Leaky Gut Syndrome

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Leaky Gut Syndrome in Horses

Leaky Gut Syndrome has been examined and researched in humans for years but there has been difficulty with a direct and definitive diagnosis. This condition has also been suspected in other animals, including the horse.

Leaky Gut Syndrome involves inflammation of the gut lining of a horse; meaning the cell barrier between the gut lining and blood stream has been compromised. The junctions between these cells are tight and are selective with the type (size) of compounds that can pass through. Once that tight junction resistance is compromised, toxins and pathogens are able to leach into the blood. When the gut’s microbiome is challenged, inflammation caused by pathogens can weaken the gut lining, resulting in Leaky Gut Syndrome.

Leaky Gut Syndrome is difficult to diagnose, thus difficult to establish a cause for an unhealthy condition. More often than not, the diagnostic process consists of eliminating known clinical causes to reach the default judgment of leaky gut in horses.

The health problems suggested that may contribute to leaky gut and are associated with systemic inflammation include equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), insulin resistance (IR), laminitis, irritable bowel, celiac disease (human disease), colitis, dermatitis, and allergies.

Leaky Gut Syndrome (image courtesy of Kemin, Inc.)

The key word is “suggested” for these health issues since there has not been any definitive cause and effect evidence. Nevertheless, there is good evidence for the “cause” that toxins and pathogens can penetrate the cell barrier between the gut lining and blood stream. Although diagnosis and treatments are not well established, the data is progressing, and this scientist believes the concern for leaky gut makes “biological sense.”

Popular Research on Leaky Gut

 There is current research specifically with horses by Dr. Liara Gonzalez, North Carolina State University. According to Dr. Gonzalez, … “This protective barrier is very sensitive to small changes from stress, colic, or disease.”  She has also suggested “that early life stress—weaning, early separation, and nutritional deficiencies—correlates with a likelihood of intestinal inflammation later in life.” There is also solid research regarding heat stress in food animals (dairy, swine) by Dr. Lance Baumgard, Iowa State University. Feed restrictions, feed transitions, weaning, heat stress, intense exercise have been associated as causative factors with leaky gut.

Granted this syndrome is complicated but there is biological reasoning that may help explain the “unexplained” body inflammations. Horse owners know that a sudden change in a horse’s diet will upset the gut’s microbial population balance. The microbes do not like a change in their environment, particularly a change in the gut’s pH. For example, a sudden feeding change such as alfalfa to grass hay or grass to alfalfa; or feeding high starch feeds without an acclimation period or continuing to feed high starch (grain) feed when the horse is idle and no longer working. The gut’s microbiome clearly has an influence on gut heath and has a significant influence on the body’s immune system. There are assertions that 80% of one’s immune system is located in the gut.

Nutritional Management for Leaky Gut

1)  Overweight/obese and/or inactive horses appear to be more susceptible.

    • Obesity is associated with inflammation of body tissues.

2)  Feed high fiber grass forages at recommended levels relative to body weight and production level.

    • Avoid empty gut syndrome; that is, meal feeding with significant time gaps between meals; feed hay more frequently or feed via slow hay feeder.
    • High-fiber diets increase intestinal bacteria’s butyrate production; butyric acid is a 4-carbon volatile fatty acid (VFA) and one of three primary VFA’s produced in the hindgut by microbial digestion (fermentation). Butyric acid appears to be an energy source for the epithelial cells and thereby a readily available source of energy for the repair of these cells.

3)  Feed low starch/sugar balanced formulas to complement the forage portion of the diet.

4)  Promote gut health via a stable microbial environment (specially pH). Feeding soluble fibers, beet pulp and soy hulls, promotes gut health.

5)  Feeding probiotics (specifically Kemin’s Bacillus subtilus aka PB6) may benefit gut health.

    • All Integrity balanced formulas contain Kemin’s Bacillus subtilus (aka CLOSTAT®& PB6) and ButiPEARL® Z EQ, a combination of zinc and butyric acid.
    • According to Kemin… “PB6 secretes an active substance which helps maintain the balance of microflora in the gut. When unbalanced, pathogens can multiply and damage the gut lining, results in Leaky Gut Syndrome (LGS).”
    • Kemin’s ButiPEARL®Z EQ is a combination of zinc and butyric acid (four carbon VFA). Kemin’s states that ButiPEARL “strengthens the lining of the gut, leading to improved nutrient absorption and a stronger barrier against pathogens, parasites and toxins.”

Clearly more data and understanding are needed. Gut health is fundamental for a healthy horse. A balanced diet, high in fiber, is important for gut health of the horse, thus important to immune health. Learn more about gut & immune health at Dr. Bray’s Corner.

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