The science is conclusive; unmanaged stress is the first domino that falls, creating a chain reaction of internal complications that can lead to serious health conditions.
The word 'stress' itself is so broad that it really doesn't capture the full impact of stress. However, 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.'
You may have heard of the term 'adrenal fatigue' - if there's a state of chronic stress, the adrenal glands are being beaten up by the pituitary gland to work overtime, the body's energy plummets and it becomes difficult to manage anything. The body's going to feel tired and wired, all at the same time.
A horse isn't meant to experience chronic, long-term, stress. In the wild, horses live and grow together as a family group, supporting each other, feeding together for hours on end and roaming across desert, prairie and trundra at a slow walk for 20-30 miles each day. The only day-to-day stress they may experience is either food shortage, so they simply move on until they find some more, or a whiff of a predator, which they can outrun. There may also be the occasional dominance stress from herd members who fight to take over the herd leader position. That's pretty much it - their stressors are short term, and quickly recoverable from.
Compare this to the human-controlled domestic horse. Some are weaned too early, or they're taken away from their family at a young age, while a human (predator) takes over the running of their life. They're then either isolated or only allowed contact with limited horses they're not related to, or they may not get on with and spend their time trying to get away from them- different breeds speak different body language, i.e. put a haffy in with an icelandic and they can't talk to each other. It can take up to 6-months to interpret a strange horse's body language to where they can understand each other.
They're then only permitted to mooch around a small outside area compared to what their body is naturally designed for, usually walking no more than 1-2 miles/day, with limited food of the wrong type (monoculture neon-green grass leaves instead of a multi-diverse stemmy grass range with herbage). They're then often kept in a walled box overnight where they'll walk no more than 400-meters over a 12-hr period.
They have metal nailed to their feet then forced to move in ways that are unnatural for them, while being exposed to loud, often claustraphobic, fear-inducing environments that they're unable to run away from because they're physically restricted by tight straps, their mouths jagged by a painful metal bar, and a human sitting on top of them, digging their heels into their ribs while telling them where to go, what to do and how to do it. If they try to express any discomfort/fear/stress, they're often hit - which they also can't run away from. Their stress levels go up and now we hear the 'naughty' or 'dangerous' labels
As if all this isn't bad enough, they're also fed a pro-inflammatory, poor-nutrient junk-food diet in a bowl, alongside very often not enough coarse forage (hay - the only source of the appropriate fibre their hindgut needs) so very often they're left standing for hours in that walled confinement with no forage which makes their gut seriously hurt. Eventually their physical and mental struggle becomes so overwhelming that their whole body starts to break down as the survival hormones - adrenaline and cortisol - are triggered. Cue serious, long-term, chronic stress.
We, as in the dominant human, can't say that a horse has been domesticated by us long enough to be 'used to it'. Horses have been on the planet for millions of years. Us? A mere few thousand. And the physiological make-up of the ancient wild horse remains exactly the same as our modern-day domesticated horse. That's not to say that these days there haven't been beneficial advancements in how we keep our horses, but it still contradicts our horses' ability to express - and react to - their natural instincts and behaviours.
At chronic levels, stress is relentless, cumulative, and utterly debilitating. Whatever the cause, which can be anything from pain or 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, every vital system in the body is affected.
Unless the 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, becomes a syndrome in itself where gut health, brain chemistry and immunity breaks down. Result? The whole body starts heading towards meltdown.
We're now in real trouble. The body's whole equilibrium, its vital force, immunity, homeostasis, is completely out of kilter and exhausted. Be in no doubt whatsoever that the whole body needs serious help to get it balanced again.
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. However, the biggest cause that we find for chronic, ongoing stress is usually poor diet, lack of nourishment, lack of the essential nutrients in the diet - from my client enquiries, the most common reason coming up is the latter, very often inherited from a former owner's management.
It's when stress becomes this 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.
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.
So, digestion is now disrupted, which means there's 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 gut - the very system upon which all 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 overworked and overburdened, and eventually the whole organism starts to crash.
The Fight/Flight defence system
Now we get to 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 (remember, the body being ‘ill at ease), which is the degenerative breakdown of various systems of the body at cellular level, which as we now know, if left untreated take the body, as a whole, down the path of meltdown. And in order to survive, the body will now kick in its own survival kit - enter 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 actually happening to the body when it’s in the Fight/Flight state, because again, if it becomes uncontrolled, it’s not pretty.
