It’s time to look forward to spring, and another active season with your horses. It’s also a great time to begin preparing them for the better weather, when you may be re-introducing them to pasture, getting ready for competition, supporting your senior horses, helping their digestive systems cope with the switch from dry fodder to spring grass, or protecting them from allergic reactions to biting insects and skin conditions such as seasonal pruritus/sweet itch. Whatever you are planning with your horses over the next few months, the very best herb to add to their daily ration is milk thistle.
DETOXING THE LIVER
At first glance, milk thistle may seem to offer relatively narrow therapeutic benefits, but when you consider just how important the liver is to overall health, you can understand why this plant is so good for both people and animals.
I would always use milk thistle in any spring detox program for:
• Horses that may have spent the winter off pasture in barns or stalls. The herb will increase gastric enzyme production and secretion, helping the digestive system cope with the change from dry forage to fresh grass.
• Elderly horses whose livers are not as efficient as they once were, those on long term medication, or those whose livers have been damaged by ingesting poisonous plants such as ragwort. Milk thistle has been shown to accelerate liver cell regeneration by increasing RNA synthesis, and offers protection from blood toxins.
• Horses prone to seasonal allergies due to insect bites or respiratory issues. Milk thistle offers an anti-allergy and anti-inflammatory action. I always use it as an adjunct to conventional medication or wormers, as these can put additional pressure on the liver and reduce its function.
LIVER HEALTH AND FUNCTION
Milk thistle is one of the most widely researched plants, and its beneficial actions have been proven on numerous occasions. Its principle constituents are flavanolignans, collectively known as silymarin, that interact with liver cell membranes, blocking binding sites and hindering the uptake of toxins. The herb’s antioxidant action will protect the liver from a wide variety of poisons by strengthening cell walls to prevent blood toxins from passing into the cell; stimulating the enzymes that make the toxins less harmful to the body; and blocking damaging free radicals from attacking cells. Milk thistle offers antioxidant, anti-cholesterol, anti-allergy, anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor activity.
In recent research on children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, silymarin was shown to reduce the harmful effects of chemotherapy on the liver without reducing the effectiveness of the cancer treatment. Silymarin has also been proven successful in the treatment of mushroom poisoning. Milk thistle will accelerate liver cell regeneration by increasing RNA synthesis, while the antioxidant action has been measured at ten times that of vitamin E.
So I suggest that whatever supplement you decide to use for your horses this spring, make sure it contains generous quantities of milk thistle!
Hilary Self is cofounder of Hilton Herbs Ltd., a company that manufactures and formulates herbal supplements for animals. She is a Medical Herbalist, a member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, and a member of the NASC Scientific Advisory Committee. Hilary is the author of two books: A Modern Horse Herbal and A Veteran Horse Herbal. HiltonHerbs.com