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The Truth About Supplements

“The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.”

By Shawn Madere

We have all used nutritional supplements for our horses at one time or another: They range from the simplicity of a salt block to complex products with ingredient lists that require a chemistry degree to interpret. Even the most qualified horseman can become confused and overwhelmed by the vast volume of claims, endorsements and variety of products available. As equine professionals, you have experienced some that work quite well and some that provide little or no benefit at all. So how can we separate the good from the bad? This article is designed to help us examine the facts, and look beyond the hype and misinformation surrounding some popular supplements: so that we can make better decisions when it comes to the care of our animals and when spending our hard earned money.

“How on earth did horses survive before all those tubs, gallon jugs, and syringes found their way into the barn?” The truth is that the average horse will live a full and healthy life on nothing more than great pasture and water. So how do we decide when and if a supplement is necessary or appropriate? First we must remember that a “supplement” by definition is designed to fill a nutritional void (due to environment or athleticism) or to assist therapeutically in normal biological functions (as to aid in tissue recovery). Unfortunately the current trend is to over supplement. Not only can this be costly; but the overuse of certain supplements can actually hinder your horses’ performance. For example, a recent study indicated that the overuse of electrolytes can actually cause stomach ulcers in the horse. Further, overuse of non-soluble vitamins and minerals interferes with performance: by forcing the body to devote vital energy to eliminate the excess, rather than devoting energy to work. Mineral toxicity is also a concern. Many feed rations and supplements contain the exact same vitamins and minerals causing unwanted overlap of the ingredient. It’s wise to compare you horses entire feed and supplement program side-by-side. You may be surprised to find that you might be overdosing your animal without even realizing it!

In this article we will focus on some of the most popular supplements used for equine joint health: Hyaluronic Acid (HA), MSM, Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulfate. We will and examine the scientific data and reveal some misconceptions and myths that exist regarding these supplements. The end result is that you will be able to choose products for the right reasons: and use these products more effectively in achieving your goals.

Oral hyaluronic acid (HA). This popular supplement has been clinically shown to reduce inflammatory responses in the body

The Myth: Oral HA travels through the body and becomes HA inside the joint.

Reality: HA is an incredibly large molecule that is poorly absorbed through the digestive system. Radio-marker testing shows that less than 5% of oral HA can pass into the bloodstream and is deposited primarily in the liver. Unfortunately, the rest ends up on the stall floor. So how does it work? When the body detects levels of HA in the bloodstream that are higher than normal; the liver will reduces its production of inflammatory proteins called interleukins. This in turn helps reduce inflammation throughout the body including joints. This response is best demonstrated by the use of an injectable HA (most notably Legend®) When used IV or IM, these drugs have a direct effect on inflammation: alleviating many symptoms associated with joint problems. Which form should you choose? Keep this in mind when shopping for an oral HA product. Before oral HA can be broken down and incorporated into the system it must be properly hydrated. This process may take up to 18 hours. For this reason; the gel and liquid forms providing a minimum of 100mg of HA per dose, should prove to be a much better choice for oral HA supplementation than the dry pellets or powders.

Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM)
Myth: MSM is an anti-inflammatory.
Reality: MSM is nothing more than a highly absorbable organic form of sulfur that helps the body maintain proper nutrient exchange. How does it work? Sulfur is vital in helping cellular membranes exchange nutrients and helps the liver produce methionine; which aids in removing metabolic waste. Under normal conditions a horse on pasture extracts enough of this element from the environment through forage and water sources to maintain adequate levels. Unfortunately, most horses are not kept this way and may lack sufficient sulfur intake. This may result in a deficiency that hinders normal flexibility of ligaments and tendons. As nutrient exchange is reduced, they lose some elasticity. This can reduce stride length and put added pressure on the joint tissues. In extreme cases, this can result in inflammation of the joint capsule. When MSM is added to the horses diet, and normal sulfur levels are reached, the tendons and ligaments relax and the swelling naturally goes away. Through this process we can see that MSM is not an anti-inflammatory; but simply a vital element that may be missing from the domesticated horse’s diet. MSM is inexpensive and easy to use and should be recommended for horses without access to pasture, or as a supplement during winter when normal forages are dormant. One cautionary note: when choosing an MSM product, be sure that it was made with the distillation process and not the evaporative method as the latter can leave harmful residues in the finished product. As the number of studies on MSM in horses is limited, look for one that provides a minimum of 10 grams per day.

