How free radicals affect performance horses, and why antioxidant supplementation plays such an important role in preserving good health.
Oxidation is a normal metabolic process that transforms dietary nutrients, such as protein, fat and carbohydrates, into energy. An unavoidable consequence of oxidation, however, is the generation of free radicals, also known as reactive oxygen species (ROS), which cause damage to surrounding cells. Equine athletes experience accelerated oxidation due to exercise-induced increases in oxygen consumption and aerobic metabolism. As a result, more free radicals are generated and the body’s natural antioxidant stores are rapidly depleted. The more strenuous the exercise, the more profound the effect and the more difficult it is for the horse’s body to effectively protect itself. Antioxidants, as the body’s natural defense mechanism, combat free radicals and protect cells from harm. Supplementing your performance horse with antioxidants helps perverse his health by fighting free radicals.
Why are free radicals dangerous?
Left unchecked, free radicals cause cellular and tissue damage, which negatively impacts a horse’s performance. Specifically, free radicals generated by exercise-induced aerobic metabolism contribute to myopathies or other diseases of the muscle, which delay muscle recovery time. Additionally, free radicals exacerbate the airway inflammation normally accompanying exercise, and underlying airway diseases, like equine asthma. Circulating unchecked free radicals can also threaten vision by targeting the sensitive cells within the eye, aggravating underlying ocular diseases such as Equine Recurrent Uveitis (aka ERU, or moon blindness) and immune-mediated keratitis (aka IMMK).
The importance of antioxidants
To optimize performance and minimize post-performance recovery time, equine athletes must maintain respiratory health, excellent visual acuity, and strong muscles. Antioxidant supplementation is, therefore, necessary to ward off the negative consequences associated with over-abundant free radicals.
Some of the most important antioxidants requiring supplementation in horses are vitamin E, Omega-3 fatty acids, lutein and grapeseed extract.
- Vitamin E contains a potent antioxidant, d-alpha-tocopherol, which is incorporated into cell membranes, strengthening and protecting the cell from damaging free radicals.
- Omega-3 fatty acids, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are also incorporated into cell membranes and have similar effects to d-alpha-tocopherol. EPA and DHA also inhibit peroxidation and help promote production of the body’s own natural antioxidant enzymes. Specifically, DHA reduces inflammation associated with airway disease and improves clinical symptoms.
- Lutein and grapeseed extract are particularly important antioxidants for maintaining retinal health, concentrating in the photoreceptors and protecting the retina from harmful wavelengths of naturally-occurring blue light.
Adding a variety of antioxidants to your equine athlete’s daily supplement regimen helps promote his health and performance. In the face of disease, antioxidants complement traditional therapies by supporting the immune system at a cellular level. If you have an equine athlete and are concerned with optimizing his performance and maintaining his overall health and wellness, consider giving him targeted antioxidant supplementation and support.