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Symbiosis And The Horse’s Gut

I am trying to make sense of things but I keep coming up short when determining why grain causes so many issues in horses. My search has led me to an idea that is based on research in human nutrition.  In this and blogs I am writing over the next several weeks I will introduce you to these concepts to help you and more importantly your horse.  They may take several reads to understand but I will make this promise.  If you read and re-read this and every article to the end your horses will live a more healthy and vibrant life.  It may take some mental effort on your part now but the rewards you will have with your horses later more than make up for this.  (Go here to understand the benefits of removing grain from your horse's diet.)

Of course horses are not humans especially when it comes to the system that digests the eaten food.  For a moment though, let’s look at the similarities. Horses and humans both consume the same 7 things: air, water, electrolytes, minerals, sugar, fat and protein. Also in common is that whatever we bring into our bodies by swallowing is NOT inside of us. This is where it gets interesting. Nothing we eat is allowed into our bodies unless it is first broken down into molecules. These are very small and invisible to us but they do exist. Incredibly what makes these molecules that become absorbed into us and our horse are the gut microbes. We are actually feeding them and in turn, they feed us. This is a symbiotic relationship where two different organisms live closely together in a beneficial way.

A Perfect World

In a perfect world, we eat perfect food that was digested by groups of perfect bacteria spread throughout our GIT (gastrointestinal tract). These bacteria convert the food we feed them (the food they want and need to thrive) into the food we need to thrive. Included in this conversion is the bacteria’s ability to convert complex sugar (fiber) into fat which we absorbed for energy. That’s right! The green leafy vegetables of our salad is the complex sugar that our bacteria want. They in turn convert it into fat molecules our bodies absorb to thrive on. As such the salad can be considered a high fat diet. Just look at the example of the strength of our horses eating only pasture grasses.

The cells that make up humans and horses get energy from only 2 fuels: glucose (a sugar molecule) and ketones (a fat molecule). Either can fuel the furnace in the cell (the mitochondria) by supplying the energy needed to create the power to keep things alive. Think of the mitochondria as a generator that produces electricity when turned by a fuel such as wind (wind turbine), water (hydroelectric) or gas engine. Glucose or ketones are the fuel driving the generator within the mitochondria (the Krebs cycle) in every cell in the body.

But this isn’t a perfect world especially in the past 50 years. Our diets and that of the horse have dramatically changed and along with that the GIT bacteria have changed. Imagine a small town clean and vibrant with affluence filled with friendly families. The sun shines, flowers grow, children are safe on the streets, no crime - you get the idea. One day something changes and gangs are formed, crime erupts, pollution and sewage fill the streets and buildings decay. The town still exists and can be found on the map but it is no longer a healthy place to live.

What changed?

The “something” that changed this town, known as the GIT in humans and horses, is the food we started to feed the gut bacteria inhabiting the town. This altered food source has done two very bad things. First it caused the death of many of the normal or “good” bacteria and replaced them with opportunistic “bad” bacteria that do not supply the body with the nutrients we require to thrive. In addition both the new “bad” bacteria and the dead “good” bacteria break up into little pieces of cell debris called LPS (lipopolysaccharides) which are toxic to the gut wall causing inflammation and a leaking intestinal wall.

If that isn’t enough, some of these new foods were never eaten by us or the horse in the past and therefore they are foreign to our immune system. Like a splinter under the skin, a small infection starts at the gut wall caused by these foreign foods. But it gets worse. These foreign plants and seeds are pissed off. They too want to survive and don’t want to be eaten and die. In order to survive, these plants develop proteins that weaken and even kill animals that eat them.

There is more to discuss in future articles but I’m ending this here to give you a chance to become comfortable with the basic premise that we are feeding the bacterial microbes in our digestive tracts and they in turn are feeding us. Horses and humans have been around for several hundred times longer than the few thousand years grains (corn, wheat, oats and others) have existed as a common food source. I believe this is the reason why so many horses that have had grain removed from their diets have had success in resolving behavior and medical issues. It is the battle of survival of 1) the plant proteins (called lectins) and 2) the disruption of the normal “good” gut bacteria wrecking havoc on the peaceful village within the GIT.

Coming up:

What exactly are lectins? What is a leaking gut wall? How is insulin resistance related to this? How is a poor top line related to this? and more…

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