butyric acid and zinc. Butyric acid is a primary energy source for growth and development of epithelial cells in the intestine. It also helps to strengthen the tight junctions that bind these cells together. Zinc also positively impacts the tight junctions and assists in wound healing. For these nutrients to be beneficial in reducing the incidence of LGS, they must be released along the entire GIT. This requires them to be encapsulated in a slow release product such as ButiPEARL® Z EQ – the first product of its kind on the market.
The use of a proven, efficacious probiotic can also help maintain a healthy intestinal microbe population. Probiotics are live microorganisms – usually strains of beneficial bacteria – that assist with digestion or inhibit the growth of pathogens. To be effective, probiotics need to be live when reaching the gut so it’s vital that they can withstand the harsh feed manufacturing process and exposure to gastric acid in the stomach. PB, a patented strain of Bacillus subtilis found in CLOSTAT®, is proven to survive pelleting, reach the small intestine alive and inhibit the growth of Clostridium perfringens and several other equine specific pathogens.
Chromium is another important nutrient. Chromium activates insulin receptors, mobilizing more blood glucose into cells. Increasing glucose uptake by immune cells may help the horse mount a more effective immune response during LGS. KemTRACE® Chromium is the only FDA-reviewed source of chromium propionate for horses on the market and is backed by more than 20 years of research and safety.
While it may not be possible to prevent LGS entirely, management and nutritional interventions can reduce the incidence and severity – increasing your horse’s wellbeing and therefore, your enjoyment of owning a horse! For more information about LGS or references, visit www.kemin.com/leakygut.