Think of the Doughnut hole, the space filled with air going from the top to the bottom of the Doughnut. Now place your finger in the Doughnut and wear it like a ring. Is there any question that the hole is NOT the Doughnut? Yet without the Doughnut, there would be no hole. Placing your finger within the hole doesn’t really place it within the Doughnut. Your finger is outside the Doughnut but within the Doughnut hole.
Go ahead if you must. Eat the Doughnut.
Now think of your body. Doesn’t it too have a hole through it? It starts at the mouth and ends at the anus. Food goes in, and something that doesn’t look like what you ate comes out the other end. This process is true for your horse though many only see money go in and something that doesn’t look like money comes out the other end.
We can all agree that a tube runs through us much like a Doughnut hole (or some people think of it as a road tunnel going under a body of water with cars going through it). But, can we also agree that what we eat is not inside us? Like the finger within the Doughnut hole, food is within the tube called the digestive tract and NOT within our body.
The Magic of Digestion
The magic of digestion is the process where the food we eat breaks down into small parts so small that no machine can see them yet. These small parts are molecules absorbed through the skin of the digestive tract tube into the body. Just like the coffee that filled the hole gets soaked into the Doughnut.
I did say the “skin” of the digestive tract because it is like the skin on the outside of the body, only different. Our skin keeps dirt and germs out unless the skin becomes damaged. If cut, scraped, bruised, burned or otherwise broken, then the bacteria on our skin and even the cloud around us (yes, you CAN smell trouble coming) will enter the body when it is not supposed to. Our bodies fight the infection using the immune system and a building and repair system to close the wound. And this all happens without thought.
The skin of the digestive tract also defends against invasion with two mechanisms. The first is a one-cell layer thick covering with very tight junctions between the cells, and the second is a layer of mucus. The tight junctions keep things physically out of the body, and the mucus traps foreign and unwanted foods and carries them out without them being absorbed.
If the mucus layer is destroyed, the underlying cell layer becomes exposed to unwanted material. Several things can do this, from foods that are not friendly to the horse to antibiotics to medication to prevent ulcers.
Suppose the tight junctions between the layer of cells lining the digestive tract become inflamed because of foreign material. In that case, the tube becomes leaky, allowing unwanted foreign material to get into the body like a cut to the skin. Unfortunately, it also allows what is inside the body to leak out. Overall, what is supposed to get in to give us energy and nutrition is used immediately to build and repair. However, over time this process can eventually scar the digestive tract to a point where it no longer works.
Good Protein Versus Bad Protein
Next time you eat food or feed your horse think about the Doughnut hole and the efforts the digestive tract makes to keep bad things out while also allowing good things in. For example, water is always allowed in and passes freely into the body one molecule at a time. Likewise, good protein breaks down into an amino acid molecule, which is absorbed into the body and then reassembled into the protein you or your horse needs.
Did I say “good protein?” Yes, there are bad proteins and plenty of them. The mucus layer traps them and carries them away. But if the layer is compromised and the bad proteins contact the cells, then they damage the cells, cause the gut to leak and mount an inflammatory response.
Where can these “bad proteins” be found? They are in all grains, bran and beans. It is why I am shouting from the top of my barn – “Stop feeding grain to horses!” It is why the signs of grain intolerance in horses are eliminated within 1 to 2 weeks of removing all grain from the diet. See previous blogs, especially last week’s blog titled “No Sweat,” where non-sweating horses start to sweat after the removal of grain. It is also why some horses become fat when looking at a bucket of grain while other “poor keepers” can’t gain a pound when fed a bucket of grain twice a day. It explains bad behavior, especially a poor work ethic (fusses when groomed, bucking when ridden, unwilling to load into a trailer). And, of course, colic, skin allergies, Cushing’s disease, metabolic syndrome, dropped pasterns, tying up, and assorted other ailments that have exploded in incidence over the past 40 years.
I should know because most of these problems did not exist when I started with horses in 1973. Some were not even in the veterinary textbooks, not because we didn’t understand them, but because they didn’t exist. There were few grain stores and no fancy, four-color bags filled with every kind of grain mix and printed with words you couldn’t even pronounce.
Keep reading the other blogs here on Horsemanship Nutrition. In the meantime, take the 2-week no-grain challenge and think of the Doughnut hole. You will discover a new horse in your barn, and you will like what you find.