Stress. It impacts every dog and horse, leading to anxiety, behavioral problems, and many negative health implications. It affects them all on different levels and considering the health effects, the best option would be to just eliminate stress, but that is not always possible. The impact of stress on health is obvious and well known, but often we neglect to realize the same impact in the average dog or horse. Those effects are real, but the question comes as to what is the best way to manage them? Let’s take a look at one promising option, which is the powerful adaptogen, Ashwaghanda.
Anxiety and stress are a part of life in every dog or horse, but often we just accept the consequences and move forward in our life patterns. On a basic level, stress is the response to a stimulus, whether if that is environmental, dietary, physical, psychological or other. In most instances, it results in the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, increases cortisol release by the adrenal glands, and negatively impacts the physical and mental well being of every dog or horse.
Clinical Effects of Stress in the Horse and Dog
Hans Selye can be considered one of forefathers of stress research and impact on health. In the 1930’s and 40’s, Hans focused his work on rats and mice, determining the clinical impact of stressors such as cold, electrical shock and various medications on the body. He began to recognize that all of these forces were actually ‘stressors’ and their impact on the body was the response of ‘stress’. So, stress…as we know it, based on this definition, is the response, physiologically, by the body to various stressors. Hans helped to define these terms in the realm of clinical medicine.
As Selye experimented with various stressors, he began to recognize that no matter the stressor, the physiological response by the body was the same. During prolonged exposure to the stressor, three distinct things began to happen to the body; enlarged adrenal glands, reduced size of the lymph nodes and thymus, and finally, gastric ulceration. This was a ‘triad’, as he described it, again with all three happening no matter what that stressor may be.
All three of these events are important, impacting health in the dog or horse on many levels. The enlarged adrenal glands are connected to an increase in cortisol production and release within the body, which is favorable in the short term, but detrimental with continued elevations. The decreased size of the lymph nodes actually indicate a potential loss or decrease in immune function, likely connected to the rise in cortisol. Finally, the gastric ulceration is also important as not only do we contend with this heavily in human and equine medicine, but it also goes to show the clinical impact of stress on the GI tract.
In the horse, the impact of stress manifests as:
- Stomach ulcers
- Digestive problems
- Immune compromise
- Emotional vices (pacing, pawing, weaving, cribbing, irritability)
- Performance limitations
In the dog, the impact of stress manifests as:
- Stomach ulcers
- Digestive problems
- Immune compromise (allergies/infections)
- Emotional disorders (aggression, separation anxiety, thunderstorm phobia)
Overall, we often deny that stress exists or impacts health, especially in our animal companions. We often view them as having the perfect life of relaxation with no worries, but indeed stress is a real part of their lives with effects shown every day. In many cases, both the horse and dog, our personal anxiety, stress and worries carries over into their lives, creating health concerns for them as well. We tend to think stress is manifested by outbursts, anger and other emotional problems…which is true, but not always the case. Even the perceived ‘quiet’ individual or animal undergoes stress, it just manifests in other ways.
Current Therapy Options to Manage Stress in the Horse and Dog
In most instances, stress reduction methods in the horse and dog are the best options for overall results and improvement on health. In the human world, we have become increasingly dependent on pharmaceutical medications to reduce anxiety, manage depression, and combat the effects of stress. In fact, these same medications are also commonly used in both dogs and horses for the same reasons and their usage is on the rise, paralleling humans in some instances. This might raise a connection between the interaction of the species. The problem with these medications is that they are only addressing the clinical signs of stress and not so much addressing the health implications. They are also variably effective and can have side effects such as sedation and loss of focus, not to mention being very dangerous at times.
In the horse industry, anxiety and stress are major players, resulting not only in health implications but also compromises training and overall potential for that particular animal. Pharmaceutical medications are commonly used by veterinarians and farriers to facilitate certain procedures, but are more commonly being used by trainers and riders to make the horses more willing to cooperate. In some cases, these same medications are being used prior to competitions to help ‘calm’ the horse, which is not only illegal but is very dangerous for both horse and rider. Then we have the significant dependence on gastric ulcer medications, which address the negative effect of stress on the stomach, but do little for the overall stress process.
Aside from pharmaceutical medications, there are some supplements on the market that utilize various amino acids and magnesium to help reduce anxiety by impacting neurotransmitters within the central nervous system and brain. Although these supplements have all good intentions, they are often variably effective and often do not help in high risk cases. In other situations, they appear to help initially, but their effects tend to diminish over time, possibly due to adaptation.
