I am trying to make sense of things, but I keep coming up short when determining why grain causes many issues in horses. My search has led me to an idea based on human nutrition research. In this and other blogs I am writing over the next several weeks, I will introduce you to these concepts to help you and, more importantly, your horse. They may take several reads to understand, but I will make this promise. If you read and re-read this and every article to the end, your horses will live healthier and more vibrant lives. It may take some mental effort on your part now, but the rewards you will have with your horses later make up for this. (Go here to understand the benefits of removing grain from your horse’s diet.)
Of course, horses are not humans, especially in the system that digests the eaten food. For a moment, though, let’s look at the similarities. Horses and humans consume the same seven things: air, water, electrolytes, minerals, sugar, fat and protein. Also, whatever we bring into our bodies by swallowing is NOT inside us. This is where it gets interesting. Nothing we eat is allowed into our bodies unless it is first broken down into molecules. These are very small and invisible to us, but they do exist. Incredibly what makes these molecules that become absorbed into us and our horses are the gut microbes. We are feeding them, and in turn, they feed us. This relationship is symbiotic, where two different organisms live closely together in a beneficial way.
A Perfect World
In a perfect world, we eat ideal food digested by groups of perfect bacteria spread throughout our GIT (gastrointestinal tract). These bacteria convert the food we feed them (the food they want and need to thrive) into the food we need to thrive. This conversion includes the bacteria’s ability to convert complex sugar (fiber) into fat, which we absorb for energy. That’s right! The green leafy vegetables of our salad are the complex sugar that our bacteria want. They, in turn, convert it into fat molecules our bodies absorb to thrive on. As such, salad can be considered a high-fat diet. But, again, look at the example of the strength of our horses eating only pasture grasses.
The cells that make humans and horses get energy from mostly two fuels: glucose (a sugar molecule) and free fatty acids (a fat molecule). Either can fuel the furnace in the cell (the mitochondria) by supplying the fuel needed to create the power to keep things alive. Think of the mitochondria as a generator that produces electricity when turned by fuel such as wind (wind turbine), water (hydroelectric) or gas engine (combustion). Glucose or fat is the fuel driving the generator within the mitochondria (the Krebs cycle) in every cell in the body.
But this isn’t a perfect world, especially in the past 50 years. Our diets and that of the horse have dramatically changed, and the GIT bacteria have changed. Imagine a small town that is clean and vibrant with affluence and filled with friendly families. The sun shines, flowers grow, children are safe on the streets, no crime – you get the idea. Then, one day something changes. Gangs form, crime erupts, pollution and sewage fill the streets and buildings decay. The town still exists and can be found on the map, but it is no longer a healthy place to live.
The “something” that changed this town, known as the GIT in humans and horses, is the food we started to feed the gut bacteria inhabiting the town. Unfortunately, this altered food source has done two very bad things. First, it caused the death of many normal or “good” bacteria and replaced them with opportunistic “bad” bacteria that do not supply the body with the nutrients we require to thrive. In addition, both the new “bad” bacteria and the dead “good” bacteria break up into little pieces of cell debris called LPS (lipopolysaccharides) which are toxic to the gut wall, causing inflammation and a leaking intestinal wall.
If that isn’t enough, some of these new foods were never eaten by the horse or us in the past; therefore, they are foreign to our immune system. Like a splinter under the skin, a small infection starts at the gut wall caused by these foreign foods. But it gets worse. These alien plants and seeds are pissed off. They, too, want to survive and don’t want to be eaten and die. To survive, these plants develop proteins that weaken and even kill animals that eat them.
There is more to discuss in future articles, but I’m ending this here to let you become comfortable with the basic premise that we are feeding the bacterial microbes in our digestive tracts, and they, in turn, are feeding us. Horses and humans have been around for several hundred times longer than the few thousand years grains (corn, wheat, oats and others) have existed as a common food source. I believe this is why so many horses that have had grain removed from their diets have successfully resolved behavior and medical issues. It is the battle of survival of 1) the plant proteins (called lectins) and 2) the disruption of the normal “good” gut bacteria wreaking havoc on the peaceful village within the GIT.
What exactly are lectins? What is a leaking gut wall? How is insulin resistance related to this? How is a poor top line related to this? and more…