Optimizing the GI Tract

Friday, June 8, 2018

The gastrointestinal tract (GIT) is a very special organ and performs a number of special functions

including: breakdown of foodstuffs, destruction of pathogenic organisms and substances, absorption of

nutrients, production of nutrients, provision of energy sources for cells lining the intestine, providing a

barrier between what is in the GIT and what is on the other side of the GIT. Barrier function is crucial –

when barrier function is compromised pathogens enter into the body from the GIT.

Nutraceutical ingredients, including but certainly not exclusively prebiotics and probiotics, are proving

beneficial and perhaps essential in maintaining barrier function. The GIT barrier is comprised of two

structural components: a single layer of intestinal epithelial cells (IECs) that are tightly held together by

networks of numerous junctional proteins forming a nearly impervious barrier when healthy; and a layer

of peptide and antibiotic-rich mucous that lies ‘above’ the IECs. Various stressors, which can act from

within the GIT or from the horse and its environment, are the biggest challenge to maintaining healthy

barrier function. Compromised barrier function results in a leaky gut, and the range of such conditions is

termed leaky gut syndrome (LGS). Features can include one or more of: gastric ulcers, intestinal

inflammation, intestinal leakiness (manifest as diarrhea or constipation). These conditions are typically

associated with impaired nutrient absorption, compromised immune function and failing health.

We are learning that nutraceuticals can play a number of different and important roles in maintaining

the mucosal and the IEC barriers in the face of GIT and environmental stressors (i.e. unusual foods, heat,

exercise, confinement, transport, new surroundings, rough handling). Some act on the stomach to help

maintain the gastric mucosa, reducing the prevalence and severity of gastric ulcers. Others provide

nutrients specific to the needs of the IECs and the mucosal layer. Others yet provide nutrients to the

microbiota within the GIT, helping beneficial (commensal) bacteria proliferate while controlling

populations of pathogenic bacteria. And others appear to provide direct benefit to IECs by providing

molecules, or stimulating beneficial microbes to produce molecules, that are used by IECs to maintain

tight junctions between cells. Together, good nutrition working with the right nutraceuticals, can help

maintain a healthy GIT under all conditions and help restore a leaky GIT.

See the May-June issue of Equine Wellness Magazine for the first of a 3-part series on LGS in horses.