A healthy body has a strong immune system and won’t get sick. If the body’s sick, the immune system is sick
The only permanent way to good health is via the immune system, and nutrition gives the immune system the firepower to keep the body well.
Under the right conditions, the body will naturally strive to maintain balance within, because ... it's armed with it's own complete detoxification system, specifically the liver, kidneys, lymphatics, skin and lungs to do this very thing. It's a whole-body thing, and every system is connected. No matter what stage of life the body is in, all naturally-occurring substances in the body work towards this end.
Unless we’re talking about a physical injury, we have to clean up the whole body during illness - you can't keep one disease and fix another. We do this with three steps:
- Alleviate the symptoms, i.e. pain/inflammation/anxiety suppressants etc.
- Detox - clear out the accumulated toxins that are blocking optimal function- regularly.
- Fortify - nourish the body by feeding natural, species-appropriate foods and nutrients to fuel the immune system.
The Immune System
The Immune System serves as the body's greatest defence mechanism. Immunity is designed to protect the body from any kind of pathogen or other foreign substance. Yet it's much more than a system fortress; immunity represents an ecological interface between the inner and outer environments.
Its no secret that a healthy immune system is the key to health, the key to homeostasis. It's comprised of a series of glands and organs which promote the immune response which is controlled by the nervous system. The majority of the immune system comes from the digestive system, literally made by the beneficial microbiota, yet it all rests upon the vitality of the nervous system. As a whole, all the systems should all work together harmoniously together like cogs in a wheel.
The immune system, the nervous system, and all the different senses communicate together with the outside world, all paying attention to every detail. It’s actually a difficult system to define anatomically – the immune system as a whole is involved in all the body’s systems and in all aspects of the body – it’s not just in the lungs or the gut or the liver, and so on. All the organs even have their own immune systems, for example, when a liver is dissected, the naked eye can actually see blue cells, the macrophages, which are the liver’s own white blood cells (the toxin-busters) which are the liver’s own immune system.
The body's whole immune system is monitoring and modulating every activity inside, and outside, the body; it's noting the body’s responses to what’s going on everywhere, how it's feeling, what's being eaten, drunk, inhaled. Think of it as a regulatory mechanism; something comes in, it rises to meet it, deals with it and settles back down again. It’s all about my favourite word, keeping everything in perfect, harmonious, balance.
The Immunity Alliance
The major immunity organs are the gut, the liver, kidneys, lungs and skin, but there are many more parts of the homeostasis orchestra upon which optimal immunity relies on:
The Lymphatic System
While it’s natural to think of the immune system as a stand-alone entity, the lymphatic system plays a major role in keeping the body healthy. This circulatory network touches almost every part of the body . It’s comprised of key organs and lymph nodes, transporting the body's draining system via lymph fluid which also carries critical immune cells throughout the body, as well as digested fats, fat soluble vitamins and more. To support equine lymphatic health, brushing regularly stimulates this vital circulatory system.
White Blood Cells
Aka lymphocytes/T-cells. These are the frontline killer-army cells. Created in the bone marrow and stored in the blood and lymphatic system, these bacterial-busting cells are essential for fighting infections, virals and fungals.
Considered the largest organ in the lymphatic system and located in the abdominal cavity, the spleen mostly acts as a blood filter and a storage system. Red blood cells carry oxygen to active muscle cells but when your horse is resting, around a third of the trillions of red blood cells are stored in the spleen. During strenuous exercise, or when the flight/flight response is triggered, the spleen contracts and releases the extra required red blood cells into circulation.
This spongy tissue resides inside the bones and produces blood cells (erythrocytes and leukocytes), and platelets which help with clotting and white blood cells which fight against infection.
This gland is part of the lymphatic system which produces T cells, or lymphocytes, which help the adaptive immune system respond to pathogens.
Supporting immune health
As the saying goes, 'our genes load the gun; the environment, food and exposures load the gun.' Many things can compromise the immune system, which of course puts our horse at an increased risk of illness.
For starters, over 80% of the body’s immunity is built in the intestinal tract by the friendly bacteria microbe community that live there, so a healthy gut fed with appropriate, healthy nutrition is vital. Now factor in stress, environment, work overload and age, and you have just some of the key factors where the immune system can become compromised.
When a horse is stressed, more nutrients are required and those available may not be in the proper proportion for the situation. Stress can also increase steroid production, which will suppress the immune system.
If horses are malnourished, this impacts cell production. Even the well-fed horse can be at risk of suppression if his diet doesn't contain the necessary vitamins and minerals. Remember grandma saying "eat your vegetables"? Well, she was right.
Age can also have an effect in both the young and the old. In the very young horse, the immune system is still developing: in the veteran, immunity diminishes as part of the ageing process. Whatever the age, a compromised immune system means less resistance to disease.
Prevention is the best route, and unless your horse needs a full body clean-up, tonics can be really beneficial. With a carefully balanced tone of the immune system, the equine system will be better able to fight off illness and disease. General tonics should be fed periodically and are especially beneficial in the spring and as we come into winter. Spring brings with it the new grass and seasonal allergies, and we've seen our own horses purposefully forage for new spring growth of herbs, particularly nettles, cleavers, hawthorn and yarrow especially.
Winter brings its own issues, with diminishing natural nourishment twinned with colder weather, so an immunity tonic is especially useful at this time, particularly if the horse is elderly, or has experienced a stressful experience or illness, or if the system is fatigued and compromised.
So, as we're already established that everything starts with the gut, let's take a deeper look at the role of the gut, and how it can all goes wrong via The Microbiome & Leaky Gut Syndrome