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The metabolic horse - and me

20 Oct'18

This weekend’s blog is, I think, going to be a Carol-Ramble. I was going to blog about an actual subject as I have a few draft documents up my sleeve, as well as a couple of Herb Nerd’s that I really want to post (I’m a herb nerd after all). Then, as life’s coincidences have it, there’ve been a couple of ‘ooh’ moments over the last few days, finally triggered by a FB post this morning from the very lovely Vikki Fear, she of the Equine Podiatry & Horse Charming FB page, referring to a TheHorse.com post about “It’s All Connected – Bodywide Inflammation in Horses”.

Vikki says in her intro that she bangs on about this to her clients. Ditto. It’s been my relentless mantra for years now. So this was when laptop decided I was going to do a ‘metabolic’ ramble.

As you may have already noticed, I’ve redone the website, which has meant a proof-read and update of all my old scribings. This week, one of those life coincidences happened to be me updating the Metabolic Horse page; a subject, as I say on the page, which is close to my heart as in my herd of four, my three natives have the metabolic label firmly stamped on their forelocks.

As it happens, I’ve also recently gone through a personal metabolic awakening. Which means while I was amending/tweaking/updating the Metabolic Horse page, my self-nudge switch kept suggesting I should throw in a closing para on my own metabolic state and how, while my own metabolism has undergone changes for the better, I’ve been comparing myself to the equine metabolic syndrome, specifically my connie Murphy, and wondering if there are similarities between the two. And ... the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m convinced.

So here’s the Carol ramble. We all know the horse has two stomachs, the foregut and hindgut, each having different digestive responsibilities, as in the foregut digests protein/carbs/fats via hydrochloric acid stimulating specific digestive enzymes, versus the hindgut digesting fibre via microbiota fermentation. Hold that thought.

Now to a quick back-track to my medical herbalism training, and Year 1, Digestive System day in the Anatomy & Physiology module. We’d covered food entering the mouth, down the alimentary canal to the stomach, associated organs, the small intestine, and now we were heading to the lower colon region and fibre fermentation. Bingo, went my brain. Open went my mouth.

“Wow,” I said loudly. “So in essence we’ve got two guts, just like a horse!” (Everyone knew I was there for equine herbalism studying; I had to front up at the time of registration that I wasn’t there to learn how to herbalise humans – thankfully they were happy to take me).

The tutor looked at me wearily, said a flat ‘no’, and turned back to her whiteboard. But-But, I insisted. I don’t know whether she finally gave in out of despair at me or whether the lightbulb went on for her too, but after much persistence from me, she relented and agreed that yes, anatomically and physiologically we have two ‘guts’, an upper gut and a lower gut. Cue “We’re the same as a horse!” smugness on my part.

Now a bit of personal history, hopefully without seeming to labour the pity-angle too much, but bear with me as this will all come together. Like many humans out there, my own gut system has always been a bit of a metabolic mess. I was the kid at school who regularly had tummy ache. Late teens and I kept getting colitis where many a disgusting bariam meal was forced down me. Docs verdict – apparently my foregut couldn’t digest meat so I was to stop eating red meat, only chicken and fish (if only I knew then what I know now, I might have had some questions on this diagnosis). Anyway, I’ve never been much of a fish fan and after the acute pain of colitis, I was too scared to eat chicken, so aged 19 I became a veggie.

I’ve not had colitis since, and by my 30’s I was dipping in and out of eating meat again, not regularly but occasionally, with no adverse effects. Obviously I was more food-aware by this age although with no actual nutrition knowledge. I’m lucky though - at least I consider myself lucky, in that I’ve always had a relatively healthy outlook, love salads and veggies, and am blessed with a savoury palate with virtually no desire for sugary foods whatsoever. I rarely eat cakes/chocolate/anything ‘sweet’ – just doesn’t do it for me.

However, despite my healthful regime, whenever I travelled I got Delhi Belly. Egypt, amoebic dystentry. Nepal – giardia. Wherever I was in the world, my gut said No. And believe me, I’m always super careful cos I know my gut. Over the decades I’ve just accepted that my gut is my ‘thing’ – some people get migraines, I've got a 'sensitive' gut.

Cut to this year. These days, thanks to all the health and nutrition studying I do, I’m much more nutrition-aware, from both a horse and human aspect. It also helps that the acquired husband of 15-yrs is a veggie, so I’ve been a near-veggie pretty much for the last decade-plus.

