Balancing Metabolic pH

Ensuring your horse’s metabolic pH is balanced might be one of the simplest things you can do to keep your horse healthy and feeling his best. The problem is, most people have never even heard of metabolic pH when it comes to managing the health of their horse. Metabolic pH can be manipulated through the diet, and equine nutritionists understand a positive “dietary cation anion difference”, otherwise known as DCAD, can be the key to quicker recovery time, improved muscle function, and improved hydration in equine athletes.

Prefer audio? Check out Episode 33 of the Feed Room Chemist podcast to hear Dr. Jyme Nichols talk about Metabolic pH in horses.


What is Metabolic pH?

Metabolic pH affects muscle function, blood glucose stability, hydration, and even bone quality. An important component of blood is its ability to maintain a certain level of acidity or alkalinity which is measured by the pH scale. A pH of 0 is extremely acidic, a pH of 14 is strongly basic (alkaline), and a pH of 7 is neutral. Healthy horses generally have a blood pH between 7.32 to 7.44 according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. The ability of the body to maintain this tight pH range is known as acid-base balance.

Acid Base Balance

The horse uses several organs to control blood pH levels within the body. For example, the lungs release carbon dioxide which is slightly acidic, and the kidneys help excrete both acids and bases. In addition, the body has a built-in buffering system of its own that can recognize shifts in blood pH and make necessary adjustments. When the blood has too much acid, pH drops and we consider that metabolic acidosis. When the blood has too much base, pH increases and we call that metabolic alkalosis.

Using Diet to Balance Metabolic pH

Metabolic pH can be balanced by adjusting the dietary cation anion difference (DCAD). Cations are positively charged elements that raise pH, such as potassium (K+) and sodium (Na+). Anions are negatively charged elements that lower pH, such as chloride (Cl-) and sulfur (S-). An equine nutritionist uses information found on a periodic table to calculate the DCAD, which happens to be directly correlated to urine pH. It is well understood that diets with a positive DCAD create urine with a pH greater than 7.0, and diets with a negative DCAD produce urine that is more acidic. The goal is to have a positive DCAD.

To put this in perspective, the DCAD calculation for salt results in a negative number (-452) which means it causes the body to be more acidic. This drop in pH creates extra “metabolic work” for the body as it tries to bring the metabolic pH back toward neutral. On the other hand, a supplement such as Turbo Mag BCAA has a positive DCAD (232) which brings along a lot of great tradeoffs. Benefits of a positive DCAD include:

  • Improved muscle function during exercise
  • Quicker recovery post-exercise
  • Improved hydration
  • Normal digestive movement
  • Normal sweat reflex
  • Increased mineral uptake by the bones (stronger bones)

Salt and electrolytes are necessary for replenishing critical nutrients lost through sweat. However, these supplements often have a negative DCAD which creates extra metabolic work for your horse. Adding a supplement such as Turbo Mag BCAA to the diet in addition to salt and/or electrolytes will provide the benefits of a positive DCAD and make it easier for your horse to maintain a healthy metabolic pH on their own.

If you suspect your horse may be in need of a specialized nutrition program to address metabolic pH, or if you just want a nutrition consultant to review your horse’s current diet, Bluebonnet Feeds offers free virtual nutrition consults.