What are the causes and effects of chronic inflammation in horses?

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Chronic inflammation is a modern day disease with detrimental consequences for our equine partners.  Foods that elicit frequent  and high blood sugar spikes (foods with a high glycemic index), allergens, pesticides and preservatives, as well as highly processed foods can be associated with chronic inflammation and subsequent chronically elevated cortisol levels.

Chronic inflammation and cortisol levels:
Cortisol, a glucocorticoid (steroid hormone), is produced from cholesterol in the two adrenal glands located on top of each kidney. It is normally released in response to events and circumstances such as waking up, exercising, and acute stress. When the body is exposed to chronic inflammation, cortisol is released continuously and has detrimental effects on the entire body.

Insulin resistance: Theoretically, this mechanism can increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, although a causative factor is unknown. Since a principal function of cortisol is to thwart the effect of insulin—essentially rendering the cells insulin resistant—the body remains in a general insulin-resistant state when cortisol levels are chronically elevated. Over time, the pancreas struggles to keep up with the high demand for insulin, glucose levels in the blood remain high, the cells cannot get the sugar they need, and the cycle continues.

Cushing Syndrome: Since cushing syndrome is related to elevated cortisol levels and can be caused by injectable corticosteroids, chronically elevated cortisol levels due to chronic inflammation may be a more plausible cause then a sudden drastic increase of pituitary adenomas.

Digestion and absorption are compromised, indigestion develops, and the mucosal lining becomes irritated and inflamed, and ulcers can develop.  The resulting mucosal inflammation leads to the increased production of cortisol, and the cycle continues as the body becomes increasingly taxed.

Immune system: An increased susceptibility to illnesses, prolonged wound healing, the tendency to develop food allergies, and possibly an increased risk of autoimmune disease are all effects of chronically elevated cortisol levels.

Blood vessels: Cortisol constricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure to enhance the delivery of oxygenated blood. This is advantageous for fight-or-flight situations but not perpetually. Over time, such arterial constriction and high blood pressure can lead to vessel damage.

Fertility: Elevated cortisol relating to prolonged stress can lend itself to  the disruption of normal ovulation and female cycles. Furthermore, the androgenic sex hormones are produced in the same glands as cortisol and epinephrine, so excess cortisol production may hamper optimal production of these sex hormones.

Bone Density: Elevated cortisol levels interfere with osteoblast formation and dramatically decreases bone building—resulting in reduced bone density. Put simply—more bone tissue is broken down than deposited. As a result, chronically elevated cortisol levels pose an increased risk for osteoporosis.

Soy: It has been shown in pigs that the intestinal injury caused by β-conglycinin (in soy bean meal) results from the effect of this allergen as an inducer of stress. Allergies usually cause inflammatory disorders; for example, it has been reported that β-conglycinin promoted the secretion of inflammatory cytokines (IL-8) in mouse enterocytes. In addition, transforming growth factor β (TGF-β) was identified as an important factor in the prevention of intestinal mucosal inflammation in humans and mice . A study of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar L.) showed that the TGF-β gene level was significantly decreased by dietary soy bean meal. (Daniel Merrifield, US National Library of Medicine)

Glyphosate: The proclaimed safety of glyphosate remains highly questionable. The accidental ingestion of Round Up by farm workers resulted in the erosion of the esophageal lining. Independent studies of pigs being fed GMO soy, has led to increased intestinal inflammation. A recent study on glyphosate exposure in carnivorous fish revealed remarkable adverse effects throughout the digestive system (Senapati et al., 2009). The activity of protease, lipase, and amylase were all decreased in the esophagus, stomach, and intestine of these fish following exposure to glyphosate. The authors also observed “disruption of mucosal folds and disarray of microvilli structure” in the intestinal wall, along with an exaggerated secretion of mucin throughout the alimentary tract.

Blood sugar spikes: Frequent blood sugar spikes not only contribute to insulin resistance, but are also directly linked to an increased inflammatory load. For example, the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition reported that processed sugars and other high-glycemic starches increase inflammation, which causes pain, overheating, redness and swelling. Grains that have been milled and refined—removing the bran and the germ—have a higher glycemic index than minimally processed whole grains. Finely ground grain is more rapidly digested than coarsely ground grain. This is why eating whole grains in their “whole form” can be healthier than eating highly processed grain. In fact most processed foods are pro-inflammatory, as they tend to be high in added sugars, preservatives and refined carbohydrates.

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