So, with my healthy, low-sugar, high-veggie diet, you’d think I’d have a settled gut – not so. My 50’s were still a continued decade of gut discomfort, big belly bloat that gets bigger during the day, accompanied by a cargo container-full of trapped gas (trying to be polite here) which is no fun.

Then earlier this year I got very involved with a desperate friend who had IBS, which had brought her to the point of deep depression. During my long chats with her I started listening to my own advice, and that maybe I should start listening to myself for me. We were talking the ‘elimination’ word, as in cutting out dairy, cutting out gluten, and so on. She tried it; it worked brilliantly. Cue happier, comfier friend, marraige back on track, kids happier too.

Coincidentally (there they are again), during one of my health-nut study moments, I came across the word Keto. I’d seen it before, scan-read a bit about it, liked the sound of it but for some reason didn't do anything about it. This time, following IBS friend, it caught my interest so I read some more, which led to proper swatting. The more I read, the more I thought blimey, this might work for my gut.

I won’t assume that everyone knows the Keto principals so I’ll quickly summarise. It’s ultimately about aiming to get the body into what’s called ‘ketosis’, which is where the body becomes a fat burner for fuel, via ketones, instead of glucose (I'll nip in quickly here that this wasn't my goal - I was more interested in the alleged metabolic improvements).

The way to ketosis is to implement high fat - quick interject here, we're talking good fat, not bad fat! - into the diet, alongside medium protein and very low carbs, as in cutting out bread/pasta/sugary stuff/high fruit intake (because of the natural sugars), that kind of thing. Another great thing about Keto is that you can stuff your face because everything you’re eating is ‘good’ stuff, not junk stuff. Keto isn’t about being on a ‘Diet’ – it’s simply about a different way of eating to achieve a different, allegedly healthier energy fuel-source for whole body health (especially brain function but that's another story) and homeostasis. And – everything I read about the metabolic effect (that magic metabolic word again) made sense to me for my gut.

I didn’t think I ate too many carbs anyway; bread for sure, homemade with organic wholemeal flour, by way of toast in the morning and the occasional toasted sandwich; pasta, again organic wholemeal, and rice as in wild organic, never white or brown. And even though I love fruit, I’m lazy with it – if it needs prepping/peeling, I can’t be bothered so I tend not to eat much fruit other than bananas because they're easy. So I reckoned this would be a doddle as Keto said No to all of these, and for the sake of the experiment, I reckoned I could live with this.

With my savoury palate and lack of sugar in my diet, I was pretty sure I wasn’t too much of a glucose burner anyway. What I wanted to do was see if I could meet Keto halfway and become more metabolically ‘flexible’ to see if I could bring a degree of relief to my gut bloat. So, I calculated my Keto fat/protein/carbs macros, and was horrified to see just how many carbs a couple of slices of toast each day, pasta and rice a couple of times/week came out at. Off the scale! The Keto chart said that my daily carb goal was 30g, yet one banana alone is 23g. Worse, I lovelovelove tomatoes, yet just one tiny tomato in my lunchtime salad was a whopping 6g carbs, and I have around 8 baby plum toms every day in my salad, and that's not including the ones I snack on throughout the day either. I had to seriously tweak my new Keto diet and managed to calculate my daily carbs total down to 44g, and even then this was pushing it. This was going to be trickier than I thought ...

I bought myself a nutri-bullet thingy and set to. The morning toast switched to a red-berry and nut smoothie, full-fat yoghurt and with 1-tbsp added coconut oil (for the good MCT fat) - astonishingly, no carb value in coconut oil but with a valuable 14g fat. Lunch remained the same with the Big Salad (although slightly fewer baby plum toms), always smothered in ACV and olive oil (1-tbsp, again no carbs and 14g beneficial fat). The evening meal became sautéed veggies, pulses (these guys are quite carb-high) and tomato sauce, butter as the cooking fat, and without the pasta or rice.

Main starch carbs were out (no potatoes), but still a degree of natural carbs. Lots of cheese (organic/veggie) for the fat grams and all-dairy full fat, which to be honest was pretty much how I was before. Snacks became a handful of nuts, organic of course (I know, I'm getting boring now but you know me).

