'Stress' is a serious business.
Whatever the cause, a stressed state triggers a cascade of negative symptoms, which, over time, weakens immunity. And once stress becomes chronic, everything is affected.
I would say that most of my enquiries come from clients whose horses have hit a chronic state of stress. Usually desperately worried clients, and more often than not where the vets have given up on them.
We're not talking a momentary gloom, or an occasional spook. We're talking deep, systemic symptoms going on - poor gut health, loss of appetite, loss of condition and dropping weight, which brings on lethargy, exhaustion and anxiety because there are no nutrients going in to feed the body and keep it healthy.
The problem is that unless these negative symptoms are nipped in the bud quickly, a systemic cascade of negative stress-hormones are released which, over time, if continually switched on, become a syndrome in themselves where gut health and immunity breaks down and every-thing is affected.
The horse is now in trouble. Its whole equilibrium, its vital force, immunity, homeostasis, is completely out of kilter. The whole system is highly stressed and highly exhausted. And there’s no doubt whatsoever that the whole system needs serious help to get it balanced again.
So here’s my take on it all, and the How & Why Principal. First off ...
A quick bit on understanding the body - Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology
To make any sense about how the body functions, especially when things go badly wrong, we need to have an understanding of the How & Why Principal, as in How stuff happens to the body and Why stuff happens to it.
The first step in understanding this is to have a bit of a handle on how the body normally works when it’s healthy, and what then happens when it’s placed under stress or dis-eased (no longer at ease), which means it’s essentially changed from a state of health to where part, or all, of the body is no longer functioning normally.
Yes there’s a bit of science involved here, but in kids-speak hopefully, because I am no science-geek, and when I had to learn this stuff as a medical herbalist I had to have it in a way I understood it until I got it. Bear with me, because this will all come together in the end.
So, first off, anatomy is the structure of the body, with physiology being how it all works, and pathology being the study of what’s happening when it all goes wrong, i.e. the science behind the causes and effects of dis-ease. It's all well and good saying 'my horse is stressed/depressed/whatever', but trust me when I say no pill is going to fix it. With stress we need to understand the how and the why, so we can find the source and remove it, before we can reboot homeostasis and get the body healthy again.
So here we go. There are several levels of structural organisation in the organism (body) and they're all connected. We start at the bottom:
Ultimately, the computer inside the organism seeks to maintain a healthy balanced state, aka homeostasis (homeo – same, stasis – standing still), at all times. Homeostasis is where the body’s internal environment remains in balance within certain physiological limits, and it’s about ‘fluids’ both inside and outside the body’s cells.
The body’s cells can only survive if their personal ‘fluids’ are precisely maintained - you may have heard of words such as intracellular fluid, which is the fluid inside the cells, and extracellular fluids – yep, kind of obvious I know – that’s the fluid surrounding the cells. You’ve probably also heard of plasma, which many people think is another word for blood – it’s not, but it’s close – it’s the name for the extracellular fluid surrounding the blood cells.
So, back to the extracellular fluid – stay with me as this is important stuff, and I promise we’re nearly done on the biology lesson. All the body’s cells are surrounded by an extracellular environment, and for this reason, extracellular fluid is called the body’s internal environment. It’s constantly on the move, and contains gases, nutrients and electrically charged particles called ions, all needed for maintenance of life itself. And every part of every organism structure, from chemical to cellular to system level, contributes in some way to keeping this internal environment within normal limits.
Biology lesson over! To summarise, an organism is said to be in homeostasis when its internal environment:
Simples! You’d think ...
However, when homeostasis is disturbed, ill health results. And if those body fluids are not eventually brought back into homeostasis, we’re talking the Grim Reaper. So, maintaining homeostasis is really, really important, because when one or more components of the body lose their ability to contribute to homeostasis, the normal body processes start heading towards dysfunction.
By the time a horse reaches the loss of appetite/loss of condition stage, we're in trouble at system level – it's gone that high from the internal environment at cellular level. The digestive system is now homeostatically unbalanced, which means it’s not functioning as it should, aka it’s stressed.
So let’s take a look at the effects of stress. For starters, what is it? Thanks to the biology lesson, we now know that 'stress' is a term for when 'a stimulus creates an imbalance in the internal environment on the body’s systemic functionality'. In other words, the body is seriously out of kilter.
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 reassure 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. From my client enquiries, the most common reason coming up is poor diet and lack of the essential nutrients in the diet.