What if we could calm the mind, relax the body, create focus and enhance overall health through one supplement? It may be possible.
The Impact of Ashwaghanda on Damaging Stress
Ashwaghanda, Withania somnifera, is often also called Indian Ginseng. It has been used in Ayurvedic medical cultures for centuries helping to improve and revitalize health associated with a variety of medical conditions with good results. Ashwaghanda has been extensively researched and is labeled as an ‘adaptogen’, which means that it helps the body to adapt to a variety of stimuli or stressors by creating a non-specific state of increased resistance.
Ashwaghanda has been shown in research studies to have:1,2,3,4
- anti-inflammatory properties
- anti-cancer properties
- antioxidant capabilities
- neuroprotective effects
- anti-stress properties
- cardiovascular protective abilities
- anti-depressant abilities
- joint protective capabilities
- anti-anxiety and calming properties
- immune enhancing capabilities
Ashwaghanda has been extensively studied in human and rodent trials, demonstrating the ability to reduce cortisol levels, increase memory and focus, reduce neurological degeneration, calm the body, reduce blood pressure and heart rate. In some studies, Ashwaghanda has demonstrated the same anti-anxiety benefits as Lorazepam (similar to valium) and anti-depressant effects similar to imipramine, without side effects.1
In one human study, Ashwaghanda demonstrated the ability the reduce scores of stress assessment and markedly reduce serum cortisol levels. In another study, Ashwaghanda proved beneficial in managing the clinical signs of obsessive compulsive disorder.5,6
Ashwaghanda is thought to exert these effects not only through its antioxidant properties but also through the action of chemical components of the herb, which include: alkaloids, steroidal lactones and glycosides. It is theorized that some of these chemical constituents impact hormone synthesis within the body, helping to increase levels when needed or down regulate the effects of already elevated ones.
At Nouvelle Research, Inc., we completed a research trial in horses with general anxiety related behavioral problems and assessed the impact of Ashwaghanda. In the research trial, horses were enrolled with a variety of conditions ranging from trailering difficulty to certain vices and training concerns. The majority of the horses had previous experience with other calming supplements with little to no impact on their condition. The trial population was small, but the use of a concentrated Ashwaghanda extract yielded a greater than 80% response rate in trial candidates with an overall improvement in reported anxiety scores of 50% or greater. The majority of owners reported a response in less than one week with a noted improved temperament, willingness to work, less reactivity to stimuli, and a more calmed, yet focused demeanor.
As a veterinarian, I have also used Ashwaghanda for years in my clinical patients with good results, helping to reduce anxiety in our older canine patients and our equine patients with a variety of behavioral disorders.
The Bottom Line in Dog and Horse Health
Stress is a common denominator to many health problems in today’s society impacting almost every horse and dog. Their given lifestyle, exercise patterns, diet, genetics and overall mental attitude have a lot to do with how much stress impacts their health, but the good news is that there are effective ways of managing it. Considering how extensive the stress response plays into almost every facet of health and soundness, it just makes sense to try to curb it in order to improve the outcome.
Ashwaghanda has proven to be effective and safe in many clinical studies, helping to reduce the negative impacts of stress. Through daily use, Ashwaghanda may also help us to revitalize our bodies, enhance energy and elevate mood, concentration and memory. Given all of these benefits, Ashwaghanda may just be the one ‘tonic’ that we all need in our daily lives.
All my best,
Tom Schell, D.V.M.
Nouvelle Research, Inc.
1. Withania somnifera Monograph, Alt Med Rev, 9(2), 2004
2. Winters, M, Ancient Medicine, Modern Use: Withania somnifera and its potential role in integrative oncology, Alt Med Rev, 11(4), 2006
3. Sumantran V, Kulkarni, A., et al. Chondroprotective potential of root extracts of Withania somnifera in osteoarthritis, J Biosci, 32 (2), 2007, 299-307
4. Mishra, L., Singh, B et al., Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (Ashwaghanda): A review, Alt Med Rev, 5(4), 2000
5. Chandrasekhar, K, Kapoor, J et al. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the safety and efficacy of a high concentration full spectrum extract of ashwaghanda in reducing stress and anxiety in adults, Indian J Psychol Med, 34(3), 2012, 255-62
6. Kaurav, BP, Wanjari, MM et al., Influence of Withania somnifera on obsessive compulsive disorder in mice, Asian Pac J Trop Med, 5(5), 2012, 380-4