Pretty quickly, and I mean within days, I noticed general improvements in my overall homeostasis. For starters I stopped having cravings to graze. I’d always been a “if I don’t eat I’ll die” bemoaner, feeling genuine crashing every couple of hours or so, which with hindsight could probably be because previously as I didn’t consume much sugar, either natural or processed (and didn't know to eat good fat grams to convert to ketones), my blood sugar levels were permanently on the edge of crashing - I used to get many moments where I got up too quick and thought I was going to pass out. Maybe now, with my good-fat consumption and extra attention to removing natural sugars, I was now burning ketones as my fuel?

My energy levels also seemed to soar – previously the dog walk had always been a “Must I? Can’t you do it?” cry to the husband, and mid-afternoon I always felt the need for a power-nap - those crashing blood sugar levels again. Now I was striding out with the Labrador, to the point where husband became relegated to weekends only.

The real magic happened a couple of weeks in, and I didn’t even notice it happening. My belly bloat vanished. Vanished. Van-Ished. Gone. Disappeared. To this day hasn’t come back. My jeans were now slipping down over my hips – I could take them off without undoing them. Had to get a belt on them to nip out and get another pair.

One big bonus though - the gas. Gone. Seriously. No more gas. Proper gone. Which for me is very, very weird. No more lower gut pain, which at times was crippling, as in having to stop in my tracks wherever I was and doubling up. Now, no more tracking the pain like a rock traversing across my intestines until finally it hit my 'lower' gut. From what I read this was down to the lack of gluten from no more bread, no longer creating a globulous lump of glutinous glue trying to make its way through my intestines. Awesome!

Whatever the reasons for it all, these last few months I’ve felt great, and I mean proper healthy and energised. I can only deduce that after all these years, my gut, like my three native metabolic horses, is carb-intolerant, with gluten most likely being a major offender. Meeting Keto halfway has been a real eye-opener, especially at just how much unknown carb grams there are in the most unsuspecting ingredients - if you're interested in doing your own carb calculations, this is the website I used: https://www.myfitnesspal.com/food/calorie-chart-nutrition-facts. It has just about every foodstuff on the planet in its database, so give it a go - I'll put money on it that you'll be amazed, if not just a little bit horrified, at the whopping gram-age of your carb intake!

Overall it's been an incredibly enlightening, and thought-provoking experience, and I'm still on it today, although I now give myself weekends off - husband makes a loaf on Friday night, and we have roast potatoes on Sunday. I also allow myself wine at the weekends (starting Friday night) - well, it is my one weakness, and I can live with the 4.5g carbs/125ml glass, and as for the 101 calories/glass, well, it's the weekend after all.

So here I am today, and as the mind has reflected on the whole exercise, and pulling everything together, this is where I started putting 2 and 2 together, probably coming up with 5, but if this was my gut issue, could this be Murf's as well?

Him pointing me to his right side hindgut and waiting for me to rub it; his massive belly bloat and constant voluminous gut rumblings and consistent gas release, god love him. Were our guts the same? I could be way off the mark, but the symptoms are all too similar – a lifetime of stomach cramping, bloating, switching from very loose bowel movements one day to colic-y constipation, and enough gas to run a power station, until ... I got his - and my - gut as balanced as I could.

For me, switching to a high-fat, low-carb eating plan alongside probiotics and nutrient supplementation, has not only eliminated 50+ years of wonky gut syndrome, but I’ve lost unplanned spare inches doing it as well. For Murf, what worked for him was me switching his diet to higher fat (Copra and linseed) and reducing his (grass) carbs, alongside probiotics and nutrient supplementation. If that's not similar, I don't know what is ...

I’ve been really intrigued by this experience and seeing the similarities between mine and Murf’s systemic rebalancing. As I repeatedly say on the website, everything starts with the gut, and we are what we eat. Maybe a higher fat diet – and I mean healthy fat, not processed, high omega-6 inflammatory supermarket oils – for our grass-restricted native horses is the way to go, so they can convert the fat to ketones as fuel instead instead of the never-ending glucose from the way-too-lush green stuff.

Food for thought, on my part anyway. Thoughts?

Oct'18 - Edited to add: I've since done much studying on all things microbiome, and now need to add that while everything starts with the gut, gut health begins first and foremost with a healthy microbiome. Eye-opening stuff, to the point where scientists are now calling the microbiome the 'missing organ'. I've done a full blog on my microbiome study here: https://equinatural.co.uk/i/the-miracle-of-the-microbiome