Principal Body System: Integumentary
Definition: The skin and structures derived from it, i.e. hair, sweat, oil glands.
Function: Helps regulate body temperature; protects the body; eliminates wastes; synthesizes Vit.D; receives certain stimuli, i.e. temperature, pressure and pain.
Skin is the largest organ in the body by far. Yet, we rarely stop to think about skin health other than slathering lotions and potions on in hopes of a glow or a shine. Many in the field of dermatology tell us that the key to better skin is whatever they’re selling. In functional medicine, we definitely pay attention to what we put on the body, but even more important is what you put in the body.
Basically, "If we shouldn't eat it, we shouldn't be putting it on our skin!"
Dr Mark Hyman, Americal physician, NY Times best selling author, founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Centre
Beauty really does come from within - imbalance hormones, stress, a poor diet, nutrient deficiencies, and leaky gut all create skin issues. Yet skin is amazing! It should never be underestimated - we couldn't be without it, literally, because it’s the primary protective organ of the body, protecting the body from injury, from damaging light and chemicals, from temperature extremes, and it's also the body's armour from invasion of pathogens. It’s elastic, waterproof and self-mending, renewing itself constantly and adapting to fit the body perfectly, from birth to esteemed old age.
The horse's skin is also incredibly sensitive - look at the way it flinches when a fly lands on it. Shampoos, fly repellents, midges, and toxic pollens such as buttercups - my pink-muzzled connemara, Murphy, has had buttercup toxicosis erupt on his muzzle like a thousand bee stings. Then there's mud, bacteria, or a nutrient-deprived diet - all potential irritants to the skin, causing an abundance of intense conditions that affect thousands of equines.
The skin is the largest organ, communicating with the rest of the body through the lymphatic system, liver and kidneys, collectively the body’s very sophisticated natural detoxing and elimination system, or what I refer to as the 3-Amigos. These 3-amigos work closely together to keep the skin beautiful so if one vital link is overburdened with too much toxicity, the skin will show it (more on this below).
And it works both ways - would you believe, the skin is responsible for eliminating around a quarter of the body’s waste products - a huge percentage! - so in itself it has an enormous job to do. So you can see how any dysfunction in or on the skin will put major stress on the 3-Amigos.
That said, the skin would also be nothing without the digestive, immune and nervous systems as well. Skin needs an optimal digestive function to assimilate the nutrients it relies on, and a healthy blood supply to delivery them; it needs a strong immunity to protect it from external invasions, and it needs a balanced nervous system to keep it calm and non-acidic (again, more on this below).
The skin’s main role is clear - it provides a wall between the body's internal organs and the outside world. There's even a childhood song - “Skin … keeps your insides in!” Skin is the barrier that protects the body from infection, pollution and parasites, but it’s not just a physical barrier; a big part of its function is invisible as it also has it's own microbiome, upon which it utterly depends. Just like the gut, the skin has its own population of good and negative bacteria, viruses and fungi, and it's these microorganisms that form an extra layer of protection for our horses.
Simple fact - what we apply to skin topically means it gets absorbed and travels through the bloodstream. Even small amounts of toxic ingredients in skin products - parabens, phthalates, fragrances - can add up and contribute to endocrine disorders, hormone disruption, heart disease and cancer, to name a few. Which means ... it's a big Thumbs Down for topical antibiotic creams.
A big Thumbs Down for topical antibiotic creams
In our human world, if we believed the dermatology, plastic surgery, and cosmetic industries, we should all be slathering on numerous products to get great skin and make us look better. Of course, these industries have a wide range of these products to sell us!
Many dermatology products such as steroid creams, peelers and antibiotics taken by mouth, can harm us long term by wrecking our gut, because part of the skin’s protective armoury is that it secretes its own antimicrobial substances, as well as harbouring its own natural community of friendly bacteria, which protect the skin against unfriendlies by creating an unfriendly environment right back at them. Which means … a topical antibiotic therapy will disrupt the external skin biome, opening the door for infections.
Just as the internal gut biome protects the body against toxins getting inside us, the skin biome protects against external infections. The friendly microbes help heal wounds, combat allergens, and even slow the aging (oxidation) process. However, just as oral antibiotics destroy the gut microbiome, topical antibiotic ointments have the same effect - they kill off the skin microbes, including the friendly microbes that the body needs to function healthily.
