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 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 light and chemicals, from temperature extremes and 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 - two of our pink-muzzled horses over the years have had buttercup toxicosis erupt 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, the liver and kidneys, collectively the body’s 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. Which means, any dysfunction in 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 - it 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 obvious - it provides a wall between the body's internal organs and the outside world - there's even a childhood song that says, “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. 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. Which means ... it's a Thumbs Down for topical antibiotic creams.
A bit Thumbs Down for topical antibiotic creams
Part of the skin’s protective armoury is that it secretes antimicrobial substances, as well as harbouring its own natural community of friendly bacteria, which protect the skin against the invasion of unfriendlies by creating an unfriendly environment right back at them. Which means … a potential problem to this is topical antibiotic therapy which disrupts the external skin biome, opening the door for infections.
When the skin biome is in balance, it protects against skin infections, just as the gut microbiome protects the internal body against pathogens. Good bacteria on the skin help heal wounds, combat allergens, and even slows the aging (oxidation) process. Which means - if we apply antibiotic ointments onto the skin, they'll have the same effect as oral antibiotics do in the gut - 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 defence 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 in preventing wound infection can be a long term recipe for wrecking your horse's skin microbiome, which will make the coat/skin more susceptible to skin 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'.
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 into the body’s systems 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 fill the body, including the skin, with acid, so we don't taste nice for when the sabre-toothed 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 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 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 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 - 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 - how it all works deep down
Gut imbalances, food intolerances 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 resulting impurities into the bloodstream which heads onwards to the kidneys first to dump the water-soluble toxins off. then moves on to 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 can't naturally sweat to evaporate the toxins out. Cue one skin-issue cycle.
Let's have a look at the well-known issues:
- Hives, basically meaning lumpy swellings, usually small-ish, that can appear anywhere on the body. Also known as ‘nettle-rash’ amongst other nick-names, 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 treatment for 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.
- Then we have topical skin bacteriums, where the skin typically on the heel, fetlock and pastern can be affected, mainly occurring during the wet autumn/winter months, although it 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 bacterium. This type of response is thought to be caused by an opportunistic bacterium, Dermatophilus congolensis, getting into the skin via breaks in the skin, which can lead to the skin swelling, stretching and weeping, cracks appearing, hair falling out and hard scabs forming. 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 DermaClearGel.
- Mallenders/Sallenders - 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. The B-vitamins are key in creating healthy levels of keratin - the problem arises when too much keratin is produced, so it makes sense to cut the B-vits from the diet of Mallenders/Sallenders-affected horses. Hence, we've formulated one of our EquiVita mineral range especially for the Mallenders horse, our EquiVita-M range, which excludes both the Biotin (Vit. B7) and the Brewers Yeast we usually include as standard. We also have a completely natural, organic topical therapy which we trialled extensively with many clients before going live with it. With macerated Neem, Calendula and Comfrey in a fractionated coconut oil base, our MallOil helps to soften the crusts while lessening the keratin eruptions via the Comfrey herb which is a known keratin suppressant.
Keeping the internal natural detox organs (kidneys and liver) and circulatory systems (lymphatics 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, there's an excellent range of appropriate herbs to help get coat and skin health back on track, alongside balanced minerals and micronised linseed for the super-beneficial omega-3 EFAs in the feedbowl.
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, clean up the immune system to keep the 3-Amigos are 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 ;-)
NB. Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research, October 2002 - Linseed was found to help control itchy skin symptoms as a result of the Culicoides midge bite.
- Check the labels on feedbags - 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 chapter for more info.
- Fix gut imbalances - including a probiotic 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 the body to the outside, 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. See our C.A.R.E. Immunity Programme.
- 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.
When I saw the light, I originally mixed up some aloe-vera gel with appropriate essential oils, which eventually became our DermaClearGel. 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.
Then there was our adorable Kelso, without whom there would be no EquiNatural. He came to me as a 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 designed 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.
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 getting 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. 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 , a gallon of our SwItchGel and a ton of probiotics.
That's not to say he'll ever be 'cured' - this autoimmune response is almighty powerful although for me personally I'm on a mission to really focus on his microbiome. I've got him to where he's now comfy enough in his rug not to keep scratching, although he does 'rub' his bum - I still need 2 rugs per season. Overall though, he's doing brilliantly compared to how he was when I met him. You can see his story - and the gory photos - in our Case Studies page.