Stress is something that we all encounter daily whether if we are animal or human. Stressors are the reason as to why we adapt and hopefully overcome new challenges, whether if that is a new task at work, a new exercise routine or environmental changes. It is what hopefully makes us stronger, more resilient. Those stressors create a stress response in our body, which then we hopefully adapt to over time. The question is how much stress is our body supposed to handle, or that body of our equine companions or even pets, and how does prolonged stressor exposure impact health, recovery and even soundness or injury?
The stress response in the body is a complex pathway of events that has been heavily researched for many decades. The response basically entails release of hormones by the body, including cortisol from the adrenal glands, which then has a cascade of subsequent events impacting other hormones being released, including blood sugar alterations, metabolism, epinephrine, heart rate changes and blood pressure and even long term organ damage. In the short term, it appears based on research that exposure to stress is a good thing, impacting health positively on certain levels. The problem seems to come when the body is exposed to repeated stressors on a daily basis, which then negatively impacts health, contributing to inflammation and disease. In today’s high tech world of cell phones, devices, instant communication, emails and texts, stress levels are running high and it is something that is hard to get away from without going off the grid. This is also true for our pets and equine companions.
Stress itself, is actually viewed as the body’s response to stressors, which are the causitive agents of stress. Those stressors can range and vary on a daily basis, some being minor, some being more major. On a low level, changes in weather can actually create a stress response in our body. So can running out of coffee in the morning, when a body is addicted to it. On a higher level, we have mental and physical stressors which can range from overwork on a mental level to too much or excessive physical work, which can include exercise. In some cases, we can actually have a combination of both mental and emotional stress, as for example in the world of Dressage with horses, being forced to concentrate mentally and perform physically. This is also true for sports such as tennis, where we again have a strong emotional and physical component. Again, in the short term, the stress response in the body helps us to adapt, grow stronger, but in the long term with excessive exposure, we can do potential damage through persistent hormone release, including cortisol. This persistent elevated cortisol level then can impact other cellular pathways down stream from sugar regulation, contribute to GI problems and ulcers and even impair immune function and healing.
We have to also understand that the stress response can be localized or systemic, meaning it is impacting the entire body. A person with diffuse anxiety and fear demonstrates a systemic response, with clinical signs evident throughout the body. An athlete or construction worker or even secretary often undergo localized stress responses. This is evident by a person sitting a keyboard all day and developing carpal tunnel syndrome, due to stress upon the flexor and extensor tendons in the wrist. A tennis player also undergoes local stress responses, as in the case of a shoulder due to repetitive serving, which leads to localized damage and maybe rotator cuff damage. The same is true for horses of many disciplines, having localized stress responses within joints and tendon/ligament structures, which over time contributes to damage and injury.
In many cases of disease, the stress response is actually directly or indirectly involved. This holds true for conditions ranging from heart disease, to ulcers to even cancer. In fact, what is interesting is that in many instances of heart attacks and even cancer, most patients when surveyed note a significant emotional event in the not so distant past. Emotions are often highly tied in with stressors, and likewise can and do create a stress response within our body. It is easy to deny that stress exists in our life or is the potential blame for our health problems or that of even our horses or pets, but more likely than not just because we believe it not to be true does not mean that is so.
The stress response is an interesting phenomenon. In many articles on stress in the literature, some researchers will note that a continued stress response in the body actually sets us in a wrong ‘groove’, if you will, continue to push us down a wrong path. In those cases, researchers have shown that exposure to a new stressor at time almost pushes us out of that groove and onto a new path. This was shown in early years with electric shock therapy, creating a new stressor in that patient and essentially resetting the dial. In others, many find extreme sports such as base jumping or parachuting, as examples, help them to reachieve balance. Some might find that jumping off a 300 ft tower would be petrifying, creating a negative stress in ourselves, while in others, that stress response is exhilarating. It is really dependent on our personal view of that stressor, which then dictates our bodies response to it. In most cases when talking about stress, we describe things as eustressful or distressful, either being good or bad. No one thing is either good or bad, but more so dependent on the individual as to how they view it and react to it.
When it comes to our horses or our pets, it was very common to have a health complaint directly linked to stress, such as gastric ulcers, but when the point is raised as to the existence of stress, the owner quickly denies that they are under stress. How can a horse that sits out on pasture 24/7 actually be under stress? How can a dog that just sits at home, indoors in the A/C, waiting on their owner to return possibly be under stress? Again, stressors exist all around us, but it is a question of what we react to as individuals and to what extent. That horse in the pasture may be stressed not because there is not enough food, but because there is too much food or forage. That excess consumption of calories on a metabolic level creates stress on a cellular level. We can’t forget the stress with that horse in regards to exposure to environmental factors such as heat or cold. That pet waiting at home in the A/C may be stressed because they are bored, which then creates anxiety as they wait all day long, holding urine/feces, for their owner to return. We, as people, may not view those scenarios as being overtly stressful, but to many pets and horses, they are. If we then go to extremes and view that horse that is stall bound 23 hours out of the day or the dog that is crated 8 hours of the day, we can quickly realize the stress this creates, especially when considering the animal we are dealing with and their natural characteristics. It is also interesting to note than when a person or animal is under stress, often times, certain health or lameness conditions become worse, even just temporarily.
