There's a great analogy to describe stress - stress can be 'likened to a thread that unravels the whole sweater of life, and if you pull on that thread too hard, everything collapses.'
At chronic levels, stress is relentless, cumulative, and utterly debilitating. Whatever the cause, which can be anything from trauma to isolation or malnourishment, a stressed state triggers a cascade of negative chemical reactions, which over time shuts off the immune system to the point of meltdown. And once stress becomes chronic, everything is affected.
So many of my enquiries come from clients whose horses have hit a chronic state of stress. Usually desperately worried clients, and more often than not where the vets have given up on them. We're not talking a momentary gloom, or an occasional spook. We're talking deep, systemic exhaustion - lethargy, exhaustion and anxiety which over time has brought on loss of appetite, loss of condition, weight loss, because by now the gut has shut down so there are no nutrients going in to sustain the body.
Unless these negative symptoms are addressed quickly, the body's HPA-axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) automatically triggers its inbuilt survival process, commonly known as the Fight/Flight response. This releases a systemic flush of negative stress hormones, which over time, if continually switched on, become a syndrome in themselves where gut health, brain chemistry and immunity breaks down. Result? The whole body starts heading towards meltdown.
The body is now in real trouble. Its whole equilibrium, its vital force, immunity, homeostasis, is completely out of kilter. The whole system is highly stressed and highly exhausted. Be in no doubt whatsoever that the whole system needs serious help to get it balanced again.
So here’s my take on it all, and the How & Why Principal. First off ...
A quick bit on understanding the body - Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology
Back in 1967, Bruce H Lipton PhD, Stem Cell Biologist and best-selling author, was cloning stem cells, embryonic stem cells. He put one stem cell in a petri dish and watched it divide every 10/12 hours, first one to two, two to four, doubling, doubling, until after a week he had 50,000 cells in the petri dish.
The most important point here is that all the cells were genetically identical as they came from one parent. He then split those 50,000 cells into 3 different petri dishes, but changed the culture medium; that’s the environment in which the cells live, the equivalent of blood. In petri dish environment A, the cells formed muscle; petri dish environment B formed bones; environment C formed fat cells.
Which means - the fate of the cells, whether muscle, bone or fats, wasn’t based on genetics – they all had the same genes. Their fate was entirely based on the environment.
So, we have cells in a plastic petri dish in different culture environments - whats this got to do with the mammalian form, the mammalian organism? When we look in the mirror we see a human looking back at us, one organism - but no. Bruce Lipton calls this a misconception. To quote him, “A human is comprised of 50-trillion cells, and it’s the cells that are the living entity. Me, Bruce, is a community of 50-trillion individual sentient cells, so the point is simple – and kind of funny – a human being is a skin-covered petri dish.”
It doesn’t make a difference to the cell if it’s in the plastic petri dish or the skin dish - the fate of the cell is not controlled by the genes but by the composition of the culture medium. In our skin-covered petri dish our culture medium is our blood, and the brain is the chemist that determines what the composition is of our blood.
So how would we like to be? Happy, content, stress free? What chemistry should the brain put in to the blood? Bruce says it’s based on the perception of the mind, and here’s his example. When we experience a happy moment, the brain releases happy chemistry (hormones) such as dopamine; this is chemistry that enhances vitality, i.e. why people who are in love literally glow!
But now let’s look at the flip side. If we see, hear or feel something that scares us, the brain won’t be releasing the same ‘happy’ chemistry/hormones. It releases stress hormones that affect the immune system such as cortisol and norepinephrine, and inflammatory agents called cytokines, which create a different composition of our culture medium. And if we don't get happy again, so begins the risk of the stress cycle.
The How & Why Principal
To make any sense about how the body functions, especially when things have gone badly wrong, we need to have an understanding of the physiology of the body, the How & Why Principal, as in How stuff happens to the body and Why stuff happens to it.
The first step in understanding this is to have a bit of a handle on how the body normally works when it’s healthy, and what then happens when it isn't, when it’s placed under chronic stress or dis-eased (no longer at ease); essentially when it's changed from a state of balance to where part, or all, of the body is no longer functioning.
Yes there’s a bit of science involved here, but in kids-speak hopefully, because I am no science-geek, and when I had to learn this stuff as a medical herbalist I had to have it in a way I understood it until I got it. Bear with me, because this will all come together in the end.
