Insulin Resistance - A 'weighty' issue!
Can herbs help?
Diagnosis of insulin resistance revolves around clinical signs such as abnormal body fat distribution, a 'cresty' neck, fatty shoulders, or geldings with swollen sheaths, in combination with blood tests and samples are usually taken for insulin and glucose levels. Animals may be overweight, but not always, however most tend to be 'easy keepers' and may have been overweight as youngsters and laminitis is usually a feature at some point.
Normally when carbohydrates are digested they are converted into glucose, which is absorbed through the gut wall and enters the bloodstream. Here the hormone insulin acts like a 'key' allowing glucose to enter cells where it is used as an energy source by the body and conversely, when glucose levels in the body drop, the production of insulin stops.
Certain types of body fat, especially those found in the abdomen, are now thought to be actively involved in a number of metabolic processes, including cortisol production. A consequence of increased body fat is an increase in the level of cortisol produced. Cortisol is a natural steroid hormone, that amongst its many functions, inhibits the action of the hormone insulin, and provokes the 'flight or fight response' to stress.
With high body fat stores cortisol production levels remain high and are not switched off leading to increased circulating levels of cortisol.
This further inhibits the action of insulin, encourages some of the cells to become 'insulin resistant', and prevents the normal uptake of glucose by these cells leading to high circulating blood glucose levels. The body still needs an energy source to function correctly so, to provide the body with the necessary energy, the liver starts to break down stored fat reserves.
This process of storing and then using up stored body fat could explain how native breeds evolved in order to survive harsh winters. During the spring/summer, when food was more plentiful, the animals built up their stores of body fat leading to an increase in circulating cortisol levels. 'Insulin resistant' cells developed and as a consequence even more fat was laid down, resulting in animals entering winter with a generous layer of body fat. During winter when the weather was cold and food was scarce the animals could draw on these fat reserves to provide the energy needed to help keep warm. When the fat reserves were exhausted cortisol levels naturally dropped, insulin resistance was reversed, and animals arrived lean and healthy in the spring, ready to start the whole cycle again.
Insulin Resistance has arisen, partly due to genetics and breeding, but also due to the way in which horses and ponies are managed today. High levels of blood glucose, whether obtained from the diet or because of insulin resistant cells, will eventually be converted and stored as fat. Unlike their wild cousins our domesticated horses are never required to go through scarce times and we turn them out onto rich pastures where they have no need to expend any energy searching for food.
We then add to the problem by giving additional forage, providing inadequate exercise, and then when the weather turns cold we cover them up with rugs, removing the need for them to expend energy to keep warm! No one wants to see their horse suffer but we have to realise that we are effectively offering them a 24/7 'buffet' with often inadequate exercise to work off the energy generated.
So how can herbs help an Insulin Resistant horse?
Firstly it is important to emphasise that any herbal supplementation should be used in conjunction with a steady weight loss programme. Regular exercise is essential to encourage loss of body weight, and a greater muscle mass will help towards fat metabolism (muscles burn more calories). Daily turnout is vital, horses and ponies were designed to graze whilst on the move, which again encourages the burning of calories.
Herbs that can help:
Images to right top to bottom Ginger, Fenugreek and Goats Rue (credit GB NNSS)
Reduce glucose and insulin levels in the blood - Artichoke, Fenugreek, Garlic, Nettle
Reduce absorption of glucose from the gut - Psyllium, Goats Rue
Assist in the absorption of excess glucose in the blood stream - Psyllium, Fenugreek, Artichoke, Garlic, Goats Rue
Promote cellular uptake of glucose
- Goats RueSupport liver function and regeneration
- vital for efficient fat metabolism and removal of blood toxins - Milk thistle, ArtichokeSupport bile salt production
- Artichoke, Milk Thistle, Nettle Support digestive process and gut health
- Psyllium, Mint, Fenugreek, ArtichokeNormalise Insulin sensitivity
- Psyllium, Goats Rue
Reduce blood lipid levels
- Artichoke, Garlic, Psyllium, FenugreekImprove blood circulation
- Ginger, Nettle, Mint Hilary Self Bsc MNIMH