It's when stress becomes an 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. This is called ‘holistic’ after the Greeks, and it means ‘the whole’. 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.
At this point we need to recognise that it's official - the gut is no longer operating as it should, which is a massive symptom of the overall state. Something has triggered the gut to not work – something’s happened to make it like this.
Whatever the cause, it’s irritated the digestive system as a whole, and when you get long-term irritation, you get 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 one upon which 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 ... while the immune system and other organs are trying to pick up the slack from the non-functioning gut, they themselves become overburdened and sluggish, and eventually the whole organism starts to crash.
The Red Flags
Here’s 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, which is the degenerative breakdown of various systems of the body at cellular level, which if left untreated take the body, as a whole, down the path of meltdown.
'Fight or Flight'
This is very much part of the stress scenario because the Fight-or-Flight response is the body’s natural stress defence system that kicks in when it needs help to, basically, survive the stress. So we now need to understand what’s happening to the body when it’s in the ‘Fight-or-Flight’ state.
First off, what is the ‘Fight-or-Flight’ state? Put simply, it’s when the body goes into autopilot to either fight, or fly, from a perceived ‘threat’. The central nervous system goes into full alert, which sends messages called nerve impulses to the relevant organs to ready themselves for the threat.
At the same time, the endocrine system – a series of glands that secrete chemical regulators called hormones – kicks in. If something is threatening homeostasis, it instantly secretes specific hormones to put the body on 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’.
In other words, 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 temporary threat, i.e. the pheasant flapping out of the hedge which in reality is a 10-headed monster with lots of wavy arms come to eat the horse, so horse leaps in the air while turning into a fire-breathing-dragon, rigid and snorting, deciding quickly whether it needs to fight said bird 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 breathe ... Homeostasis is restored.
This is all absolutely normal - the natural stress response, the fight or flight reaction that the body is hard-wired to do, has done its job of protecting against threat or attack.
So far so good. But what if we’re talking ongoing stress on the system? Well, this is where it all goes horribly wrong. The central nervous system and endocrine system 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.
The hypothalamus is a small gland in the brain that regulates energy, stamina and more, and it works in harmony with the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus relays hormonal messages to the pituitary gland along a pathway called the HPA axis.
From there, the pituitary directs key systems in the body which signals 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 overtime, and the body is becoming exhausted. In a nutshell, we're heading for havoc at 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 hormonal (endocrine system) signals, this alarm prompts the adrenal glands adrenalin and cortisol.
Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases glucose in the bloodstream and enhances the brain's use of it – glucose is the brain’s main fuel source. Adrenalin 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 also switches off certain functions that it doesn’t consider essential for fight or flight; 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.
It’s this long-term activation of the stress-response system - and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and adrenalin - which 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 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 horses also have an incredible survival instinct, so through all this they’ve naturally been trying to be stoic and strong, which in itself is exhausting on an already fatigued state. By the time they've reached loss of appetite/condition, they're struggling to keep up. The light would have gone out of their eye and they're nearing the verge of giving up. Anxiety is now part of the equation.
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. The organism is mainly running on adrenalin and falling apart from cellular to system level everywhere.
I know it may sound like I’m stating the obvious, but the most important factor to restore healthy adrenal function is to remove the stress. We also need to turn off the brain, and this in itself isn’t easy as the horse is hardwired as a prey animal, with its big wide peripheral vision ready to spot anything that may threaten it. So, we need to step in to help by giving some adrenal support, and that’s where diet and herbs come in to play.
The stress timeline
It’s a really detrimental cycle of systemic events, but the good news is that it can be turned around. However, it’s not just a case of introducing some ‘fun’ and ‘happiness’ into the day; it’s a long process and we need to focus on the root of the problem – the stressors, and remove them.
We also need to implement a quality rest, relaxation and sleep pattern which will restore calm to the body, which will gradually reduce the fatigue and switch the gut back on. Now we can clean up the toxicity, restore gut health and immunity and thus, overall health and sanity. Which leads us nicely to …
Let’s now pull this all together.
A stressed system is a poorly functioning one. It destroys gut health, upon which immunity relies. It means that 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.
The organism, from cellular to organismic level, is overburdened, fatigued, toxic, acidic, and in need of a mega clean-up. It starts with the gut, with a full body detox, alongside reassessing diet, environment and lifestyle, and removing the stressors.
So, to the first step, the detox, and this is where our C.A.R.E programme comes in:
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