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Feeding Horses for Strong Immune Systems


By Kentucky Equine Research Staff

Optimal nutrition fuels body processes and allows horses to do all that is asked of them. Over the past several decades, research in human nutrition reveals that certain nutrients, either by themselves or in combination with others, can be used to boost the immune system.

“In human medicine, immunonutrition has been explored in surgery, oncology, trauma, neurology, critical care, and other clinical settings,” explained Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research.

According to Crandell, “These diets do more than simply meet a patient’s energy demands, provide nutrients, prevent malnutrition, and limit degradation of lean body mass. Offering immunonutrient-rich diets may have beneficial pharmacotherapeutic effects via modulation of the immune system.”

Nutrients commonly found in immunonutrition formulas include:

  • Arginine, an amino acid involved in normal white blood cell function as well as the secretion of various hormones, including insulin and growth hormone;
  • Glutamine, an amino acid that serves as fuel for rapidly dividing cells, such as those involved in repair processes and immune function;
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA);
  • Nucleotides that serve as precursors to DNA and RNA for rapidly dividing cells or during times of metabolic stress; and
  • Antioxidants such as vitamin E, vitamin C, and β-carotene

“Evidence in human medicine suggests that some synergistic interactions between the immunonutrient formula components also exist. This means that not only are the individual ingredients important but also how they are combined with one another,” Crandell said.

Considering this aspect of clinical nutrition remains relatively new in human medicine, it is not surprising that immunonutrition trials have not been performed in horses.

“Based on data available from human studies, information regarding the exact nutrients to include in immunonutrient-rich equine diets and at what levels, when to administer immunonutrition, how long to offer these diets, and which population to focus is unclear,” shared Crandell.

Despite these lingering questions, benefits of immunonutrition include improved clinical outcomes (such as postsurgical survival), decreased length of hospital stay, and decreased morbidity and mortality due to secondary infections following surgical procedures.

“For horses undergoing colic surgery, for example, immunonutrition could prove extremely valuable,” Crandell added.


Editor’s Notes:

For humans, Healthline recommends 15 foods to boost the immune system. They include: 1. citrus fruits (grapefruit, oranges, clementines, tangerines, lemons, limes); 2. red bell peppers (rich in vitamin C and beta carotene); 3. broccoli (packed with vitamins A, D, E, fiber, and antioxidants); 4. garlic; 5. ginger; 6. spinach; 7. yogurt with “live and active cultures;” 8. almonds (contain vitamin E); 9.  sunflower seeds (contain phosphorous, magnesium, and vitamins B-6 and E); 10. turmeric; 11. green tea (antioxidant); 12. papaya (loaded with vitamin C and digestive enzyme papain that has anti-inflammatory effects); 13. kiwi (contain folate, potassium, vitamins K& C); 14. Poultry (chicken and turkey are high in vitamin B-6); 15. shellfish (high in zinc; oysters, crab, lobster, mussels).

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WebMD recommends 16 foods: elderberry, button mushrooms, Acai berry, oysters, watermelon, wheat germ, yogurt, spinach, tea, sweet potato, broccoli, garlic, miso, chicken soup, pomegranate juice, and ginger. Read more about these foods at:

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