Proteins And Their Building Blocks Of Amino Acids
Protein is a word that describes a very large molecule made of smaller molecules called amino acids. A good way to look at this is to think of a protein as a word and an amino acid as a letter. When you text a message, you put together letters in the right amounts and in the right order to make a word. The blueprint in your DNA does the same thing by putting together the amino acids in the right quantities and in the right order to make a protein. The proteins do a lot of different things in the body, including connective tissue (muscle, tendons, ligaments), neurotransmitters (dopamine, acetylcholine), enzymes (protease, amylase), hormones (insulin, leptin), immune modulators (antigens, immunoglobulins) and hard tissues (hooves, hair).
There are between 1 and 3 Billion proteins per cell. There are only 20 amino acids that make all of these proteins. While this seems impossible, think that there are only 26 letters in the alphabet that makeup all the words in a dictionary. But if one letter is missing, there are many words you cannot make. No “W” then no “tomorroW.” Likewise, if one amino acid is missing, then many proteins cannot be made. This logic is why it is incredibly important to know the ingredients and not just the % of “protein” in the supplement. Different proteins supply different amino acids. Remember this when I talk of the deception later.
The Protein Recycling Program and the Chronic Deficiency of Proteins
With the exception of hair and hoof, proteins in the body don’t last long. On average, all proteins break down within 2 to 4 days into their amino acid parts, and these are reassembled through a sophisticated recycling program to preserve the amino acids. Horses in the wild have access to various protein sources throughout the growing season, where they stock up on proteins. But in the winter, attrition occurs as the horse loses some proteins. For example, a horse does not recycle the amino acids used to make the hoof or hair. These are permanently lost as they are lost to the environment. They then need replacing.
In a normal world, the horse would maintain the amount of protein to remain healthy by conserving and recycling amino acids and ingesting enough to replace lost material. However, in the current modern state of keeping horses, there are several reasons why horses are becoming chronically deficient. I will list them here and if some of these don’t make sense, then return to my previous blogs for a further explanation.
1) Carbohydrate dependency – This is the leading cause of protein loss. Let’s look at the normal horse eating only what is available outside at that time of the year. When sugar (glucose, fructose) is available in grains, seeds, fruit like apples, carrots and lush growing pastures, the horse uses it for cell fuel. But glucose is not an efficient fuel, and the cell becomes tired because the mitochondria become exhausted when converting it into energy. The result of this in most horses is adding body fat. The added body fat is OK in late summer and autumn because the message the body is receiving from sugar being available is that winter is coming. But there is little sugar available in the winter, which causes the horse to convert to using body fat (ketones) as the cell fuel. Ketones are a more efficient fuel, meaning the cell gets much more energy from ketones than glucose. This results in loss of body fat (good) and a rest for the mitochondria (also good).
When a horse eats sugar every day of the year (grain, treats), the mitochondria within the cell become exhausted, which in turn causes the cells to become sick and eventually die. They no longer do their job as they die, and illness and soundness issues appear. For example, mitochondrial dysfunction (death) is now the primary cause of tendon rupture in humans. How does this happen?
When the cell becomes weak, the brain thinks the body is dying. The brain determines that the cells need more fuel, so it converts proteins into sugars through gluconeogenesis. The result is a shrinking top line, a poor hair coat, poor hoof condition, and an assortment of diseases and lamenesses.
2) Lectins – these are plant proteins made to make ill and even kill predators such as humans and horses that eat the plant babies (seeds). You can read more about this, but in essence, these plant proteins can disrupt the tight junctions of the gut lining, causing leaking gut syndrome. They can also disrupt hormone communication by mimicking hormones making that hormone ineffective. For example, one such lectin called wheat germ agglutinin mimics insulin preventing the real insulin from delivering glucose to the cell. This one lectin leads to cell dysfunction and cell death, leading to gluconeogenesis and protein loss.
3) Grain byproducts – The plant lectins are concentrated in the outer layers of seeds. These layers are removed from foods made for humans and then given to animals. For example, whole grains have more lectins; therefore, the wheat hulls are removed to make white wheat flour. The hulls are the wheat middlings and bran used in almost every commercial horse feed. Remember wheat germ agglutinin above? Most Asians eat white rice as they know the outer layer called rice bran is not good to eat. Therefore, rice bran is often found in horse feed.
