Coming Soon from the BioStar Lab: Stress Relief for the Whole Horse
I have been fascinated by the biology and chemistry of stress since 1983, when the human supplement company I worked for introduced a revolutionary (at the time) stress supplement: the B-complex vitamins together with the amino acid tryptophan. Before this, no other supplement company had addressed the anxiety component of stress; all stress formulas at the time were low- to high-potency complexes of B-vitamins, either with or without iron. Of course, today there are hundreds of stress formulas for humans, combining herbs, minerals, and specific amino acids for providing calm and reducing anxiety. Typical among these are B-1, B-6, skullcap, lemon balm, chamomile, hops, valerian root, GABA, 5-HTP, magnesium, inositol, and L-theanine. If those ingredients look familiar to you, it’s because most of them are common ingredients in equine stress and calming formulas.
The biology of stress in horses
Stress is a natural reaction to change. The “fight or flight” response is a quick burst of adrenalin that stimulates a physical and mental reaction to immediate threats. When a horse experiences change, stress hormones such as cortisol rise, norepinephrine in the brain increases, stomach acid elevates and blood supply is directed to the limbs and muscles and feet.
Acute stress is a short-term response to change. Chronic stress is a prolonged response to change when the horse struggles or is unable to cope. Chronic stress leads to the horse’s health being compromised: ulcers, weight loss or weight gain, immune dysfunction, and poor performance.
Horses that compete are especially prone to stress. Getting on a trailer, even for a short ride, can often mean development of ulcers from the stress of leaving home.
Of course, trailering is only one potential source of equine stress. Whenever a horse enters the warm-up area at a show, or goes into the ring to compete, that horse’s stress levels become elevated. A horse can also be stressed with changes to routine, changes in the herd, a new neighbor in the barn, a rider being stressed, a groom being stressed, the farrier, the vet, weather changes, feed changes, temperature changes, learning a new movement or jumping a more complex gymnastic, health issues, soundness issues, or simple confinement.
How does your horse cope with stress?
There are two basic coping styles used by horses under stress: proactive coping and reactive coping. The proactive coping horse makes its stressed state clear through a variety of methods including wind sucking, stall walking, weaving, or being overly spooky under saddle. The reactive coping horse shows few or no outward signs of being affected by stress, although they may appear withdrawn, or show a reduced responsiveness to touch or an increased fear reaction to a scary object. Generally, the reactive coping horse is an internalizer who tends to conceal stress, while the proactive coping horse is an externalizer who makes it clear, sometimes dramatically, that all is not right in his/her world.
Solutions from the East: Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda
In approaching chronic stress, the path taken by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda is profoundly different from that taken by Western medicine. In TCM and Ayurveda, chronic stress is addressed from a whole-body perspective with specific plants and mushrooms that are classified as adaptogens: compounds with a unique ability to adapt their functions based on the specific needs of the body. Some practitioners refer to them as “thermostats”, modulating the body’s stress response like a device that controls temperature. Adaptogens can be stimulating, like ginseng, or relaxing like tulsi.
Adaptogens support the endocrine, circulatory, and glandular systems. Specific adaptogens can reduce cortisol from the adrenal gland, and help stimulate serotonin production in the brain. The adaptogens are:
Holy basil (tulsi)
While adaptogens have been used for thousands of years in TCM and Ayurvedic Medicine, in modern times it has been the Soviet Union, and later Russia, that have been on the forefront of adaptogen research. Lab and animal studies show that certain adaptogens have anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties, can help control blood sugar, and provide support to the immune system. Research has shown that some adaptogens have beneficial stress-protective effects related to the regulation of homeostasis associated with the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis.
Adaptogens in equine supplements
These compounds are not new to equine supplements. Companies like BioStar, Curost, Auburn Laboratories (makers of APF), Springtime, and Equine Matrix (originally Mushroom Matrix) include specific adaptogens in their formulas. BioStar was the first company to introduce a patented ashwaganda extract back in 2007. BioStar was also the first company to use tulsi (holy basil). Auburn Labs was the first company to use Schisandra and Rhodioloa rosea. Springtime provides ginseng extract in several formulas, and Equine Matrix was the first company to include reishi mushrooms.
Brain, Gut, Adrenal gland: The “Triad of Stress”
Equine stress is a three-faceted effect influenced by the brain, the gut, and the adrenal gland. If we simply address one part of this triad—for example, giving calming agents for the brain—then the horse is still strongly affected by the other two prongs of stress: imbalance in the gut and cortisol from the adrenal gland.
There’s also another tier of biological systems impacted by stress: the immune system and the liver. Addressing these other systems needs to be a co-priority in the formulation of any whole-horse stress supplement, as we’ll see below.
It’s important to note that whether the horse is an internalizer (reactive coping) or an externalizer (proactive coping), the biological effects of stress on the brain/gut/adrenal axis, immune system and liver remain the same.
There are lots of calming pastes on the market, most of them designed to reduce anxiety. From a TCM or Ayurvedic perspective, this is akin to stopping the bleeding but not addressing the wound.
But calming pastes do have the advantage of being fast-acting: 45 minutes to an hour to take effect. For riders and owners this is a big plus. Nobody wants their horse to have a meltdown in the ring, or in the trailer, or on a trail ride, or when they’re being shod.
Beta-testing on the big stage
There is probably more equine stress and human stress in Wellington, Florida during the Winter Equestrian Festival than just about anywhere else outside of thoroughbred racetracks. This made Wellington the perfect venue to test two new stress formula pastes from BioStar recently.
We knew these pastes could not just be for calming; they had to address the whole biological stress triad along with the additional liver and immune systems.
BioStar tried the new formulas on 30 different horses—hunters, ponies, jumpers and dressage horses—with surprising results: every horse was calmer, more settled and focused, as reported by their riders. One dressage horse was too calm on Formula A so we switched the horse to Formula B. According to her trainer, “It worked like a charm.”
What makes BioStar pastes different? It starts with a mushroom
Both of our equine stress paste formulas start with an extract: red reishi mushroom. For sourcing, we’ve chosen a small, family-owned company in Tennessee that specializes in mushroom extracts. They use a dual extraction technique for the fruit body and mycelium portions of the mushroom in their USDA-certified organic extraction process. This process ensures that the beneficial mushroom spores in the fruit bodies are not removed.
Why reishi mushroom you ask? Well, first and foremost it’s an adaptogen. Reishi is known in TCM as “the mushroom of immortality.” In Chinese medicinal texts it is referred to as a calming shen food. Taoists refer to reishi as a food that nourishes the spirit and relaxes the mind. Research over the last 20 years has shown that reishi can provide support for multiple body systems:
Reishi for the endocrine and immune systems
Reishi can help balance the endocrine system and the glandular system, thus playing a vital role in mental clarity and stress reduction. Further studies have shown that reishi supports the immune system via regulation of T-lymphocytes and helps to reduce inflammation.
Reishi for liver support
Recent studies have also given evidence for reishi’s hepatoprotective effects on the liver. This is key, because ten percent of the horse’s total blood volume is in the liver, and it is estimated that the liver performs over 500 different functions, including:
- Detoxification of the blood
- Bile production, essential for the absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin E
- Manufacture of albumin (the major blood protein) and coagulation factors for blood clotting
- Regulation of metabolism by storing excess glucose as glycogen, and converting it back to glucose as needed
- Breakdown of fats for energy metabolism
- Synthesis of the nonessential (non-dietary) amino acids
What else is in there?
• One formula has increased serotonin support from casein and un-denatured whey protein;
• The other formula has more cortisol reduction with the inclusion of Tulsi (aka Holy Basil).
• Both provide micro-crystalized medical grade aloe for the GI tract. This is the same aloe used in hospitals for burn patients—not the stuff you buy at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods.
• We’ve also included camelina oil for its high vitamin E and omega-3 content to help maintain a healthy inflammation response, plus more vitamin E antioxidant support from almond powder.
They’re coming soon!
These two new BioStar paste formulas will provide riders and owners with equine stress support based on a blend of Western science and Eastern medicine. The new formulas focus not just on calming, but on addressing the entire triad of biological reactions to stress—brain, gut, and adrenal system—plus added support for the hepatic (liver) and immune systems that are also closely tied to stress. This unique combination will ensure that your horse receives the very best whole-horse support for equine stress and anxiety.