Equine performance, stamina, recovery, and overall health are tied in together. For centuries, various “tonic” herbs have been utilized in Chinese and Ayurvedic medical cultures, to help rebuild and promote vitality in the body, especially post illness or in cases of mental or physical exhaustion. Two key herbs stand out regarding their known ability to ‘revive’ or reenergize the body: Cordyceps sinensis and Astragalus membranaceus. In a search on Pubmed.gov, there are 853 cited papers on Astragalus membranaceus and 1118 on Cordyceps sinensis. This give us an idea of the vast amount of research conducted and the potential applications towards health restoration.
When it comes to the equine athlete, performance is critical, which includes stamina and recovery ability. These three factors hinge on many possible contributors from lameness to cardiovascular function. In many cases of chronic health or lameness concerns, the patient can become mentally and physically exhausted, depleted, which then impacts performance and even ability to heal or mend tissue damage. When we look at the equine industry and the animals involved, we can often see this depletion, on an energy level, contributing to chronic health ailments ranging from ongoing lameness to even immune dysfunction. Considering the high number of patients impacted by this scenario, we need to look deeper for possible solutions to assist them in overall health.
Astragalus membranaceus is an ancient herb used in Chinese medicine to ‘tonify Qi’, which really implies it helps to rebuild internal energy. These Qi or energy deficiency scenarios can be seen in cases of chronic illness or even lameness, but also in ongoing mental or physical stress which leads to exhaustion. Astragalus is used to enhance energy production, which can benefit many organ systems including the lungs, digestion, immune function, cardiac function and even the mind. All cells require energy production, ATP, to perform their respective jobs properly. When this ability is impaired, it equates to a reduce level of overall health and performance on many levels.
On a chemical level, Astragalus is composed of numerous polysaccharides, saponins, flavonoids, amino acids and even micronutrients.1 The list of micronutrients includes zinc, iron, copper, magnesium, manganese, calcium, potassium, sodium, cobalt, rubidium, molybdenum, chromium, vandaium, tin and silver. Other constituents include phytosterols, volatile oils, GABA, L-canavanine, choline, betaine, essential oils, linolenic acid and asparagine.2
In research studies, immune function has been one area of key interest with Astragalus membranaceus. Overall, what we see is that Astragalus has the potential to unlock the immune response, taking it from a resting or quiet state, to one of activity.2 Astragalus has been shown to improve production of immunoglobulins (antibody), stimulate macrophages, activate T-cells and natural killer (NK) cells.2,3 Aside from noted immune modifying capabilities, Astragalus has demonstrated free radical scavenging capabilities, antioxidant properties, that were equal to or rival superoxide dismutase.4 This helps to reduce oxidative stress damage upon the body on many levels including cardiovascular, lung and kidney function.
Astragalus has also demonstrated marked ability to modulate or downregulate the inflammatory process, which may prove useful in inflammatory diseases. In one study, there was evidence that Astragalus membranaceus was capable of downregulating inflammation by blocking NF-kB and AP-1 signaling pathways.5
Cardiovascular health and improved circulation has also been evident in clinical studies using Astragalus. In numerous papers, Astragalus has demonstrated ability to improve GI health, prevent gastrointestinal mucosal damage, improve cardiac myocardial healing and even enhance kidney health. These abilities can be seen through many signaling pathways including inflammation reduction, reduction of oxidative damage, alteration of nitric oxide production, endothelial health and mitochondrial function.6,7,8
In review, Astragalus membranaceus offers tremendous potential in enhancing cellular mitochondrial function, energy, circulation, inflammation modulation and antioxidant potential in promoting health.
Cordyceps sinensis is one herb used commonly in Chinese medical traditions, primarily being a ‘kidney Yang tonic’. Primarily being used to ‘warm’ and support kidney function, but also benefiting the lungs. Cordyceps is actually not a mushroom, but more so a parasitic fungus, originating from an insect larval host (Hepialis armoricanus). It only grows in high altitude regions of the Himalayan mountains, being harvested from April to August.9 Due to the extreme variables required to grow and harvest the fungus, Cordyceps has been viewed as a vital tonic and thus, extremely expensive at times. Fortunately, it is grown in climate controlled, organic based facilities here in the United States by one organization (Aloha Medicinals).
