What zaps it, and how can we get more?
A common enquiry I get from clients in winter is that their horse is lacking energy, or worse is in a state of chronic fatigue. Apparently in our human world around 30% of all doctor visits are due to exhaustion and/or chronic fatigue.
‘Energy’ comes from the body making what we call ATP, aka Adenosine Triphosphate - ATP is a molecule of energy made when the body breathes oxygen and eats food, which then gets metabolised in the body’s cells’ tiny mitochondria. Whether horse or human it’s a common problem, and very often related to lifestyle and habits which either drive energy, or don’t.
So, how do we increase the production of ATP and improve the body’s mitochondrial function? What zaps it, and how can we get more of it? Let's talk all-things-energy, and first go through a few things that we often associate with what causes energy to diminish.
First up, adrenaline and cortisol, the two major stress hormones, are usually triggered during fight/flight to ‘wire’ the senses when there’s a stress response in the body. All well and good when they’re needed, but when everything calms back down, the body becomes depleted with something called adenosine in the mitochondria, which causes the body to biologically crash with fatigue.
So, short term high followed by the body feeling wiped-out-tired and a crash of low energy. Hence why keeping stressors down is so important.
Second, quality rest/sleep. As humans we know if we don’t sleep, the body becomes tired and wired at the same time. Lack of quality rest/sleep weakens the immune system making the body prone to illness and impairing the body’s ability to fight it off. It also has a negative impact on heart health, is associated with higher rates of cancer, and leads to major cognition issues, having a direct impact on learning and memory.
Finally, our old friend sugar. Like caffeine, the body gets an immediate short burst of energy from sugar, and then it crashes – us humans have all experienced this after a major cake fix, or a can of Coke. So, sugar is another No if we want to keep energy levels even all day, but not so easy when it comes to our horses and the constant battle to keep their sugar levels low.
Which links us nicely to blood sugar levels, and how blood sugar is completely connected to energy levels going up and down throughout the day, with the body on a rollercoaster of energy/crash/refuel, rinse and repeat. Cue the weight gain/fatigue/mood-change cycle alongside all kinds of other health complications. Sugar.Is.Really.Mean.
Now we introducing the Glycemic Load, and here’s a thing - this is about eating a little bit of fat, protein or fibre, for example, instead of eating just berries on an empty stomach. Yes, fruit contains many amazing phytonutrients and polyphenols, but - if we eat a ton of fruit on an empty stomach, that’ll completely upset our blood sugar versus if we have it at the end of a meal where we've had some healthy fat, protein or fibre.
The glycemic load is basically about what the total composition of a meal does to the blood sugar. So, if we add in fat or protein or fibre, these act like a sponge and slows the sugar absorption. By preventing the spikes, this lessens the insulin surges, so no blood sugar crashes. And so it all evens out.
Which is why, for our horses, it’s so important for them to eat hay all year round, as the hay stalks are where the vital, hindgut-essential, fibre is.
Let’s hop back into our human-world for a moment. Fatigue is obviously a catch-all basket of symptoms that doesn’t really specifically denote a particular disease, but it can depend on the fatigue. In conventional medical practice it’s normal to look for common factors such as thyroid issues, certain vitamin deficiencies like B12, or something chronic going on below like heart disease or cancer. However, more often than not our GP’s won’t find much, so very often they’ll simply say we’re depressed and tell us we need Prozac.
However, if we look at it another way, i.e. the world of Functional Medicine, we really only need to ask two questions to learn pretty much everything we need to know:
So what’s the list that I go through in my mind when a client contacts me? I look at the major factors that are the cause of almost all imbalances in the body, and with a bit of consideration towards genetics thrown in, as follows:
1. Diet - poor nutrition plays a huge role in lack of energy – gut-inappropriate foods do not ATP fuel make.
2. Stress - whether physical or psychological stress - emotional stress, including past traumas, can contribute enormously to zapping energy, as mental stress causes huge changes in the brain chemistry and metabolism, and leads to overwhelming fatigue.
3. Allergens - what’s inflaming the body? Are there food allergens/sensitivities or an environmental allergen such as pollens?
4. What about toxins? Anything and everything from environmental toxins, moulds, pesticides, heavy metals, internal toxins, metabolic toxins ... the list goes on.
5. Finally, microbes - not just the gut or skin microbiome, but also pathogen bacteria, which are a huge cause of chronic fatigue syndrome, i.e. Lyme disease.
It’s really about looking at the Big Picture, the overall symptomatic presentations, looking for clues about what’s really driving the fatigue. Is it nutrient depletion? A microbiome issue? An infection? A hormonal imbalance? Some kind of stress? What’s behind it all?
Either way, we generally follow the Alleviate, Detox & Fortify protocol, which involves taking out the bad stuff – ultra-processed food, poor rest/sleep, excess stress, lack of movement, too much sugar - and putting in good stuff, i.e. a clean diet to get rid of all the inflammatory foods, and a detox. Fortifying with nutrients to replace any mineral deficiencies, and gentle exercise to get everything moving again. Really simple changes can make a huge difference - focusing on balancing sugar/starch levels and doing a detox is essentially an amazing way to recalibrate metabolism, brain chemistry, and energy.
Long and short, fatigue comes from mitochondria damage. Mitochondria, the energy factories in each and every cell, produce the ATP energy that runs everything in the body. They’re critical for everything in the body to function, and for aging and longevity. Fuel them wrong and we have elevated muscle enzymes, meaning the muscle cells are damaged. We also have a damaged metabolism, a damaged immune system, brain and hormones. Fuel them wrong and we’re looking at far-reaching effects across the body that basically screws everything up.
So if you’re looking to get your horse back to being like the Energizer bunny, we need to burn clean fuel, so we can create and repair the energy systems in the body – the mitochondria.
However – everything starts with the gut, and every horse, every human, is different – it’s called biochemical individuality. Two people eat an apple, yet it can be a different experience for each of them once they eat it. Some are creating huge spikes in insulin, others aren’t, yet they can have very different responses. How? Why? Look first at the microbiome.
And let’s not forget about healthy ratios of the Omegas 3-6, which is directly connected to feelings of depression. The horse’s natural diet of grass has an omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio of around 4:1, similar to other browse foods like leaves and buds, with summer growing grass coming in at around 4% fat.
This level of intake isn't available all year, hence horses not on fresh, growing grass will have a dietary deficiency of omega-3. Equally, when grass is dried and baled as hay, the fragile omega-3 fatty acids are lost so it has to be supplemented, especially if a horse is on a hay-only diet.
Micronised Linseed comes in at the same omega-3 profile as fresh, growing grass, with blood tests showing that 100g/day of linseed equals the same daily omega-3 intake as a horse on pasture – this applies to the average 500kg horse, so pro-rata it works out at 20g/100kg bodyweight.
The fundamental factor is that we appreciate that fatigue is a symptom of something else, so we have to become detectives to figure out what’s behind the fatigue. Is it from eating poor-quality food, or not exercising, or not having field buddies to play with, or overloaded with past traumas/stressors? Or is it due to a nutrient deficiency, or Lyme, or toxins? Is it because the microbiome is out of kilter? What’s driving the fatigue?
Identify where the bad is, take it out and put good stuff in instead. Alleviate if needed, detox and fortify.