Glucosamine. This popular supplement is the backbone for the majority of joint supplements on the market. Glucosamine has been clinically proven to aid in cartilage repair, reduce the symptoms of equine lameness due to osteoarthritis; as well as to reduce the necessity for hock injections with long-term use.

Myth: Glucosamine HCl is the best for horses, as it is 98% absorbed.

Reality: Much of the absorption touted by many companies is lost to the digestive process. Overall absorption does not translate into actual delivery into the bloodstream. This is vitally important to know: if we do not provide sufficient levels of glucosamine to the horse it will not enter the bloodstream and thus cannot benefit joint tissues. A recent study showed that glucosamine HCl lost more of its active component to digestion in the horse than glucosamine in the sulfate form. Actual delivery to the bloodstream was only 6.1% for glucosamine HCl as compared to 9.3% for glucosamine sulfate. While this study went mostly unreported, many major companies switched to sulfate forms as a result of the findings. To date, the highest documented glucosamine levels achieved in the horse so far has been through the use of a patented combination of all 4 glucosamines with a delivery rate to the bloodstream of 26%. How does it work? When circulating glucosamine levels are higher than normal, many different cells within the body are stimulated. Joint tissues including cartilage and synovial cells are stimulated to rebuild damaged fibril cartilage, and increasing the production of natural hyaluronic acid within the joint itself. This rebuilding and lubricating process provides the majority of the benefit of glucosamine supplementation. When choosing a glucosamine product be sure to look for one that is in a pure powdered form; as this is the most bioavailable and active form. Unfortunately, many products contain glucosamine that has been exposed to moisture. This exposure oxidizes glucosamine and can reduce its potency dramatically with time. Why is this important? The protein in glucosamine is stabilized by a small amount of salt, Chloride (HCl), Sodium (NaCl), or Potassium (KCl). This is the only thing preventing oxidation of the protein. Within 72 hours of the salt dissolving, the glucosamine is subject to oxidative stress and breaks down rapidly. Be sure to take this into consideration when choosing a product.
Proper dosing is another problem associated with purchasing a quality glucosamine product. With many products, you aren’t getting enough of a relevant dose for your horse. How much do horses need? This question was answered by an 8-year, peer-reviewed study published in 2006 using 11 grams of glucosamine/chondroitin daily for an 1,100-pound horse. This established a therapeutic dose based on 1 g per 100 pounds of body weight for horses. This is now considered the industry standard. Be sure that the product you are choosing meets this requirement.

Chondroitin Sulfate (CS). This is found in many products and is included for its ability to suppress damaging enzymes, and provide protein chains for cartilage development and hydration.

Myth: All Chondroitin Sulfate is the same.

Reality: There is a vast difference in the types and prices of CS that are available. Some forms are highly refined and can be absorbed through the digestive system. Others are dehydrated and pulverized tissues including cartilage and skin that have very poor absorption rates. Unfortunately, both forms are categorized as mucopolysaccharides and can legally be listed on labels as chondroitin sulfate. Testing standards within the industry have become more rigorous, and the lesser forms are being weeded out. The NASC and consumerlab.com test products with a new standard that only recognizes the higher and more refined CS in both animal and human products. Keep in mind that this is NOT observed by the industry as a whole and it’s a good idea to contact the company to find out what type of CS they use in their products. How does it work? CS has the unique ability to inhibit the production of some damaging enzymes in joint tissues. When components of CS are available in the synovium they reduce both the production and number of these enzymes in cartilage. This suppressive effect allows products like glucosamine to work more effectively in the repair process. This is the primary reason you see them combined.

Looking at four of the most popular supplements for equine joint health, there are some misconceptions and outright falsehoods that accompany their marketing and promotion. The old saying “buyer beware” is one that we should live by. We encourage horse owners to stay informed, do their own research, and make an educated decision on what supplements are necessary for their horses’ well-being.

For a copy of the full CHA presentation “Supplements; the good the bad and the ugly” please contact Shawn Madere 866.452.3473, or send your request via email to customercare@glcdirect.