Insulin Resistance and The Horse

Adam and Bailey
Adam & Bailey in Bull Dog Canyon

As a family practice physician and bariatrician, my job is to examine and treat the “Diseases of Civilization.”  The Diseases of Civilization are those diseases arising out of the changes induced by industrializing and modernizing a society of people. These include diseases like diabetes, dyslipidemia (abnormal cholesterol), heart disease, hypertension, gout, vascular disease, & stroke. It is interesting that the so called Diseases of Civilization didn’t really appear on the scene until the early 1900’s. Yes, we have now identified some of these diseases in the early Egyptians, but to my point, as a society modernizes or industrializes, certain types of disease begin to arise. The Canadian cardiologist William Osler, one of the founding professors of John’s Hopkins Hospital, documented the first “syndrome” associated with narrowing of the arteries causing heart disease at the turn of the 19th century, and in 1912, the American Cardiologist James Herrick is credited with the discovery that narrowed arteries cause angina, a form of chest pain with exertion.

Today we know that underlying each of these diseases is the phenomenon of insulin over production, which seems to arise between five and twenty years prior to the onset of the Diseases of Civilization. Metabolic Syndrome, Dysmetabolic Syndrome or Syndrome X is the name we’ve given to the presentation of three or more of these diseases at once in one person. There is still argument as to whether insulin over production is the chicken or the egg, but what I see clinically has convinced me that insulin is culprit.

Insulin Resistance
May 2013 Metabolism “Insulin Resistance: An adaptive mechanism . . .” 62(5):622-33. doi: 10.1016/j.metabol.2012.11.004. Epub 2012 Dec 20.

Insulin is a very powerful hormone that acts as a key, opening a door in just about every cell in the body, letting glucose (the primary form of fuel derived from carbohydrate) into the cell.  For reasons that appear to be genetic,  this key becomes “dull” in a portion of the population and does not unlock the door fast enough to lower the blood sugar.  So, the body panics, and stimulates production of additional insulin, 2-10 times more in many people.  However, the insulin that was produced initially, eventually kicks in.  This extra insulin, acting at a slower rate, is the underlying culprit to the Diseases of Civilization.

How, you ask? Let me explain.

Insulin does more than just open the door for glucose.

1. Insulin causes weight gain. It turns on the storage of fat by activating an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, pulling the triglycerides out of the cholesterol molecules and depositing them in the adipose tissue (fat cells).

2. Insulin raises cholesterol. It drives increased triglyceride production in the liver, especially in the presence of fructose.

3. Insulin triggers atherosclerosis. Triglycerides are essentially the passenger in the LDL (bad cholesterol) molecule.  Higher triglycerides cause increased LDL production leading to increased atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries).

4. Insulin causes gout & kidney stones. Insulin increases uric acid production and in a round about way can increase calcium oxylate as well, increasing the risk of kidney stones and gout.

5. Insulin raises blood pressure. Insulin stimulates the retention of sodium, causing and increase in blood pressure.

Tiffini and Jazz
Tiffini & Jazz riding near the top of the White Tank Mountains

6. Insulin makes inflammation worse. Insulin drives the inflammatory cascade and increases free radicals, and stimulates the inflammatory hormones causes arthritis, allergic rhinitis, psoriasis, dermatitis, and inflammatory bowel problems to be amplified.

My intent is not to demonize insulin. It is an essential hormone, however, when five to ten times the normal amount of insulin is being produced, you’re going to amplify the problems above by five to ten times normal.   Type II Diabetes is really just a consequence of 15-20 years of over production of insulin.

This isn’t just something that affects humans. either.  We have been seeing this in other species of the animal kingdom as well.  Take for example my wife’s horse, Jazz. She’s a beautiful grey Arab/Saddle-Bred who kept having problems with laminitis, or more colloquially known as “founder.” Her diet consisted predominantly of alfalfa at the time, considered a moderate starch containing form of feed.

Laminitis is a progressively increasing tenderness to the hoof of horses or cattle that can be disabling and if not treated appropriately can cause permanent lameness in the animal. Recent literature in the veterinary world have identified that animal diets high in starch have a propensity to cause laminitis as well as colic.  First identified in the equine community in the 1980’s with glucose tolerance tests, insulin resistance has been identified as a significant factor in hoof disease. The use of Corn, Oats, Barley or even Alfalfa as a primary form of feed for a horse with insulin resistance greatly increases the risk of laminitis.

Like Jazz, many horses in the arid Arizona climate are fed primarily with oats and alfalfa. Jazz was tested and found to have insulin resistance. Since Jazz has been placed on a much lower starch containing feed, she has had no further problems with laminitis.  We converted all our horses to Bermuda grass.

Horses in Pasture
Bailey, Jazz, Nayha & Houdini grazing in the back pasture

Our family and our horses are all now on Low-Carb diets to some degree and have been for the last seven years. No further hoof problems with the horses, and 55 lbs of weight loss with normalization of cholesterol in their owner, me.

Trail Ride White Tanks
Trail Riding in the White Tank Mountains

For those with interest, studies reveal feeds in order of the highest to lowest starch (carbohydrate) content to be: Sweet Feed, Corn, Oats, Barley, Wheat Bran, Beat Pulp, Alfalfa, Rice Bran, Soybean hulls, Bermuda Grass.  Take a look the Low Carbohydrate help section in the menu above to see the carbohydrate content of many of the foods for human consumption.

It’s time we recognize that our diet and lifestyles have lead us to the Diseases of Civilization, and those diets and lifestyles have even effected our animals.


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