Last month we talked about how stress can cause ulcers in horses and this month I want to talk about how stress in horses can affect liver function. Liver health is essential for proper digestion, sugar metabolism, hormone production and detoxification. Stress and liver health are connected through the hormone, insulin. Occasional stress will strengthen the body’s defenses but chronic low grade stress will have the opposite effect. The liver is particularly damaged by chronic stress.
Critical liver functions in the body:
- Fat digestion
- Sugar metabolism
- Hormone production
How Stress Affects the Liver
Stress in horses causes an increase in the hormone cortisol which causes the liver to release glucose into the bloodstream and if there is a real danger then the glucose activates the fight or flee response. If the danger is not real but more of a chronic trigger then the body must produce insulin to lower the glucose levels in the blood. One way that insulin lowers sugar levels is to convert the sugar into fat. When sugar and insulin levels drop back to normal, the fat can be broken back down for energy but when stress is ongoing, insulin levels never drop to normal and fat can’t be broken down even with strict diets.
Normal stress reaction — increased cortisol — increased sugar released into bloodstream by liver — sugar used up by body energy output
Abnormal or chronic stress reaction — increased cortisol — increased sugar released into bloodstream by liver — insulin released by pancreas to lower sugar levels — sugar turned into fat which is deposited in tissues including the liver — weight gain, poor liver function, inability to breakdown fat stores
Chronic Stress and the Liver
Chronic stress in horses not only causes excess fat to accumulate in the external tissues but also in the internal organs such as the liver. A fat filled liver can’t perform its critical functions. Signs of poor liver function include general fatigue and lack of focus. Poor digestion is related to lack of bile production. Edema can occur as toxins build up in the tissues and lymphatic system. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the Liver is responsible for the smooth flow of Qi so general stiffness and chest pain are also signs of liver stress. TCM also looks at the liver as the organ that helps one adapt to one’s environment so poor liver function can be related to allergies.
Signs of poor liver function include:
- General fatigue and lack of focusing ability
- Poor fat digestion
- Stiffness and chest pain
Solutions for Coping with Stress
In our last newsletter we talked about what causes stress in horses and how to avoid stress when possible. For some horses chronic stress is part of their lives so steps must be taken to support good liver function in spite of it. Nux vomica is a classic homeopathic remedy that helps with liver stress from toxin build up or overeating. Nux is wonderful to help horses showing signs of stocking up or mild impaction colic. Nux is also helpful for horses showing irritability. Herbs that support liver function include milk thistle and dandelion root. Milk thistle can actually help damaged liver tissue regenerate and dandelion root will help with bile production.
High chlorophyll foods such and blue green algae have a protective and cleansing effect on liver tissue. Blue green algae and sprouted greens are also high in natural antioxidants which aid the liver in detoxifying the body. Certain nutritional mushrooms such as Maitake, Poria, Reishi and Cordyceps aid the liver by helping to lower sugar levels in the blood. Green foods in combination with nutritional mushrooms and spouted greens support the liver and kidneys in their roles of removing toxins from the body. Exercise is also critical for helping the Liver to move Qi and to lower insulin levels in the blood.
- Homeopathic Nux vomica
- Milk thistle and dandelion root
- High chlorophyll foods such as blue green algae and sprouted greens
- Nutritional mushrooms
Stress is part of many horses’ lives but its damaging effects can be kept to a minimum with proper support for the digestive tract and liver. In addition to the stress lowering steps mentioned in last month’s newsletter you may also want to consider your horse’s temperament. Different type and temperament horses respond differently to stress and will need different support for best results. Check out Horse Harmony to help you determine your horse’s temperament type and look at our Feeding Guide to help select the best products for your horse.
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