Antibiotics kill bacteria indiscriminately, destroying the good bacteria along with the bad, so our horses' natural defense system against infection will be wiped out. And sometimes that destruction is permanent - studies are now showing that a microbiome never fully recovers following a course of antibiotics, so any short-term benefits can be a long term recipe for wrecking your horse's skin biome, making their skin more susceptible to infections in the future.
For the full eye-opening story on the amazing microbiome, see our Microbiome page in our Gut System chapter - its function is so integral to the health of the body that science is now calling the microbiome 'the hidden organ'.
Meanwhile, see our page on natural alternatives to topical antibiotic creams, link also below.
Beauty comes from within
As the saying goes, 'Beauty comes from within' - if your horse has skin problems, it's usually a sign of something else going on in the body, and it's usually down to three factors:
- First up, the way to prolonged healthy skin is about what nutrients we feed into the body to create a clean inner environment - not about what we put on the body, and especially not anything oily as this blocks one of the major toxin elimination channels - the sweat pores - more on this in Point 3. It's all about what we feed, and we really shouldn't be putting anything on any part of the body that we - or the skin host (our horse) - wouldn’t eat, because what goes on topically gets absorbed into the bloodstream and straight to the liver for metabolising.
- Second, that old chestnut again, Stress. A stressed state, especially a chronic stressed state, triggers the stress survival hormones, adrenalin and cortisol. These two basically flood the body, including the skin, with acid, so we don't taste nice for when the tiger bites us. Yes this is ancient DNA stuff dating back to when we all lived in caves, but this survival process is still hardwired into us mammals today. This nasty acid? It prematurely ages the body. By contrast, when the body isn't stressed, or at least having some happy restful down-time, two happy hormones - dopamine and serotonin - are released, which are alkaline in nature. These two, plus a healthy diet, creates a little-known natural secretion called ojas, an Ayurvedic term which literally means 'nature’s beauty serum'. Ojas is a lovely, friendly alkaline antidote to the acid released from stress. It's literally anti-aging, or, as some call it, the body's natural honey. Ojas is considered to be the most refined by-product of digestion, and can take up to 30-days plus to create, so you can only imagine that in our current pressured day and age we all live in, during this time there'll be many factors trying to hinder the production of this natural wonder.
- Topical oils will also destroy the natural skin biome balance. A quick digress back to human world, and the cosmetic industry seems to be a wholesale dumping ground for just about every single type of chemical that exists. From lead compounds, mercury compounds, formaldehyde, aluminium - there are multiple different horrible compounds that make it into the cosmetic industry, such as SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate) and other artificial foaming agents that are used in detergents, shampoos, body lotions … the list goes on. And as for beauty creams, the chemical range is almost too huge to mention, and they’re also loaded with toxins, most of them containing synthetic fragrance chemicals too. I've read a report out there (which typically I now can't lay my hands on) on a lab analysis carried out on a popular perfume which had an astonishing 21 different potentially carcinogenic toxic chemicals in it’s composition, none of which were listed on the label. Sadly, many of these toxins make their way into many non-organic equine products.
Thing is, with the skin being the most visible - and biggest - organ of the body, understandably it's all too easy to slap on a cream or oil to make it shine, or smear on a topical antibiotic to make it better, or puncture it with injectable steroids in the hope that this will fix a skin 'problem'.
Here's the rub - unless the immune system is strong enough to deal with the chemical composition - and resulting toxic residues - from these products, the issue(s) will be buried even deeper, as well as overloading more dangerous toxins into an already overburdened system.
Skin health is much deeper than skin-deep
Gut imbalances, food intolerances (alfalfa is a renowned skin irritant) and nutrient deficiencies all contribute to the health of the whole body, yet I guarantee will present outwardly on the skin. Remember, as I said above, the skin is responsible for eliminating around a quarter of the body’s waste products so if the skin's not happy, the rest of the body's function will be stressed.
What we see as a skin issue is more likely to be a whole-body, poor immunity issue, so let's focus a bit more on the part the 3-Amigos play. First up, skin (and the lungs) rely entirely upon the lymphatic system to drain toxins and congestion away, so if the lymphatics are overburdened and clogged up, the skin will be too.
Think of the lymphatics as the body's drainage canal, with the lymph (the clear fluid) as the canal where all the junk is dumped, which after then filtering itself through the lymph nodes, drains the remaining impurities into the bloodstream which heads onwards to the kidneys first to dump the water-soluble toxins off, then the liver to dump off the fat-soluble toxins.