So, first off, anatomy is the structure of the body, with physiology being how it all works, and pathology being the study of what’s happening when it all goes wrong, i.e. the science behind the causes and effects of dis-ease. It's all well and good saying 'my horse is stressed/depressed/whatever', but trust me when I say no pill is going to fix it. As the saying goes, and as Bruce's story above demonstrates, we have to 'fix the cell to get well.'
With stress we need to understand the how and the why, the neuroscience of the effects of stress, so we can remove it, reboot homeostasis and get the body healthy again.
So here we go. There are several levels of structural organisation in the organism (body) and they're all connected. We start at the bottom:
- The chemical level. This is where it all begins - we're talking molecules and chemical atoms, and these are essential for maintaining life. Horse or human, we’re one big lump of chemistry so we’re talking billions of incredible chemical reactions happening all the time. Think magnesium, calcium, copper, zinc, iron ... the list goes on.
- Next we have the cellular level - cells are the basic structural and functional units of the body, and there are gazillions of multi-billion-trillions of them, i.e. blood cells, nerve cells, muscle cells etc. This is where everything starts to happen, or, for that matter, stops happening. Back to 'fix the cell to get well' - never did this apply more than when we're dealing with chronic stress. Here's why.
Every cell in the body has a nucleus in which energy is generated from amino acids, carbohydrates and oxygen, with the aid of enzymes (technical term cell respiration), and inside each cell is a mitochondria - these are the body’s incredible power plants and it's where the action happens.
Imagine a woodburner, burning fuel to produce something to happen, i.e. heat. The mitochondria are the same, tiny furnaces inside each cell burning 'fuel' (those chemicals in the chemical level) to create an energy, like a steam train’s coal fire burning red hot to create steam to propel the train. Those chemicals enter the cell and into the mitochondria (the furnace) and get ‘burned’ to provide the energy for something to happen.
To give an example, muscle cells need calcium to provide the energy burst, to make the cell explode into action, but then need magnesium to pull the leftover calcium back out of the cell, so the cell can de-contract, take a breath and get ready for the next burst of energy via the next shot of calcium. So, calcium and magnesium must work together in the correct, balanced ratios to each other, for healthy muscle cellular exchange.
The mitochondria work round the clock throughout the entire lifetime of the organism, but they depend on a supply of raw materials - chemicals and nutrients. And, they're vulnerable. Free radicals, inappropriate diet, environmental toxins and stressors hinder them in their work and even damage them. For a certain time the body can rally itself from its own resources, for example by increasing the performance of the enzymes and getting cell respiration into full swing. However, if the enzymes are overloaded, the cell respiration rapidly declines and the body’s natural defences dwindle. Cue fatigue and reduced performance, and so the stress cycle begins.
- Next, we have the tissue level. When certain cells join together, they form a tissue which performs special functions, i.e. epithelium tissue lines the stomach. Each cell in the tissue has a specific function, i.e. mucous cells produce mucous to line the stomach wall to lubricate it for both the smooth passing of food and to protect it from damage; parietal cells produce stomach acid, and so on and so on.
- Now we get to the organ level. This is where specific tissues join together to form an organ, which is a structure composed of two or more different tissues having specific functions and usually recognisable shapes, i.e. heart, liver, lungs, brain and stomach. Certain organs form part of a system, which leads us to ...
- System level, which is an association of organs that have a common function, i.e. the digestive system, which has the job of breaking down and absorbing nutrients for the body from food. The digestive system isn’t just the GI tract and the gut - its organ-association is multi-fold, starting with the mouth, salivary glands, the pharynx, oesophagus, stomach, liver and pancreas, small intestine, cecum, large intestine, colon, rectum and anus. Phew! All combined together to form a system.
- Finally, we have the organismic level, which is all the parts of the body functioning together with one another, making up the whole organism, as in a living individual, as in a horse - and human too. It's all pretty darned clever if you ask me.
Ultimately, the computer inside the organism seeks to maintain a healthy balanced state, aka homeostasis (homeo – same, stasis – standing still), at all times. Homeostasis is where the body’s internal environment remains in balance within certain physiological limits, and it’s about ‘fluids’ both inside and outside the body’s cells.