It is easy to see how certain situations, mental or physical, can create stress in our lives or those of our horses or pets, but we tend to forget how other factors do as well. It is well known that stress contributes to health ailments, but what we often don’t realize is that once that health ailment develops, it often becomes a stressor of its own, further propelling that individual or animal down a negative path. We can have a person with a disease ranging from diabetes to cancer, which then creates internal stress on top of what has already occurred. We can also have a horse with an injury that is stalled, then undergoes tremendous stress due to this confinement, which then exacerbates the primary concern.
Our focus in patient therapy has always and will always be on the inflammatory response, but what we have to realize is that stress is directly tied into the process. This stress response can be obvious, as in anxiety or anger, but it can also be more internal, on a cellular level. In some cases, it is hard to prove that it is there, but in others not so much. In many cases, the clinical impact is present, such as gastric ulcers, but yet we still deny that stress is a major factor. In our facility, I find that early morning blood draws evaluating cortisol is helpful to monitor certain patients. It is interesting to see the variations of those cortisol levels in a group of horses under identical conditions. Some are patiently waiting their turn to go outside, while others internally are highly stressed and not so patient.
In reality, we can’t change how a person or animal responds to a stressor, at least in most cases. Maybe through counseling or deconditioning we can improve how the mind reacts to a stressor, but more often than not, our goal is not to change what they respond to, but more so improve the way the body reacts or at least strengthen its ability to respond and adapt. We help to modify this stress response, really more so rebuild and support the body, through the targeted use of herbs referred to as adaptogens. The number of adaptogenic herbs likely ranges in the hundreds, including those from Curcumin to Ashwaghanda. Most of these herbs help to balance negative pathways turned on by repeated stress, including pro-inflammatory pathways. Others actually provide additional antioxidant protection to cells, helping them to rebound and recover more fully. Then there are some that actually show the ability to impact adrenal gland function, strengthening it and promoting healthy levels of hormones, including cortisol.
We have to remember that even in the earliest studies on stress by Hans Selye, is was quite obvious that the stress response led to not only gastric ulcers, but also immune dysfunction or suppression of the immune response. What we don’t realize or see, though, is that this negative event, if persistent over time, actually can then impact not only normal organ function, but also negatively impact other hormones in the body from estrogen, testosterone to even thyroid hormones. So, we can have a male with testosterone concerns, a woman with menstrual difficulties or even an overweight person (or horse) with thyroid deficiences and quickly see how the stress response can play a major role. This holds true for our equine companions as well, noting the impact of stress on hormone fluctuations in mares, decreased fertility in stallions, ongoing tendon injuries, allergies, ulcers and even joint pathologies.
Options for Better Control
Adaptogens are herbal options that enable us to control that stress response, or in other cases, reduce the impact on the body on a health level. There are literally hundreds of adaptogenic herbs at our disposal. Herbs like Curcumin, Boswellia, Spirulina, Alfalfa, Marshmallow, Aloe and many mushrooms are secondary adaptogens, providing cellular protection against stress through management of inflammation, antioxidant support and even nutritional value. This is extremely important as we are reducing damage inflicted by stress. We can’t forget that last part, nutritional value, as this is vital to cellular health and overall function. We have to look at those cells like little engines, producing energy. In times of stress, especially chronic, those ‘engines’ can become overwhelmed and fatigued. Nutrition, proper nutrition via whole food ideally, helps us to continue to provide for those cells, giving them what they need to function.
There are other primary adaptogenic herbs including Ashwaghanda, Schisandra, Cordyceps and many others that can provide direct benefits to the stress response, by downregulating it. This means they have the ability to impact the hypothalamic-adrenal axis (HPA), normalizing stress hormones including cortisol. Most of these herbs also have the added benefit of downregulating inflammation, providing antioxidant support and even impacting normal circulation.
Two of my favorite formulas for helping to impact the stress response, in the short term and especially in the long term, are the Cur-OST EQ Adapt and EQ Revive for horses. I will use these two formulas either alone or in combination with other supportive Cur-OST formulas in our equine patients, to maximize results. The Cur-OST EQ Revive can be especially beneficial in those chronic stress cases, in which health and soundness are impacted, essentially running the ‘battery’ down. It can really make a dramatic differenc in cellular function, energy production, healing and performance.
These same formulas available for people and two that I personally use daily for my own health.
The bottom line here is that stress plays a major role in health and disease. The astute individual is the one that recognizes this and implements means of controlling it, whether if that is via stress reduction or supporting the body to overcome those stressors. We have literally hundreds of herbs with benefits as adaptogens, helping the body to cope, adapt and overcome. Powerful options that must be taken advantage of. Which option do you choose?
Tom Schell, D.V.M.
Nouvelle Research, Inc.