digestive health

How herbs can ease these four common digestive health challenges.

A healthy digestive system is a big part of your horse’s overall well being. Good equine digestion relies on him being outside, moving around and constantly foraging for long fiber. These factors help provide the nutrients and conditions needed to facilitate optimal bacterial flora and digestive function.

The equine gastrointestinal tract is not designed to cope with large quantities of concentrated feed multiple times a day without sufficient bulk. The increased reliance on both concentrated feeds and conventional medication has had a profound effect on the modern horse’s digestive system. Let’s take a look at some of the more common equine digestive ailments, and how herbs can help.

1. Ulcers

There appears to be an increase in the diagnosis of equine gastric and duodenal ulceration. This may be attributed to improved diagnostic techniques, but also to changes in equine management and feeding practices. Conventional medications can contribute significantly to the development and ongoing incidence of ulcers. Veterinary medication for gastrointestinal tract ulceration tends to focus on suppressing the normal function of the digestive system by inhibiting the release of digestive enzymes, which has further negative health implications for the horse.

In contrast, herbal medicine can offer a plethora of alternatives, through overall support of normal digestion, healing of damaged gastric mucosa, and reduction of inflammation, without negative side effects.

Specific herbs used in this context include:

Meadowsweet – It is interesting to note that a highly refined derivation of the very same herb used to produce aspirin (which is known to cause gastric bleeding) is specific for supporting the restoration of damaged gastric mucosa in its natural state (herb and tincture). Meadowsweet offers an anti-inflammatory action as well as balancing gastric pH.

Marshmallow root – This plant contains huge quantities of “mucilage”, which offers a slimy, soothing, cooling, healing action to the gastric mucosa, and protects ulcers from the painful and corroding effect of gastric acids. In addition, marshmallow root has been shown to modulate the transit time of food in the gastrointestinal tract, providing a further gastric buffer and encouraging the increased absorption of vital nutrients.

Liquorice root – In addition to providing many of the therapeutic actions of marshmallow, this tasty sweet herb is specific for healing gastric ulcers. It has an affinity for gastrointestinal tract mucous membranes and reduces inflammation throughout the whole of the GI tract.

Slippery elm – Offering very similar actions to marshmallow root, this beautiful herb made from the inner bark of the red elm is particularly appropriate for the very youngest and oldest horse; it is nutritive, therapeutic and extremely gentle on the gastrointestinal tract. It is particularly useful for helping to reduce inflammation, and is the premier herb for conditions such as IBS and diarrhea.

Gotu kola – This herb offers support from a number of different angles. Its adaptogenic action can help reduce the effects of stress (known to be a major contributing factor to gastric ulcers), while supporting local healing of gastric mucosa.

2. EMS/insulin resistance

This condition could be said to reflect the increasing incidence of Type II diabetes being seen in the human population. As with humans, this is a multi-factorial condition with diet and lack of exercise playing vital roles. There can be a very fine line between a horse or pony being in “good” condition, and an overweight horse or pony at risk of developing EMS or insulin resistance.

Horses were designed to work for their food, storing energy as adipose tissue during times of plenty. These fat reserves are broken down during the hard, cold winter months when food is scarce and low in nutrients, enabling the horse to come into the spring lean but healthy, and ready to repeat the cycle. Horse owners can inadvertently contribute to the development of EMS by providing conditions that minimise this seasonal variation, so horses enter spring carrying excess fat.

Psyllium husks – Montana State University conducted trials into the effects this plant has on post-feeding blood glucose levels in horses. The study demonstrated a significant influence on regulating and reducing blood glucose levels, thereby helping to manage the major contributing factor of EMS. The trials also found that, like marshmallow root, the plant offers a mucilaginous action, while regulating food transit time in the gastrointestinal tract and producing a sense of satiety. It should be noted that when ingested, psyllium husks swell to ten times their original volume, necessitating an increased water intake. Turnout is also vital to allow for the free passage of manure.

Goat’s rue – This is another herb used in the treatment of diabetes in humans. Research has shown that it has the ability to reduce absorption of glucose from the gut, thereby favorably modulating blood glucose levels.

In addition to the herbs detailed above, plants that exert a hypolipidaemic action should be used. These include artichoke, garlic and fenugreek, which help break down blood lipids that are present due to the metabolic changes associated with EMS. All the herbs previously recommended to treat/prevent ulcers can also be used in the effective management of EMS/IR.

3. Laminitis

This is a complex multi-factorial condition. In the case of metabolically influenced laminitis, herbs have a significant role to play in its prevention and management. All the herbs discussed previously can be utilised in order to minimise the risk and impact of laminitis. Additionally, due to the circulatory changes associated with the condition, vasodilatory and circulatory stimulants such as bilberry, hawthorn, prickly ash, yarrow, ginger, turmeric, ginkgo and nettle, should be considered in any established case of laminitis.

4. Age-related issues

As any species ages, physiological changes can lead to a decrease in digestive efficiency. The process of digestion begins in the mouth, both through mechanical and enzymatic means. Regular dental checks are vital to ensure your horse can effectively start the process of digestion comfortably and efficiently.

Gastric enzyme production can be reduced in the older horse, which makes it harder for him to break down and absorb energy and vital nutrients. Herbs with a “bitter” action, such as burdock, dandelion root, barberry, and globe artichoke can gently and safely increase the production of digestive enzymes while providing other health benefits.

Some older horses may be prone to cases of diarrhea, or poorly-formed droppings. In these cases, the use of soothing, healing, anti-spasmodic, astringent and anti-inflammatory herbs such as slippery elm, chamomile, mint, fennel, aniseed, valerian, meadowsweet, marshmallow, liquorice, rosehips, flaxseed and dandelion root can be of great benefit without placing additional strain on the gastrointestinal tract.

Herbal medicine offers a broad spectrum of therapeutic, preventative and treatment applications for common digestive conditions in horses of all ages, without the attendant side effects of conventional medicine. Herbs are a gentle, safe, effective, affordable gift from Mother Nature that can be used either independently, or in conjunction with conventional veterinary medicines.