Adaptogens are natural substances that help the body deal with stress. They increase resistance to stress and decrease sensitivity to stressors which results in protection and prolongs the stress resistance phase.
Adaptogens have multiple modes of action that are associated with the body’s stress response, they are linked to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the regulation of key mediators.
They are generally defined as being safe and non-toxic and have the ability toincrease the body’s power of resistance against multiple stressors including exposure to physical, chemical, or biological agents.
Research on Adaptogens has shown them to have a normalizing influence on physiology. This normalizing effect is irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor. Otherwise known as being bidirectional, they have the capacity to either increase or decrease the activity of thehypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axisdepending upon what is needed to get back to a state of balance.
This bidirectional balancing effect means that they tend to be a safe form of therapy and can be used for a wide range of conditions. If the horse is suffering badly, it’s not uncommon to see a huge positive shift in wellness whereas if given to a healthy horse you are unlikely to see any change at all.
When the body is placed under stress, cortisol andepinephrine are increased in response to injury, fear, exercise or fasting. This response is natural and healthy in the short term, however, if the stress response is prolonged it can have many negative effects on the body such as muscle loss, impaired glucose regulation, bone and immune system disruption, electrolyte abnormalities, weight gain and mental fatigue and depression.
Several herbs have been shown to block the negative effects of the stress response, these include:
Because Stress comes in many forms, the use of adaptogens is wide. Some common conditions in which you may use adaptogen herbs could include:
The herb Jiao Gu Lan can be especially useful for horses suffering from Insulin Resistance. Along with a low sugar diet (combined starch and ESC of less than 10%) and a mineral balanced diet, Jiao Gu Lan can help as it also has a vasodilating effect which is useful to improve blood flow in the hooves. It’s also been shown to improve insulin sensitivity in human studies.
According to the ECIR group (online support group headed by Dr Eleanor Kellon), horses with Cushings disease PPID can really benefit from adaptogen herbs, as they tend to improve depression and mood, especially when they may be suffering from the side effects of Pergolide. Initially, it can be useful to help the horse settle into the correct dose of Pergolide as horses can struggle with low mood and depression during this time.
Before I started working with herbs and horses, I was a human trained Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner, I specialised in working with Chinese herbs and Acupuncture. My realm of expertise in this field was women’s health and fertility, a rewarding but rather stressful job!
It was a natural progression for me to develop some equine specific formulas which I did for a few years, however the demand for these formulas was not adequate to hold what I needed in stock, therefore I tended to refer to other herbalists when I needed a particular formula.
I do however still frequently use one Adaptogen formula, the ingredients consist of just three simple but potent herbs, all Chinese origin and human-grade. Its called Booster Fx and is available via special order in my store. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in ordering.
This formula has also been approved by the ECIR and Dr Kellon as a useful and safe addition for horses with Cushings Disease. Dr Kellon frequently recommends a mix called APF – Advanced Protection Formula, however last I checked it was quite expensive and impossible to get in Australia. Booster Fx is the Australian version.
The other herb that I try to keep in stock at all times is Jiao Gu Lan which as discussed above is very useful for horses suffering Laminitic episodes due to Insulin resistance. More info on this one in the next article!
Dosing of adaptogen herbs is somewhat trial and error however generally when looking at horse doses you can increase the human dose by 4-6 times or feed 0.5-1 gram/15kg bodyweight. This will depend on the particular herb and what you are using it for.
Adaptogen herbs are a powerful and high-value addition to your horses daily feed, especially when they need a little help health-wise. In fact, after reading all the positive research whilst preparing for this article, I may just go and find myself some Rhodiola Rosea tea!
A good review of the research here - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3991026/
Link to the ECIR Equine Cushings and Insulin Resistance outreach Group here - https://www.ecirhorse.org/
You may find that your horses coat has already started shedding, this is triggered by the longer daylight hours and marks the start of the long winter coat loss! This process will continue over the next few months and it's important to provide adequate nutritional support during this time to encourage a healthy and shiny new summer coat.