Posted by Jyme Nichols, PhD on Aug 26th 2020
Solving the Omega-3 Mystery
Horses commonly receive omega supplements to benefit health, performance, and outward appearance. However, few people understand the differences and what to look for when adding omegas to the diet. For instance, some omegas are anti-inflammatory while others are pro-inflammatory. Some omegas are easily used by the body while others must undergo a conversion process that may leave the horse with less than 10% of what you intended to provide. When it comes to omega fatty acids, there is a lot to consider!
What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fat that is essential for optimum health. They cannot be made by the body, they must be consumed through the diet. Omega-3’s are helpful because they have anti-inflammatory properties, meaning they help the body clear inflammation naturally. This can be helpful in horses battling arthritis, joint pain, and general soreness from daily exercise and travel. Omega-3 fatty acids are preferential to Omega-6 fatty acids which are pro-inflammatory. Inflammation is the body’s natural and normal means of dealing with things like strenuous workouts, a heightened immune response, and infections. Both types of fatty acids play an important role within the body, so you would never want to eliminate either. The equine diet naturally supplies plenty of omega 6 fatty acids, so when looking to add omegas to the diet you should seek out the highly beneficial omega-3 forms.
Which Form of Omega-3 is best?
Omega-3 fatty acids come in multiple forms. The four most common forms used in the equine diet are Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and Eicosatetraenoic Acid (ETA). Each of these varies in chemical structure and serves a different purpose within the body, even though they are all considered omega-3’s.
ALA - To benefit from anti-inflammatory effects, the body must convert ALA into the EPA and DHA forms. Unfortunately, this process is highly inefficient (less than 10% may actually be converted), so the majority of ALA ends up being used by the body simply as a source of calories. ALA is sourced from plants (i.e. flax seed, chia seeds, hemp).
EPA – The body uses EPA as is (no conversion necessary), so it is a preferred form of omega-3’s. EPA’s main purpose is to produce eicosanoids, which help reduce inflammation within the body. EPA is typically sourced from marine life (i.e. fish oil, krill oil).
DHA – The body also uses DHA as is, therefore it is also a preferred form. DHA is highly effective in supporting proper brain function and mental health. It is estimated that approximately 8% of the brain is made of up DHA. Marine sources (i.e. fish oil, krill oil) are also the best way to obtain DHA.
ETA – Sourced from the New Zealand Green Lipped Mussel, ETA is highly effective at reducing systemic inflammation within the body (up to 300% more powerful than EPA and DHA forms). ETA is especially helpful for arthritis and general body stiffness. An in depth explanation of ETA omega-3 fatty acids can be found in this webinar by Dr. Jyme Nichols.
When to Use Each Type of Omega-3
Each omega-3 provides benefit to the body, however there are certain situations where some omega-3 forms might be better suited than others. For example, if you are looking to improve body condition and overall bloom or shine in your horse, you should reach for plant-based omega fatty acids. These supplements may include ingredients such as flax seed, chia seeds, hemp, camelina oil, canola oil, and soybean oil. If you are looking to support brain function, mental stability, and intestinal health you should lean on EPA and DHA forms of omega-3 fatty acids which can be found in fish oil and krill oil. Finally, if you are looking to help reduce joint and body pain in senior horses and performance horses, you may want to consider using ETA omega-3 fatty acids from the New Zealand Green Lipped Mussel.
How Much Omega-3 Does a Horse Need?
There is no current recommendation [from the National Research Council] for the daily requirement of omega fatty acids in horses. Human nutritionists suggest a total diet should ideally contain an omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio of around 4:1 or less. This may be a good target for horses as well. Keep in mind, a horse’s diet is already high in omega 6’s, so when providing a supplement it is best to choose those that have a ratio where omega-3 is at least twice as high as omega-6 in order to help offset the gap. Supplements such as Fish Oil Factor (EPA & DHA) and Rewind® (ETA) contain twice as much omega-3 compared to omega-6.
If you suspect your horse may be in need of a specialized nutrition program, or if you just want a nutrition consultant to review your horse’s current diet, Bluebonnet Feeds offers free virtual nutrition consults.