4) Medicines – Proton pump inhibitors used as anti-ulcer medications raise the stomach’s pH, making it less acid. The purpose of stomach acid is to kill foreign bacteria (including the probiotics you feed) and to break apart the very large proteins into smaller pieces for digestion. If the proteins are not adequately predigested in the stomach, they will pass out of the horse undigested. This adds to protein deficiency.
5) Gut microbe dysbiosis – this means that the bacteria that normally inhabit the gut are not happy. This leads to many dying or dead “good” bacteria and the growth of bad bacteria. If you consider that all the food you place into the horse is there to feed the gut bacteria and NOT the horse, you will quickly understand how important it is to provide the right food. If the gut bacteria are dying, then deficiencies will occur in many nutrients because the gut bacteria create the fuel that feeds the mitochondria of the cells.
6) Feeding seed oils – Any seed oil fed to a horse, such as corn, vegetable or soybean oils, will bind to the dead parts of the gut bacteria called lipopolysaccharide, and together they form a devastating particle able to penetrate the gut wall. As they appear on the inside of the horse, they create a five-alarm fire of inflammation which causes ulceration and an influx of white blood cells, what you see as a fractious horse unhappy with being groomed, cinched or girthed, trailered or ridden.
All of these items listed above either consume an excessively high amount of protein or prevent absorption of the needed essential amino acids. The result is the same: chronic protein deficiency when the causes go on year after year.
Marketing is an everyday part of life. We all do it. As a child, when we wanted something from our parents, we marketed using whatever facial expressions we could muster as well as pulling on every available heart string. When our parents told us no, we didn’t like it, and we resolved to do better marketing in the future.
We see a familiar pattern as you open the magazines and look at the marketing of items made to improve our horses’ lives. It goes like this. You and your horse have a problem (old, lame, sick) or COULD have a problem (colic, founder, not win). We have a solution (product, service, food, supplement). You, the consumer and caregiver and horse trainer, want a happy horse, so you trust that the product you are about to purchase is well tested and will do no harm. The belief is enforced when you see your horse enjoying the product.
The deception occurs when you stop and think about what you are feeding your horses and then ask if what you are providing is actually helping your horses. If not, you attempt to read the ingredients to determine if the food ingredients are to be blamed. Here is where you get stuck because, unfortunately, your efforts reveal that this is not as simple as it seems. Not only are there long words of unfamiliar ingredients, but they have also changed since the last time you read the label. Unfortunately, this happens all the time.
Today I recommend as a protein source for horses, soybean meal (SBM) that is de-hulled with the oil solvent or pressure extracted and with only a flow agent added (lanolin).
I once encouraged people to purchase a protein source called ProAdd Ultimate made by Progressive Nutrition and owned by Nutrena. When I did, the ingredients were listed in a way I thought would not be too harmful to horses. The first few ingredients (the main ingredients listed in order of amount in the product) were something useful to the horse followed by some less useful ingredients. Unfortunately, over the past year, the company has changed the ingredients such that I can no longer recommend it. Apparently in manufacturing a product, ingredients are changed and re-ordered all the time due to economics or due to technical issues with the machines. For example, in human food, corn syrup is used to lubricate the machines and its removal would require retooling the machines. For this reason, corn syrup is in a lot of food manufactured for human consumption.
What I Recommend Now
SBM is inexpensive and should be fed a pound a day for a horse weighing 1000 to 1400 pounds with only pasture, water, salt and hay (grass plus a flake of alfalfa). This should be continued until the signs of protein deficiency are gone (improved top line, hair coat, hooves, resolved diseases). After this, the amount can be reduced, eliminated or given on occasion. Think of adding SBM as a treatment as you are treating a protein deficiency. Once the gut has restored itself to normal and protein loss minimized then the amino acid recycling program should be enough to maintain the protein levels in most horses.
PLEASE NOTE: If you are afraid of feeding SBM due to GMO, glyphosate, feminization (estrogen) or political reasons – don’t be. There are no recorded problems with feeding SBM to horses due to these concerns and since 1973, I have had no adverse reactions to feeding SBM. Chronic protein deficiency has been devastating to the health of the horse. We need to fix that now and SBM (without sugar added and without grains and treats and other supplements) seems to work the best to resolve this in most horses.