Written by Natalie Hackl Equine Nutritionist
BAnVetBioSc (Hons), BEqSt for Kelato Animal Health Pty Ltd. 2018
Over the past few years, awareness of the benefits of ‘pectin’ and ‘lecithin’ for maintaining a healthy stomach lining has increased significantly. They’re ingredients you’ve no doubt heard of in relation to digestive supplements but possibly aren’t sure what they do. So, what’s all the fuss about?
Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS)
The high prevalence of gastric ulcers occurring not only in performance horses, but leisure/pleasure horses and those out at pasture, increases the need to identify substances that help promote optimal stomach health. While the drug omeprazole prevails as the most effective treatment for gastric ulcers in horses, there is a need for and a serious benefit to providing longer term maintenance care after the initial treatment.
Since horses are meant to be grazing for the majority of the day (16-20 hours), their stomach produces gastric acid on an almost continuous basis. In fact, a 500kg horse produces around 30L of acid per day regardless of whether there is anything in the stomach! As you can imagine, if the horse goes for a period with nothing to eat the stomach contents will become very acidic. If you then exercise your horse on an empty stomach, the acid will slosh around and burn the sensitive mucosal lining. Gastric ulcers are essentially wounds that develop on the stomach lining when the protective mucosal layer is disrupted and damaged by gastric acid. Ulcers can occur in both the upper (squamous) and lower (glandular) part of the stomach. There are various factors that increase the risk of equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS) such as a low forage diet, exercise, stabling, travelling, competing and stress.
The squamous region of the horse’s stomach has a phospholipid surfactant-like layer (think of the consistency of detergent), which contributes to the mucosal barrier. However, it lacks a significant mucous layer, has poor blood supply and has a variable ability to heal spontaneously once injured. On the other hand, the glandular region is where the acid glands are located, so it secretes a thick mucous and bicarbonate layer to protect the mucosa.
What is pectin?
Pectin is a water-soluble fibre found in the cell wall of fruits, tubers and the stems of plants. In the presence of a low pH, pectin forms a gel-like solution. To put it in perspective, pectins are used to thicken jam and give it the gel-like consistency.
What is lecithin?
Lecithin is an abundant, naturally occurring phospholipid found in animal and plant cell membranes. Commercially, lecithin is most commonly derived from soybeans. Phospholipids are made up of two
fatty acids that are attached to a glycerol ‘head’. The glycerol head region of the molecule is hydrophilic, which means it attracts water. On the other end, the fatty acid tail is hydrophobic, which means it repels water.
How can pectin and lecithin benefit my horse?
As mentioned above, in the presence of a low pH (such as that found in the horse’s stomach) pectin turns into a gel. The pectin then binds to bile acids in the stomach. This increases the buffering capacity of the stomach acid (i.e. raises the pH and makes it less acidic) and helps to stabilise the protective mucous in the glandular region of the stomach.
Lecithin helps to stabilise the natural phospholipid layer of the horse’s stomach. In acidic conditions, lecithin immediately breaks down into a mix of reactive phospholipids. The hydrophilic (water loving) head attaches to the stomach lining, leaving the hydrophobic (water repelling) tail exposed to the lumen of the stomach. This arrangement helps provide a hydrophobic barrier between the tissue of the stomach wall and the gastric contents. Essentially, it repels water loving substances such as gastric acid away from the stomach wall, thereby protecting the sensitive mucosa.
So what does it all mean?
Gastric ulcers are a serious and debilitating condition that can affect your horse’s health and behaviour and once diagnosed, a course of omeprazole remains the most effective treatment. However, it’s also beneficial to consider the long-term use of a digestive supplement to maximise the benefits of the initial treatment, support the fragile gut environment and ensure your horse’s digestive system continues to function correctly.
When you are considering which product to choose, ‘pectin’ and ‘lecithin’ are ingredients you should look out for. Kelato’s GastroAID Recovery (formerly Digestive) contains a combination of pectin and lecithin that form a gel-like, hydrophobic barrier on the stomach lining, shielding it against the corrosive effects of gastric acid and strengthening the mucosal epithelium of the stomach.
Don’t forget that digestive health supplements along with omeprazole are only one part of the process in maintaining optimal gut health. Changes to your horse’s diet and management practices are often required to provide a comprehensive solution.