Put simply, fight/flight is when the body’s sympathetic nervous system goes into autopilot to either fight, or fly, from a perceived threat. Basically the central nervous system goes into full alert, which sends messages called nerve impulses to the relevant organs to ready themselves for the threat.
By now the endocrine system, which is a series of glands that secrete chemical regulators called hormones, has got involved. If something is threatening homeostasis, the endocrine system instantly tells the adrenal glands to secrete specific hormones to put the body in survial mode - on red 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’.
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, trying to decide 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/flight reaction that the body is hard-wired to do, has done its job of protecting against threat or attack, and switched itself off. So far so good. But what if that fight/flight reaction doesn't switch itself off?
Welcome to the world of Chronic Ongoing Stress
This is where it all goes wrong. The central nervous system and endocrine system have decided they still need to fight for survival and 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. Sorry …
The hypothalamus is a small, but incredibly important, gland in the brain that regulates energy, stamina and more, and it works in harmony with a much more important master controller gland, the pituitary. The hypothalamus relays hormonal messages to the pituitary along a pathway called the HPA axis.
From there, the pituitary directs key systems in the body which signal 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 on overtime, and trust me, a lot of energy is now being used. The body is becoming exhausted - we're now entering the 'adrenal-fatigue' phase, and we're heading for a whirlwind of havoc right at the top of the 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 signals (endocrine system), 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 – reason being that glucose is the brain’s main fuel source. Adrenalin, the primary survival hormone, 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 now switches off certain functions that it doesn’t consider essential - or energy zapping - for fight/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:
- First up, cortisol floods 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.
- And … bowels evacuate pretty much automatically so the body's now primed and ready for only one thing - the predator. How often have you seen the tail go up and the rest follows?
- 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 sick if we’re about to get eaten.
If the fight/flight response doesn't get switched off, the long-term activation of the stress-response system - and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and adrenalin - 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 this 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 a horse, being a prey animal, also has an incredible survival instinct, so through all this they’re naturally trying to be stoic, strong and brave, which in itself is exhausting on an already fatigued state.
By the time they've reached loss of appetite/condition, they're now really, really struggling to keep up. The light would have gone out of their eye and they're nearing the point of giving up. The whole body and brain is now literally ‘depressed’, as in no longer functioning.
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 and literally can no longer cope with any other spook that crops up.
- The organism is mainly running on adrenalin and falling apart from cellular to system level everywhere.
I did say it wasn't pretty. And once we're at this point, it's all downhill from here ...
The stress timeline
- We've already established that ongoing stress leads leads to the internal organ system becoming exhausted. From here on, normal body function has become sluggish - circulation (the life force) is now acidic, digestion has been switched off so there's no assimilation or absorption of nutrients from food to keep the body thriving, and the immune system is in bits.
- The adrenals will now be working overtime on survival autopilot, trying to hold everything together by releasing more and more adrenalin, which means much-needed restorative rest is impossible - it's just not happening.
- Now begins the cyclic toxic effect. Because the body’s exhausted it has no energy to either fight or fly, so the adrenaline 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’ or ‘happiness’ into the day; it’s a long-term rebalancing process that takes time - after all, we're talking whole-body damage here.
- 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 start to regenerate again, hormones rebalance the metabolism again, and immunity and sanity are 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 we focus on strengthening immunity. The gut needs cleaning up with the beneficial microbiota levels repopulated, so the digestive system can restart its function 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 microbiome 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 seriously non-functioning one. It destroys gut health, upon which whole-body health and immunity relies. 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.
So here's how we fix it.
We follow an important 3-stage process - Alleviate, Detox & Fortify. It starts with Alleviating the symptoms by gently returning the body back to a de-stressed state with adaptogen herbs, which help the body normalise the stress response - see our StressTonic blend.
Once the body's calmed, we can look to clean up the body via a full body detox with our OptimaCARE programme.
Finally, we Fortify - nourishing the body back to optimum health by reassessing diet, environment and lifestyle, and removing the stressors. When you fortify a body, you truly transform it.
- We start with a relook at the feedbowl/forage.
- Mineral balancing, to supplement the missing mineral nuts and bolts back into the diet - our EquiVita/VitaComplete mineral balancer range.
- Linseed (micronised) for the Omega-3 (included in our VitaComplete range)
- Salt (included in our VitaComplete range)
That's it! It's a lot of reading, I know, but email back any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you'd like us to look at your feed/forage regime to see if there are any obvious triggers.