There are specific foods that can aid and support a healthy equine immune system. Stress, nutritional deficiencies, and aging can affect the appropriate functionality of the immune system. This can result in pathogens being able to breach the defense systems of the body.
Stress: can come from environmental factors, chronic conditions such as ulcers, as well as competitions, shipping, injuries, lay up, metabolic imbalances, and daily training.
Nutritional deficiencies: can result from not enough forage and hay, as well as low-quality hay. Deficiencies can also occur when feeding processed feeds if the recommended amount per day is not fed. Some nutritional deficiencies are a result of metabolic issues such as PSSM, EPSM, and HYPP.
Age: older horses can have weaker immune systems due to the aging process.
Digestive health: It is often said that the GI tract is the seat of the immune system. This is because 60% of lymphatic tissue surrounds the digestive tract. The lymphatic system provides barriers to infection and plays a critical role in immune responses.
What we feed is not only about protein, fat, fiber, carbohydrates, and calories; it is also about the quality of the food itself. The question we want to ask of every feed and supplement we use is, “Are these ingredients going to decrease stress on the GI tract or increase stress on the GI tract?”
Important foods for the immune system:
Bovine colostrum: contains over 80 different immune factors including specific immunoglobulins (antibodies) that are a critical part of the immune response because they bind to antigens like bacteria and viruses. Bovine colostrum also provides the PRPs (proline-rich polypeptides), that have a unique ability to regulate the thymus gland, which is the master of the immune system. Bovine colostrum’s activity is measured by the percentage of immunglobulin G, known as IgG. The higher the IgG is, the more potent the colostrum.
Spirulina: known as blue-green algae, is a phyto-nutrient dense food. Recent studies have shown that it can augment interferon production and can protect against intracellular pathogens. In animal studies spirulina has shown to be an effective immunomodulator: suppressing the release of histamines; making spirulina a very important food for horses with allergies.
Medicinal Mushrooms: used for thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine, recent research demonstrates the remarkable immunological properties of these fungi. The most studied medicinal mushrooms include: Turkey Tail, Reishi, Shitake, Cordycepts, and Maitake.
Coconut Oil: provides two important immune support compounds: lauric acid and caprylic acid. Lauric acid is converted into monolaurin in the body, which has anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-protozoa properties. Caprylic acid is beneficial for dealing with fungal infections.
Supportive foods for the equine immune system:
Antioxidant Fruits: apples, oranges, pomegranates, kiwi, papaya, mangoes, blueberries provide specific nutrients and antioxidant compounds such as: vitamin C, quercitin, bioflavonoids, polyphenols, and anthocyanins. Antioxidants can help reduce oxidative stress, and reduce inflammation.
Adaptogenic Herbs: plants categorized as adaptogens are those herbs that must specifically reduce stress, be completely safe and non-toxic, and have a normalizing action (neither over stimulating nor inhibiting normal body systems functions). Adaptogens exert a tonifying effect. Key adaptogenic herbs for horses include: Ashwaganda, Holy Basil, Ginseng, Maca, Rhodiola Rosea, and Schisandra.
Antioxidant Vegetables: carrots, squash, pumpkin seeds, kale, and alfalfa provide important antioxidant vitamins such as beta- carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E.
Flax seeds, and chia seeds: these mucilaginous seeds coat the mucous membranes and prevent irritation of the nerve endings. This is especially beneficial to the GI tract. Flax and chia seeds are excellent food sources of omega 3 fatty acids, and provide anti-inflammatory actions.
Hemp seed oil: one of the best sources of GLA (Gamma Linoleic Acid), which the body uses to reduce the inflammatory prostaglandins. GLA is particularly beneficial to the GI tract and specific to the hindgut.
Camelina oil: provides the perfect ratio of omega 3:6:9, and is one of the richest food sources of the antioxidant vitamin E.
Remember the foundation of a healthy immune system begins in the gut. Reducing stress, and providing quality hay and forage and feed is essential. If your horse shows early signs of stress it is important not to ignore those signs.