The kidneys draw water from the body into the mix and shuttles it all off and out via the bladder. The liver sends the fat-soluble toxins into the large intestine to be eliminated out via the solid waste. This is a finite act of synergy between the lymph, blood, kidneys and liver, and without them able to working together in harmony, the skin's going to have a real problem.
The way to healthy skin is about what nutrients we feed into the body, and not about putting something on the body, especially a topical, clogging, petrochemical oil which suffocates every pore, so the body then can't naturally sweat to evaporate the toxins out. Cue one skin-issue cycle.
The annual spring/autumn coat change - time for a liver/kidney tonic
The spring/autumn coat change can be a taxing time for the horse’s two main detoxification organs, the liver and kidneys, as this is the time when the whole protein metabolism is renewed. Old proteins are degraded and new proteins are created, which puts pressure on the liver to biotransform (metabolise) the old proteins for the kidneys to then excrete, which then puts extra burden on the kidneys to excrete all the excess urea created by this excess of protein metabolism.
The autumn coat change is particularly burdensome on not only these two vital detoxification organs, but also on the lymphatic system, with lymph now overrun with the excess protein toxins, so it becomes sluggish, often presenting as lymph pads over the body, with the coat starting to look rough, occasionally unexpected itchiness and often accompanied by poor quality hooves. Owners can understandably become confused, thinking their horse is laying down fat, when it’s actually stagnating lymph building up all over the body.
If you watch a horse in nature, you'll see them enthusiastically head for nettles, the last of the green birch leaves, field horsetail, thistles and what’s left of the yarrow, many of these all supporting the natural function of the liver and kidneys to make the coat change a little easier. Hence, again it's our LKL-CARE to support liver, kidneys and lymphatics. Also useful is our WildFed blend sprinkled over their hay, which adds beneficial nutrient diversity to their diet.
If you’re seeing clear early markers for kidney issues, i.e. poor coat quality, hoof horn problems such as thrush, abscesses or white line disease, or immunity issues, i.e. a tendency towards infections or poor wound healing, then this might also a good time to consider a full-body detox with our OptimaCARE programme, which comes as a 3-stage protocol, stage-1 addressing hindgut function, stage-2 for the liver/kidneys, and stage-3 toning both circulatory systems, blood and lymphatics.
The winter coat has a very clear energy-saving function, giving horses their thick winter jacket until the nights are warmer, so as horses get older, the longer they’ll hold onto their winter coat in spring. Older horses often find it easier in the spring if they're supported with liver/kidney herbs and supplemented with sulphur, as sulphur is needed to build hair. Sulphur deficiency is difficult to identify in blood tests, but we can visibly see the symptoms of sulphur deficiency in skin, hair and hooves – all kidney markers.
Typically we’ll see poor skin regeneration, poor coat change/shedding. Over time they’ll lose long hair so develop a thinner mane/tail. As for hooves, they’re built from keratin which has very high content of sulphur amino acids. Typical signs are very slow hoof growth, i.e. not needing your hoof pro for ages. Weak/soft soles, footy, poor hoof horn quality – all likely a sulphur deficiency. Have a read of our KPU page as this doesn’t tend to happen in healthy horses.
We can supplement with MSM (true sulphur), but here’s a thing - if you start feeding MSM then the symptoms mysteriously improve, perhaps we should ask Why they might be sulphur-deficient.
Long and short, it’s always a good plan to support liver/kidney function as we head into autumn and come out of winter as these vital detoxification organs have to work extra hard when the coat changes.
Let's have a look at the well-known coat/skin issues
Truly the worst of all Dark-Side torments of skin problems, and which I have first-hand experience of with two horses.
Always previously thought to be the autoimmune response to the Culicoides midge, new research (2021) is now showing that the primary issue with sweet itch is not a skin issue - it’s a gut issue relating to dysbiosis in the hind gut. The microbiome is massively disturbed, with extensive inflammation in the gut walls which leads to a high histamine level. This triggers a hyper immune reaction making it extremely sensitive to allergic reactions, which means a huge increase in toxins.
Now the kidneys get involved as they now have to excrete so many extra toxins that they become overloaded and unable to excrete everything, so the kidneys use the emergency detox pathway – the skin. Cue an excess of toxin excretion via the skin surface, which causes the skin surface to itch like crazy, especially during summer when there’s additional insect bites. So, not only should we cover the skin but also seriously address kidney and liver health.