The body’s cells can only survive if their personal ‘fluids’ are precisely maintained - you may have heard of words such as intracellular fluid, which is the fluid inside the cells, and extracellular fluids – yep, kind of obvious I know – that’s the fluid surrounding the cells. You’ve probably also heard of plasma, which many people think is another word for blood – it’s not, but it’s close – it’s the name for the extracellular fluid surrounding the blood cells.
So, back to the extracellular fluid – stay with me as this is important stuff, and I promise we’re nearly done on the biology lesson. All the body’s cells are surrounded by an extracellular environment, and for this reason, extracellular fluid is called the body’s internal environment. It’s constantly on the move, and contains gases, nutrients and electrically charged particles called ions, all needed for maintenance of life itself. And every part of every organism structure, from chemical to cellular to system level, contributes in some way to keeping this internal environment within normal limits.
Biology lesson over! To summarise, an organism is said to be in homeostasis when its internal environment:
- contains the optimum concentration of gases, nutrients, ions and water,
- has an optimal temperature,
- has an optimal pressure for the health of the cells.
Simples! You’d think ... because ... when homeostasis is disturbed, ill health results. And if those body fluids are not eventually brought back into homeostasis, we’re talking the Grim Reaper. So, maintaining homeostasis is really, really important, because when one or more components of the body lose their ability to contribute to homeostasis, the normal body processes start heading towards dysfunction.
By the time a horse reaches the loss of appetite/loss of condition stage, we're in trouble at system level – it's gone that high from the internal environment at cellular level. The digestive system is now homeostatically unbalanced, which means it’s not functioning as it should, aka it’s stressed.
So let’s take a look at the effects of stress. Thanks to the biology lesson, we now know that 'stress' is a term for when 'a stimulus creates an imbalance in the internal environment on the body’s systemic functionality'. In other words, the body is seriously out of kilter.
Before you start panicking about thinking you need to wrap your horse in cotton wool to prevent any of this bad stuff happening, let me assure you of something - homeostasis is continually disturbed by stress. The causes are multi-fold, i.e. external stress such as temperature changes, loud noises, or that proverbial pheasant leaping out from the bushes, or it could be internal stress such as pain or anxiety. From my client enquiries, the most common reason coming up is poor diet and lack of the essential nutrients in the diet.
It's when stress becomes an ongoing state that there’s a Bigger Picture going on. It’s not just a case of taking a pill or two, or changing to a healthier diet and all will be well; we’re talking a whole-body dysfunction where the entire organism is unbalanced, so we need to dig deep within the whole body. This is called ‘holistic’ after the Greeks, and it means ‘the whole’. And while everything happens at cellular level, everything starts with the gut, because in order to sustain life or fix an internal problem, we need to put a fix-kit into the body, via the mouth and into the gut system for it to work its magic.
Trouble is though, when stress is involved, the fix is an even Bigger Picture, because the gut’s not in a fit enough state to benefit from any fix-kit.
At this point we need to recognise that it's official - the gut is no longer operating as it should, which is a massive symptom of the overall state. Something has triggered the gut to not work – something’s happened to make it like this.
Whatever the cause, it’s irritated the digestive system as a whole, and when you get long-term irritation, you get inflammation at cellular level - very likely there's now an ulcerogenic state as well, so red-raw pain is in the mix as well, spreading a whole lot further than just the injurious site, thanks to the nerves in the body which are everywhere.
If the fire isn’t put out, the continuing inflammation of a system, especially the one upon which health relies on to fuel the very survival of the organism, triggers a cascade of further stressful cellular disruption in the immune system as a whole, because remember, it’s trying to work really hard in an attempt to maintain homeostasis.
Which means ... the immune system and other organs are trying to pick up the slack from the non-functioning gut, so they themselves become overburdened and sluggish, and eventually the whole organism starts to crash.
The Red Flags
Here’s what stress actually does physiologically to the body, where the cause(s) has put it in a state of dis-ease where it’s throwing out presenting symptoms. These are the Red Flags that Something’s Not Right.
If we ignore these symptoms at the acute stage, they develop into chronic dis-ease, which is the degenerative breakdown of various systems of the body at cellular level, which if left untreated take the body, as a whole, down the path of meltdown. And in order to survive, the body kicks in its own survival kit, the Fight/Flight defence system.
