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Healing Laminitis & Metabolic Syndrome with Nutrition: Part 3

By Marijke van de Water, B.Sc., DHMS

Insulin Resistance

When a horse (or human for that matter) ingests sugar or starch the blood receives sugar very rapidly from the small intestine. Once in the bloodstream the sugar must find its way into liver and muscle cells where it is either burned for immediate energy or is stored as glycogen and used later. In healthy animals this is accomplished with insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas that regulates blood sugar by attaching itself to specific receptors in the liver and muscle, thereby opening those receptors and allowing the passage of sugar from the blood into the tissues. Eventually, in the presence of a long-term high sugar diet, these cell receptors become damaged by increasingly high insulin levels, at which point they can no longer open – the receptors are now resistant to the effects of insulin.

With nowhere else to go, these sugars must now convert immediately to fat, via the liver, and the easy keeping “sugar hound” becomes very efficient at storing excess blood glucose in the form of a crested neck, fat pads (eyes, shoulders, and hindquarters) and pot bellies. These fat pads are actually a sign of an overloaded “fatty liver” that pops out fat globules. Once the fat stores become saturated, the blood sugar levels increase permanently; the pancreas can no longer produce enough insulin and the insulin levels drop from an insulin resistance high to a hormonal low. This condition of high blood glucose and insulin deficiency is known as diabetes mellitus, or Type II diabetes. The insulin resistant horse can also exhibit signs of excess thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, depression, and/or excessive hunger.

Once blood sugar levels remain permanently high, the sugar levels in all the body tissues drop; this is bad news for the hooves since the laminar tissue is now starved for sugar resulting in the separation and stretching of the lamina.

Metabolic Syndrome (Cushing’s)

It is at this stage that horses go beyond blood sugar imbalances and progress on to what I consider a true Cushing’s profile. Cushing’s symptoms appear as curly hair, incomplete shedding, and/or sweating. The imbalance of blood sugar and insulin levels causes the adrenal glands (one above each kidney) to increase their production of cortisol – a steroid like chemical that act as a natural anti-inflammatory and anti-stress hormone.

Long term levels of increased cortisol will signal the pituitary gland at the base of the brain, to increase levels of ACTH (adenocorticotropic hormone) which signals the adrenals to produce more cortisol. Cortisol is regulated by ACTH, therefore high levels of cortisol, will, in turn, signal the brain to secrete more ACTH. Thus the hormone imbalance perpetuates itself through a circular pathway.

Not only are cortisol levels influenced by blood sugar imbalances; they are also elevated by stress, which triggers the immediate release of cortisol. This is nature’s response to “fight or flight” reactions and is meant to protect from danger by increasing blood pressure and breathing rate, tensing the muscles, and maximizing vision. Unfortunately if the cause of stress is not removed (consider the horse suffering from confinement, loneliness, over-training, physical pain, or just the pain of laminitis for that matter) the continued release of cortisol puts an “easy keeper” at risk and/or maintains already high blood sugar levels (to increase available energy). The aged horse is particularly prone to this since the older horse is unable to turn off the cortisol response to stress as quickly as the younger horse.

The effects of elevated and excessive cortisol levels are:

a) high blood sugar leading to laminitis 

b) depressed immunity – a complication of high blood sugar, poor immunity lowers an effective response to bacterial infections and toxicity. This also affects the resistance of the lamina leading to damage and separation.

c) Muscle wasting from protein loss

d) Poor integrity of the laminar tissue from protein loss.

e) osteoporosis

f) weight gain

The use of synthetic steroid medications (eg: dexamethasone, cortisone injections, cortisone creams) have the same negative effects and are therefore contraindicated in horses with metabolic syndrome, cushings or laminitis. Conversely, those horses that are on steroids should not be fed any kind of sugars or high starch feed.

Metabolic Syndrome as in insulin resistance and cushing’s is most often seen in those horses that are overweight and are considered “easy keepers”.  The reason that “easy keepers” are “easy” is due to ancestry and include ponies, desert breeds, and mountain horses that are metabolically adapted for survival in harsh, low nutrient environments rather than in a lush sugar-laden pasture with sweet feed for dessert. The “easy keeping Breeds” include all ponies and minis, fjords, Icelandics, Arabs, mustangs, and gaited horses.

Metabolic syndrome in horses is not a disease of the pituitary, rather, it is a result of modern horsekeeping!


Marijke van de Water, B.Sc., DHMS

•  Equine Health & Nutrition Specialist
•  Homeopathic Practitioner
•  Medical Intuitive/Healer
•  Seminar & Retreat Facilitator

“Helping Horses & Their People”

Marijke has been a Natural Health Practitioner and Energy Healer for nearly two decades. She is a gifted and widely respected healer who uses a blend of exceptional knowledge, modern science, ancient wisdom and medical intuition giving her an uncanny ability to track the underlying causes of unwellness. She uses a variety of modalities to help horses (and their people) including diet, clinical and therapeutic nutrition, homeopathic medicines, energy testing and energy healing.

Phone: 1.800.405.6643

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