If it’s obvious that there’s itchy skin, we should also be asking the question, Why are the kidneys not working properly? Working upstream, if the skin has a problem the kidneys have a problem, which means the liver is overburdened, which is going to affect the whole biotransformation process of the toxins, so the kidneys can’t excrete them. This takes us further upstream to the gut system, and here’s where it all starts again – a gut imbalance. Too many toxins coming in, with not enough important nutrients, so the liver and kidneys can’t do their job. So, the body uses the skin as an emergency pathway for excretion, and herein lies the classic symptoms for sweet itch - and also mallenders – all typical symptoms when the kidneys aren’t working normally anymore.
Feed our SwItchTonic blend during the typical sweet itch season, alongside our SwItchGel for topical support if needed. NB: Linseed has also been found to help control itchy skin symptoms as a result of the Culicoides midge bite (Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research, October 2002)
October'21 - Edited to add : New research this year is now showing that sweet itch could be connected to a now widespread, multi-metabolic detoxification disorder called Cryptopyrroluria, aka KPU. See our KPU page for the full story.
Basically meaning lumpy swellings, usually small-ish, that can appear anywhere on the body. Also known as ‘nettle-rash’ amongst other nicknames, the medical term is ‘urticaria’.
There are differing schools of thought as to what causes hives – they’re commonly thought of as an allergic reaction but the source can be tricky to track – they can erupt due to anything from environmental allergens such as bedding or pollens, to medications, food, and topical creams. It’s also thought that an outbreak of hives can be influenced by a compromised immune system.
The best way to deal with hives is, of course, to eliminate the source of the problem, but sometimes it's not that easy. Knowing generally the kind of things that might cause hives, my first suggestion would be to look over a horse’s recent regime – has anything changed? Any changes in medication, topicals, feed or hay? How about environment factors – any extreme changes in temperature, i.e. extreme heat or cold, exercise routine, or any new stressors? If you can spot one, eliminate. If not, go for an immunity reset to clear out potential toxins from the liver, kidneys and lymphatics - see our LKL-CARE blend.
Topical skin bacteria, where the skin, typically on the heel, fetlock and pastern, can be affected, mainly occurring during the wet autumn/winter months with mud thought to be the source, although this syndrome can be just as bad during the summer months. Straw beds can also affect pasterns which may be sensitive to the sharp, chopped edges of the straw, which can also be covered with various bacteria.
This type of response is thought to be caused by an opportunistic bacteria, Dermatophilus congolensis, getting in via breaks in the skin and causing the skin to swell, stretch, crack and weep, causing hair loss and hard scabs forming; if not caught in time it spreads and spreads. Horrid. And very sore for our horses.
Again, poor diet, lowered immunity and mineral deficiency don't help, with zinc and copper deficiencies linked with poor wound healing, and mud derma issues being linked directly with a lack of copper in the diet. See our BioGel.
Usually afflicting our heavier feathered horses. Mites certainly seem to be a factor in the feathers, but at the heart of this afflicting condition lies an over-production of keratin, the key structural protein that makes up hair, nails, horns, claws, hooves, and the outer layer of skin.
Excessive keratin production causes painful crusts, cracks and scabs in the skin on the legs - the term Mallenders relates to the front legs, Sallenders in front of the hocks on the hinds - which become thickened, cracked, and incredibly painful - owners can be driven to distraction trying to keep on top of the ever-advancing crusts and keeping their horses comfortable.
Biotin is thought to help the formation of keratin so we've formulated one of our EquiVita mineral range especially for the Mallenders horse, our EquiVita-M&S range, which excludes Biotin (Vit. B7). We also have a completely natural, organic topical therapy which we trialled extensively with many clients before going live with it. With macerated Calendula and Comfrey in an aloe gel base, our M&SGel helps to soften the crusts while lessening the keratin eruptions via the Comfrey herb which is a known keratin suppressant.
October'21 - Edited to add : As per sweet itch, new research this year is now showing that Mallenders/Sallenders is connected to a now widespread, multi-metabolic detoxification disorder called Cryptopyrroluria, aka KPU. See our KPU page for the full story.
Keeping the internal natural detox organs (kidneys, liver and lymph nodes) and circulatory systems (lymph and blood) toned will go a huge way to support skin health. Together, they need to be functioning in perfect harmony to sustain glowing, nourished, healthy skin.
Skin conditions can put a halt on everything and force management changes that weren't necessarily on the agenda. However, with natural phytonutrient support alongside forage-balanced minerals and micronised linseed for the super-beneficial omega-3 EFAs in the feedbowl, this will help get coat and skin health back on track.