This is very much part of the stress scenario - the Fight/Flight response is the body’s natural stress defence system that kicks in when it needs help to, basically, survive. So we now need to understand what’s happening to the body when it’s in the Fight/Flight state.
Put simply, it’s when the body goes into autopilot to either fight, or fly, from a perceived ‘threat’. The central nervous system goes into full alert, which sends messages called nerve impulses to the relevant organs to ready themselves for the threat.
At the same time, the endocrine system – a series of glands that secrete chemical regulators called hormones – kicks in. If something is threatening homeostasis, it instantly secretes specific hormones from the adrenal glands to put the body on alert to fight or fly, specifically cortisol (the stress hormone which affects the central nervous system, digestion and kidney function), and adrenalin (the survival hormone), to basically keep the body functioning while the brain is planning how to deal with the ‘threat’.
In other words, the nervous system and endocrine system have now put the body into emergency survival mode.
This all goes on behind the scenes automatically – there’s nothing that either horse or human can do about it. And so the body becomes ‘wired’; eyes and brain are focused only on the ‘threat’, and blinkers are up in readiness to fight or fly.
This is all well and good if we’re talking about a short-term temporary threat, i.e. the pheasant flapping out of the hedge which in reality is a 10-headed monster with lots of wavy arms and big teeth about to eat horse, so horse leaps in the air while turning into a fire-breathing-dragon, rigid and snorting, deciding quickly whether it needs to fight said monster or better still, run for the hills. Fast.
Once the danger’s gone, whether we’ve fought or flown, hormone levels eventually return to normal and calm ensues. As adrenalin and cortisol levels drop, the heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels and the body resumes its regular activities. And b-r-e-a-t-h-e ... homeostasis is restored.
This is all absolutely normal - the natural stress response, the fight or flight reaction that the body is hard-wired to do, has done its job of protecting against threat or attack.
So far so good. But what if we’re talking ongoing stress on the system? Well, this is where it all goes horribly wrong. The central nervous system and endocrine system stay switched on, so a bit more biology - we now have to look beyond the adrenals to the entire hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, aka HPA axis.
The hypothalamus is a small gland in the brain that regulates energy, stamina and more, and it works in harmony with the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus relays hormonal messages to the pituitary gland along a pathway called the HPA axis.
From there, the pituitary directs key systems in the body which signals the adrenals to produce those stress hormones when needed. If there’s ongoing stress, the hypothalamus recognises that this is a constant state so it’s going to keep signalling the pituitary gland which keeps pumping on the adrenals.
This process now compounds upon itself by overloading the body with continuing nerve impulses and excessive cortisol/adrenalin. Every system is now working overtime, and the body is becoming exhausted - we're heading for havoc at organismic level.
Here's what actually happens
At the first sign of a threat, the hypothalamus sets off a complex alarm system in the body. Through a combination of nerve impulses (central nervous system) and hormone (endocrine system) signals, this alarm prompts the adrenal glands to release adrenalin and cortisol.
Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases glucose in the bloodstream and enhances the brain's use of it – glucose is the brain’s main fuel source. Adrenalin increases the heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. You’d think that’s all that’s needed for a short-term threat, but cortisol doesn’t stop there.
Cortisol also switches off certain functions that it doesn’t consider essential - or energy zapping - for fight or flight mode; after all, it needs the body on full Red-Alert, with all energy available to either fight or fly. So it alters immune system responses by suppressing the digestive system - I mean, who needs digestion when there’s a tiger on your tail? It also communicates with regions of the brain that control mood, motivation and fear.
- The first thing that cortisol does is flood digestion with acid to shut it down as we need all hands on deck to fight or fly.
- Next, that same acid seeps onto the skin so if we get bitten into we won’t taste too good.
- Now the blood thickens and coagulates so if we get bitten we won’t bleed to death.
- Bladder and bowels evacuate pretty much automatically so the body's now primed and ready for only one thing - the predator.
- Adrenalin and cortisol levels continue to increase to basically dump acid into the body continually, and ...
- The immune system gets put on the back burner because who cares if we get ill if we’re about to get eaten.