Chemically, Cordyceps contains many active ingredients which pose health benefits on many levels. Cordycepin and cordycepic acid were the initial bioactives discovered, but the list continues to grow to include various saccharides, polysaccharides, beta-glucans, proteins, peptides, polyamines and all essential amino acids. There are also numerous sterols, saturated and unsaturated fatty acids present.15
Cordyceps has been used traditionally to enhance vigor and vitality, for colds, bronchitis, asthma, diabetes, erectile dysfunction, kidney support, cancer and immune dysfunction. Local herders to the Himalyan region would use the herb to enhance milk production, reproductive capability and overall health in their goats. In that region, Cordyceps as been coined the “Himalayan Viagra”.9
Evaluating research data, Cordyceps has been investigated heavily in regards to immune function, especially in cancer trials. It has been shown to benefit the immune function via cellular signaling pathways including NF-kB, upregulating the expression of many cytokines to enhance overall immune function, including TNF and various interleukins.10,11 Cordyceps has been shown to downregulate or reduce inflammation via the NF-kB signaling pathway, in addition to providing critical antoxidant protection.12
One key area of interest in regards to our current study is endurance and fatigue. Cordyceps has been consumed traditionally as a tonic to improve fatigue and energy. In research trials, use of Cordyceps has demonstrated increases in endurance, but are dose dependent. In one trial evaluating swimming fatigue, at a higher dose, there was a 73% increase in endurance. This was attributed to the cardiac tonic effects and relaxation of smooth muscle, which may improve overall circulation and cardiovascular function. In another model, there was noted improved lactate energy metabolism, which may assist performance due to improved lactate clearance.13,14
Cordyceps first gained some of the limelight for its endurance potential in the 1993 Chinese National Athletic Championships, when multiple world records were set, despite the lack of positive testing for banned substances.
In review, Cordyceps has demonstrated many marked benefits to health including immune function, inflammation modulation, antioxidant support and enhancement to performance via cardiovascular improvement.
A clinical observational trial was conducted on a small population of Quarter Horses, mainly participating in the sport of Barrel Racing. In the trial, we had a total population of 10 horses, 5 of which had concurrent respiratory ailments including a history of COPD or asthma. The patients were in otherwise good health and were on no medications. Their overall performance averaged at the bottom of the 1D to the upper 3D, but all owners had expressed a desire to improve their overall performance in the arena. Those horses with clinical respiratory problems manifested generally as coughing post race, plus or minus nasal mucoid discharge. The ongoing respiratory ailments obviously impacted overall performance of that equine athlete.
Each owner was given one month supply of a proprietary blend of Cordyceps sinensis and Astragalus membranaceus, with instructions to administer 20 grams once daily (1 scoop). They were asked to monitor in daily training for any changes in overall energy, stamina, recovery and improvement in respiratory condition, if present.
Out of the 10 horses, all owners noted marked improvement in energy and focus, with dramatic improvement in recovery times post race. The horses that were not impacted by a respiratory ailment were able to maintain improved energy and recovery on 20 grams of the proprietary blend (1 scoop), while those with the respiratory ailment demonstrated response to 40 grams (2 scoops). The higher dose requirement likely coinciding with chronic health impairment.
The most interesting part of the observational trial was not just the improved energy and recovery, but a noted positive change to respiratory function in those afflicted with ailments. All horses with prior respiratory compromise, in the form of COPD or asthma, noted marked improvement in respiratory rate and effort, in addition to improved overall energy and recovery. They also noted a reduction in cough by at least 80% if not 100% in some cases.
The overall energy noted by the owners was not viewed as excessive, but more controlled with focus. The horses recovered quicker, seemed to run and perform better and were ready to go again, in a shortened period of time as compared to before the trial supplement. Several horses in the trial improved their run times by 0.3-0.5 seconds.
In a second observational clinical trial, with 5 OTTB jumpers, use of the proprietary blend of Cordyceps sinensis and Astragalus membranaceus for one month resulted in reduction in post exercise lactate levels by 20%, after heavy jumping routine. It was also noted that monitored heart rates quickly returned to normal or baseline, within an average time of 20 mins post exercise. This equated to marked improvement in stamina and endurance in the arena and improved overall recovery.
No negative side effects were noted in either study. It was interesting to note that in those horses in the second group, they tended to have a higher packed cell volume (HCT) and hemoglobin (HGB) level as compared to controls not on the research supplement.
Health and performance are complicated, yet critical areas in the equine athlete. Through the use of Cordyceps sinensis and Astragalus membranaceus we may be able to improve performance, stamina and recovery on many levels, which equates often to improved health. Both herbs have years of clinical research with efficacy and proven safety. Through modulation of inflammatory pathways, immune function, antioxidant support and even cardiovascular support, we may not only be able to assist the equine athlete but also assist those non-athletic horses that are afflicted with various chronic health ailments, including laminitis, metabolic conditions and respiratory ailments.
Study conducted and authored by Tom Schell, D.V.M. of Nouvelle Research, Inc. 2016.
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