Written By Dr. Kris Hiney
In previous articles we have discussed the many benefits of feeding fats to horses. Typically these fats in feeds are vegetable oils, or even occasionally animal fats. We have not yet discussed specifically the type of fat in the diet. However, researchers in human and animal medicine have much information supporting the idea that specific types of fatty acids can provide numerous health benefits. This month we look at the science behind Omega-3 fatty acids and begin the process of understanding the terminology used.
Omega-3 fatty acids
So what makes Omega-3 (or “n-3”) fatty acids so unique? Quite simply, it’s just the location of the double bonds which occur between the carbons in the fatty acid chain. The location of these bonds are what provide these fatty acids with their naming system. Omega-3 fatty acids have the last double bond placed three carbons from the methyl end of the carbon chain, which is the opposite end from the attachment to the glycerol backbone in a triglyceride. Compare this to the Omega-6 fatty acids (or “n-6”), which have their last double bond six carbons in from the methyl end. This simple change in location of a double bond can have tremendous impact on the metabolism of these fats in the body.
Essential fatty acids
Previously we mentioned that horses must ingest certain fatty acids in their diet as they do not have the capability of synthesizing them in great enough quantities. These include linoleic acid and linolenic acid. Both of these fatty acids are 18 carbons long but differ in the number and placement of the double bonds. Linolenic acid has three double bonds with the last one placed three carbons from the methyl end. Thus, it is an Omega-3 fatty acid. Linoleic acid has two double bonds, with the last double bond six carbons from the methyl end and is an Omega-6 fatty acid. These two fatty acids represent the essential fatty acids that horses must consume. These fatty acids do occur in forages and concentrates such as corn and oats, just in smaller quantities than we think about in more fat rich feedstuffs. Typically there will be more Omega-3 fatty acids in forages, especially pasture grasses, while grains will contain more Omega-6 fatty acids.
The horse, as well as humans, must consume these fatty acids as we both lack the necessary enzymes to build these structures on our own. However, we do possess the enzymes needed to elongate these fatty acids to more complex fatty acid structures. These elongation enzymes are shared by both linoleic and linolenic acid in their metabolic pathway. Their products in turn can be used to synthesize a whole host of biologically active compounds. Linolenic acid can be elongated to eicosapentanoic acid or EPA, a twenty carbon fatty acid with five double bonds, and docosahexaenoic acid or DHA, a 22 carbon fatty acid with 6 double bonds, as well as others. Both EPA and DHA are Omega-3 fatty acids, due to their origin from an Omega-3 fatty acid. Linoleic acid is elongated to arachidonic acid, a twenty carbon fatty acid chain with four double bonds which is, of course, an n-6 fatty acid. These fatty acids can be used to synthesize eicosanoids, which are biologically active lipids.
Eicosanoids have hormone-like activity which is typically mediated locally within a tissue. These include prostaglandins, thromboxanes and leukotrienes. These compounds differ by their structure and perform a host of activities within the body. All of these compounds are necessary for normal bodily function, but an imbalance can contribute to a disease state. Prostaglandins can effect smooth muscle contraction, vasodilation, inflammation, pain, and fever, as well as gastric acid and mucus secretion. Leukotrienes are released during the inflammatory process and can contribute to inflammation and bronchoconstriction. While their role may be to aid in healing the damaged tissue, overproduction of leukotrienes can contribute to asthma or allergic reactions. Finally, thromboxanes cause the aggregation of platelets and constriction of blood vessels. Again, all of these compounds are part of normal bodily function, but their potent effects can contribute to the diseased state.
So how do Omega-3 fatty acids fit into this story of thromboxanes and leukotrienes? When animals ingest greater quantities of Omega-3 fatty acids, these fatty acids can displace arachadonic acid in the cell membrane. Thus, there is less arachadonic acid available to be released and formed into eicosanoids. Increased linolenic acid also decreases the amount of linoleic acid which is elongated simply due to a competition for the same enzymes. The elongation products of linolenic acid and subsequently EPA may also directly counter act some of the inflammatory products of arachadonic acid metabolism. Thus increased consumption of Omega-3 fatty acids may aid in decreasing inflammation in the diseased state.
Feeding Omega-3 fatty acids may be helpful for horses which may have chronic pain or inflammation. Traditionally horsemen have used NSAIDS, or Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory DrugS, to manage pain and inflammation. When we provide NSAIDS these compounds act by blocking the activity of enzymes which cause the release of inflammatory agents. However, NSAIDS are not specific and block the activity of both cox-1 and cox-2. These enzymes are essential in the conversion of arachidonic acid to progstaglandins. Cyclo-oxygenase 1 unfortunately is also intimately involved with the formation of thromboxane in platelets and in gastromucosal integrity. It is the inhibition of cox-1 which leads to the formation of ulcers in horses which have long term NSAID administration. However, many specific cox-2 inhibitors have been produced (Celebrex® and Vioxx®).
Sources of Omega-3s for horses
Compared to humans, it may be harder to increase the consumption of Omega-3 fatty acids in horses, but not impossible. Typically the greatest concentration of Omega-3 fatty acids is found in marine fish. Certainly fish oils have been fed to horses, but there may be limits in the acceptability of fish oil by the horse. Flaxseed, however, is also an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids, has a slightly sweet, nutty, whole-grain flavor and aroma, and is readily accepted by horses. Many flax products are now offered to the horse owner. Increasing consumption of fresh grass will also boost the Omega-3s in your horses’ diet.
Next month we continue to look at Omega-3 fatty acids in the horse’s diet and examine some of the available literature concerning their effects in the horse.