It’s this long-term activation of the stress-response system - and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and adrenalin - which disrupts almost all of the body's processes. Over time, that initial ‘wired’ feeling turns to brain fog and exhaustion – it’s too much for the body to maintain the energy to stay wired, but all this cortisol and adrenalin, twinned with exhaustion and a switched off digestive system, is now triggering a negative cascade on the whole system.
Let's also not forget that horses also have an incredible survival instinct, so through all this they’re naturally trying to be stoic and strong, which in itself is exhausting on an already fatigued state. By the time they've reached loss of appetite/condition, they're now struggling to keep up. The light would have gone out of their eye and they're nearing the point of giving up. Deep depression is now part of the equation.
Everything is linked. Over time the immune system becomes deficient, so the body’s lost its army – it’s now susceptible to every pathogenic threat out there. The vitality of the central nervous system, also a very major player of immunity, is basically in survival mode. The organism is mainly running on adrenalin and falling apart from cellular to system level everywhere.
The stress timeline
- Ongoing stress leads leads to the internal organ system becoming exhausted.
- From here on, normal body function becomes sluggish; circulation (the life force) and digestion (no assimilation or absorption of nutrients from food to keep the body thriving), which leads to poor immunity.
- The adrenals will now be working overtime on survival autopilot, trying to hold everything together by releasing adrenalin, which means much-needed restorative rest isn’t happening.
- Now begins the cyclic toxic effect. Because the body’s exhausted it has no energy to either fight or fly, so the adrenalin isn’t being burnt off which results in the body ending up in a state of anxious alert but brain-fogged with it, because the body’s completely worn out and now highly acidic.
It’s a really detrimental cycle of systemic events, but it can be turned around. However, it’s not just a case of introducing some ‘fun’ and ‘happiness’ into the day; it’s a long rebalancing process that takes time.
We need to implement a quality rest, relaxation and sleep pattern which will restore calm to the body; this will gradually reduce the fatigue and switch the gut back on which means the body can be nourished back to health again; cells can regenerate healthily again, hormones can rebalance the metabolism again, and immunity and sanity can be restored. Which leads us nicely to …
- Horses’ sanity is all based around them being allowed to express their natural behaviour, and this occurs when being given freedom to move and with other equine buddies to play, groom and socialise with. This releases the pleasure hormone, dopamine, which will instantly have a profound effect on calming the adrenals. The cortisol release will diminish, and the body and brain won’t feel so anxious.
- The improved, calmer mental state means that the body will be naturally willing to venture around a bit more, which will trigger hunger again.
- Now is the time to ensure that the diet is absolutely appropriate, as clean and uncontaminated as possible, alongside essential nutrients - minerals, vitamins, amino acids, EFA's etc., to support the health of the physical frame and the vitality of the central nervous system.
- Now we focus on strengthening immunity. The gut needs cleaning up with the beneficial microbiota levels repopulated, via probiotics, for the digestive system to digest, assimilate and absorb the food nutrients, which will start to rebuild the body. Up to 80% of immunity is built from the gut so as the gut gets healthier, immunity gets stronger and eventually, health and homeostasis is restored.
Let’s now pull this all together.
A stressed system is a poorly functioning one. It destroys gut health, upon which whole-body health and immunity relies. It means that the feed nutrients won’t be getting to the body’s cells to maintain optimum health and movement, so the physiological self – the functioning self - is exhausted.
The organism, from cellular to organismic level, is overburdened, fatigued, toxic, acidic, and in need of a mega clean-up. To do this, we follow an important 3-stage process; Alleviate, Detoxification & Fortify.
It starts with alleviating the symptoms by calming the body gently back to a de-stressed state with adaptogen herbs.
Once the body's calmed, we can look to clean up the body via a full body detox. This is where our C.A.R.E programme comes in:
- Clean and detox gut,vital organ (liver/kidneys), circulatory systems (lymphatics/blood) and eliminatory channels (bowel/urinary system/lungs/skin).
- Activate healthy digestion and the integrity of the intestinal gut lining by repopulating the beneficial gut microbiota.
- Restore health with essential micronutrients into the diet.
- Enhance immunity - energy, strength and vitality.
Finally, we fortify/nourish the body back to optimum health by reassessing diet, environment and lifestyle, and removing the stressors. When you fortify a body, you transform it.
For more info, see our other pages: