Digestion Matters

Willowtrail Farm Fell PoniesMy lessons in stewarding ponies began with horsemanship but were followed almost immediately by topics of husbandry.  Founder and colic and how to prevent them were high priority subjects.  Diet was of utmost importance regarding founder, and pH of the gut was top priority regarding colic.  Stewarding the digestive systems of my ponies became the basis of my preventive health program.

I was filled with delight, then, when I heard a news report last week about the connection between digestive systems and health – in humans.  Much of what I’ve learned and practiced regarding pony health has been found to be true for people, too (click here to listen to the report).  Here are the findings I considered most heartening:

  • A diverse population of gut microbes correlates to good health.
  • A larger population of gut microbes correlates to good health.
  • Risk factors for common health problems correlate to poor gut microbe populations.

“People who had less microbial diversity … were more likely to have a variety of risk factors for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Those risk factors included insulin resistance and inflammation.” (1) The study also found that obesity is correlated with low diversity of gut flora and low populations of gut flora.  Although the study was on humans, I can’t help but believe, with the connection to obesity and insulin resistance, that similar conclusions would be reached regarding ponies.

Scientists have been acknowledging that the microbes in our digestive tracts have a role in digestion.  Now, this research shows that those microbes play a much broader role in overall health.  “…eating a poor diet or taking lots of antibiotics may be factors in the obesity epidemic and associated health problems, in part, because of the way they affect our gut microbes” according to one of the researchers in France. (2)  In an associated study, dietary interventions were found to improve gut microbe populations, suggesting that dietary changes can lead to improved health (keeping in mind of course that the ‘right’ diet is a highly individual thing – see, for instance, “Nutritional Advice for Every Body” by clicking here.)

One topic that often comes up in the context of digestive system health is probiotics.  Indeed, the researchers suggested that directly supplementing the good bugs might be a preventive health option.  It will be interesting to see if that is a viable strategy.  What I have learned is that adding the good bugs can be challenging; it’s difficult to administer them orally and have them survive the transit through the stomach and small intestine.  Instead, prebiotics are usually recommended which instead of containing the good bugs act by promoting a favorable environment for beneficial gut flora; prebiotics generally are able to transit the upper digestive tract and arrive at their destination ready to promote health.  For more on prebiotics vs. probiotics, click here.

One of the researchers concluded “It shows that [even] if you are on the unhealthy side, with dietary intervention you can actually convert yourself back to the healthy side…  This bad state is reversible in a relatively simple way, which is diet.” (3)  My experience, both personally and with my ponies, has definitely been that dietary intervention can lead to improved health.  I’d quarrel with the researcher, though, that such an approach is ‘relatively simple.’  While I am willing to dedicate significant time and effort to make sure my diet and that of my ponies is healthy, I know lots of people who struggle with competing demands for their time and energy and usually let dietary choices slip down on the priority list.  It’s a lot easier to appease a whining child (or adult for that matter) with some French fries than with a green salad.  The good news, though, is that if the effort can be made, benefits will likely result.

  1. Stein, Rob, “Diverse Gut Microbes, A Trim Waistline And Health Go Together” at http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/08/28/216081342/diverse-gut-microbes-a-trim-waistline-and-health-go-together
  2. Same as #1.
  3. Same as #1.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2013

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About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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