I know how I'd prefer to achieve healthy skin, and that’s via nutrition from the inside out - not via topical petrochemicals or artificial fragranced chemicals, absorbed into the system to unleash their toxic assault. Address the causes, maybe consider a full-body clean up to keep the 3-Amigos fully functioning, and fortify the body with real food, nutrients and a calm, happy lifestyle. The body’s natural intelligence will take care of the rest 😊
- Dump the processed feeds - dump all and every scrap of sugar in the diet and eliminate food sensitivities - alfalfa and soya are two prime examples. See our Feeding our Horses/Why what we feed has to be right chapter for some fairly eye-opening info.
- Fix gut imbalances - including a probiotic every now and then into the diet will help improve gut microbiome levels - see our separate chapter,The Microbiome - The Missing Organ?
- Dry, itchy, scaling, or flaking skin could signify an EFA (essential fatty acids, aka the omegas) deficiency; add Linseed (Micronised) into the feedbowl for it's high omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs).
- Exercise and sweat! When the body temperature rises, i.e. during exercise, skin bloodflow transfers heat from the core of the body to the skin. Sweating is a super-detoxifier - it literally excretes toxins from inside out, but remember to get the toxins off the skin after sweating with a hose-down, not a shampoo with chemicals in, i.e. SLSs, parabens, petrochemicals etc.
- Rest, rest and more rest. Overwork, lack of quality rest, stress and anxiety, profoundly stresses gut health which has an overwhelming negative effect on the immune system which directly diminishes skin integrity.
- Check the composition in topical skin products - parabens and petrochemicals feature highly and can overload the toxicity levels of the system, meaning the liver has to work overtime to metabolise and clear them out.
... Well, not me personally but I've had my share of skin issues with my horses. Back in my conventional days, my gut-sensitive connemara, Murphy, used to explode with mud fever and cellulitis every year without fail - our early winters together were a constant battle with his sore, infected heels. Then come spring the buttercup pollens stung his muzzle like a thousand bee stings.
When I saw the light, I originally mixed up some aloe-vera gel with appropriate essential oils, which eventually became our BioGel. The final piece of the jigsaw was introducing forage-balanced minerals for all my horses in 2007. Once Murf's internal system was cleaned up, the dreaded mud issues literally vanished and he's been clear since then. More than a decade on I don't even think about Murf and mud now, and he's not had another buttercup attack either.
Then there was our adorable Kelso, without whom there would be no EquiNatural. He came to me as a well-known, seriously chronic sweet itch sufferer; fully hogged and with festering sores over his mane, tail and rump from where he'd rubbed himself raw. I witnessed first hand how stressful this was for him, and it was heartbreaking to watch.
I originally formulated what became our herbal SwItchTonic and our aloe SwItchGel for him, after watching him go through hell, not to mention repeatedly trash his eye-wateringly expensive, specialist sweet itch rugs. Within three months on the herbs on the blend, he grew a full mane and tail for the first time in his life - he was 17 at the time, and lived comfortably for the rest of his days to the ripe old age of 24.
Then, in 2017 I adopted a chunky native boy, Mac, aka MacAttack, named appropriately as his mission in life was to attack humans with his teeth, although he's better now (-ish!) 😊
Mac came to me with chronic sweet itch as well - the reason why I adopted him - and to say he had horrid, infected suppurating sores the size of dinner plates over his rump was an understatement - you can read his story and see the gory details in his Case Study. Once the lead rope was in my hand he went straight onto our clean-up regime with our OptimaCARE full-body detox programme followed by our SwItchTonic and a gallon of our SwItchGel.
That's not to say he'll ever be 'cured' - this autoimmune response is almighty powerful so it's always a work-in-progress, although after his microbiome and gut function being a major project for me personally, he's now in a much better place, comfy enough in his sweet itch rug not to keep scratching, although he does occasionally 'rub' his bum - I still need 2 rugs per season. Overall though, he's doing brilliantly compared to how he was when I first met him over the fence 😉
Update - Sept'2021 - MacAttack
After studying the multi-detoxification disorder, Cryptopyrroluria, aka KPU, in September with Dr Christina Fritz, I was certain that MacAttack was a KPU-affected horse, so I've been supplementing him accordingly.
It's still very early days as we're only in late October, and Mac's not long been out of his sweet itch rug, so we won't be able to see the effects until next spring when the sweet itch symptoms typically flare up again. That said, and after really focusing on his gut/liver/kidney function this year, he's in such a better, happier place, so I'm quietly confident that he'll be more comfortable next season.
I'll update as we go, so watch this space!