While we can’t prevent aging, you can help support your elderly horse through the senior years with these natural strategies.
Horses, like people are living longer as a result of reduced diseases, better medical care and increased quality of life. Horses generally live 25 – 30 years, however it is not uncommon to see 40-year-old horses. As horses age, their immune system is subject to increasing stress in order to maintain a healthy body. The main stressor is inflammation that is caused by a number of internal and external factors.
The aging process
Aging is inevitable and an irreversible process, and controlled primarily by a programmed biological timeline, determined by internal (endogenous) factors such as genetics. External (exogenous) or environmental factors have a major influence over the rate of aging. These environmental factors cause cumulative damage, expressed mainly as inflammation, which in turn stresses the immune system.
Research points to a combination of biological predispositions (the luck of the draw with your genes) and cumulative environmental exposure as influencing the type and rate of aging. Further evidence, though, indicates that the facets of aging, such as joint inflammations, insulin resistance and obesity, are exacerbated by unbalanced dietary nutrient intake, especially high levels of sugar and starch (non structural carbohydrate, or NSC) and high levels of omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Strategies to help with inflammation need to consider the type and cause of the inflammation. For example, obesity is characterized by chronic low-grade inflammation, mainly due to an imbalance between the production of pro-inflammatory (bad) cytokines and anti-inflammatory (good) cytokines. A cytokine is any one of a number of substances secreted by cells of the immune system that have an effect on other cells. Such an imbalance has been associated with several metabolic disorders including type-2 diabetes, hypertension, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. Inflammation is also linked to Alzheimer’s disease, atherosclerosis and certain cancers in humans.
Role of nutraceuticals
Nutraceuticals are food ingredients derived from plants containing nutrients considered to have a physiological benefit, or provide protection against chronic diseases. These plants provide dietary nutrients, and more importantly, they contain phytochemicals that can control biochemical processes at the cellular level. They have a major role in modulating inflammation, hence impacting on some of the factors associated with the ageing process.
Supplementation of equine diets with nutraceuticals is also of increasing interest. Some well-known nutraceuticals, like vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium, are essential to preventing chronic inflammatory damage and slowing aging changes. Other less well known plants are also being researched for their nutraceuticals benefits, with some receiving considerable interest due to their potential nutritional, safety and therapeutic effects which have been in humans. Some of these nutraceuticals are listed below. Whilst there is little published information on the effect of nutraceuticals on equines, there is considerable information in humans. The positive benefits in humans is suggests that these compounds should be considered for equines.
Turmeric (Curcuma species)
Curcuma longa is the traditional type of turmeric commonly used in cooking, foodstuffs, cosmetics and medicine. Turmeric or curcumin has been used for centuries as a wound-healing agent and for treating a variety of diseases in traditional Indian and Chinese medicine. More than 100 compounds have been isolated from turmeric, including turmeric oil containing turmerone, borneol, zingiberene, and sesquiterpenes as well as curcuminoids. Turmeric is known for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant effects on gastrointestinal and liver functions. Interest surrounds the effects of curcumin in inflammatory bowel disease. Curcuminoids are being trialled in a number of studies for arthritis, obesity, cognitive disorders, cancer and wound healing.
Curcuma xanthorrhiza, also known as Java turmeric, has been used as a traditional medicinal plant in some tropical countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia for food and for medicinal purposes to treat hepatitis, liver disorders, stomach diseases, rheumatism and skin inflammation. Javanese turmeric contains curcuminoids similar to those in curcuma longa. However, it also contains a number of differing oils and bioactive compounds such as camphor, zerumbone, β-curcumene, zingiberene, ar-curcumene and xanthorrhizol. Research demonstrates that xanthorrhizol, similar to ar-turmerone in curcuma longa, enhances the bioavailability of curcumin, and in combination with the minor components, was responsible for the high LDL (cholesterol) antioxidant activity of the herbs. Although there is little published research on the role of turmeric in equines, the observations shared on the public information sharing site (Turmeric User Group on Facebook) indicates significant effects on inflammation and skin disorders such as sarcoids. Curcumin is not water soluble and is poorly absorbed, and must be metabolically activated using oil and piperine.
Normal body functioning gives rise to highly reactive and oxidizing molecules called free radicals. The production is greatly increased during inflammation, stress, exercise and overconsumption of high carbohydrate diets. Resveratrol is an antioxidant that may help the body efficiently detoxify molecules that oxidize other molecules and tissues. Resveratrol is a phytoalexin — a protective antibiotic produced in plants under stress by fungal attack, or water stress. This molecule helps the plants fight back and maintain health.
Japanese knotweed is the most common source of resveratrol, with other sources being the skin of red grapes, peanuts and pistachios, berries including blueberries, cranberries, raspberries and mulberries, and cacao beans. Studies have found other beneficial effects of resveratrol include cardio vascular protection, anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory. Further research demonstrates numerous additional beneficial effects for obesity and diabetes and may therefore be helpful in preventing and treating both these diseases. A recent report in obese humans showing the beneficial effects of resveratrol, with no apparent side effects, highlights its potential as a viable option for helping maintain optimum immune function as well as inhibiting other obesity-related issues.
Black pepper, or its active principle piperine, protects against oxidative damage by inhibiting free radicals and beneficially influencing antioxidant molecules. It possesses anti-inflammatory, anti-mutagenic and anti-tumor influences. The active attribute of piperine has an inhibitory influence on the hepatic, pulmonary, and intestinal drug-metabolizing systems. Piperine is known for enhancing and amplifying the effects of some nutraceuticals, such as turmeric and resveratrol, by increasing bioavailability. It may also increase absorption by slowing intestinal transit rate and thus prolonging the time the compounds are exposed to potential uptake.
Just as with us, a mix of genetic and environmental influences will influence the aging of our equine friends. Along with our increase in longevity will come new health challenges requiring new management techniques and interventions. The use of nutraceuticals derived from plants may perform a pivotal role in the healthcare of aging horses. There are also suggestions that we could implement the targeted use of some of these naturally-occurring substances at a younger age to prevent damage from environmental exposures, similar to how we use vitamins to maintain health. Longevity in all species will result in the increased use of natural plant products integrated into the management of inflammation and aging symptoms.