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Proactive Omega-3 Supplementation for Equine AthletesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · August 25, 2016

From rigorous training schedules to demanding shows and races, equine athletes frequently experience bouts of exercise-induced stress. These horses must remain in peak condition to perform at their best; however, high-intensity exercise leads to inflammation throughout the body. Proactive prevention may reduce post-exercise inflammation, so the key is to combat inflammation before it occurs. Enter, omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, also called alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid respectively, are forms of plant-based fats naturally found in a horse’s diet. Traditionally, horses consume omega-3s from grazing pastures, but a modern shift to grain-heavy diets has increased the amount of omega-6s in the diet. Concentrates often contain fat sources from corn oil, rice bran oil, soybean oil, and safflower oil—all of which are high in omega-6.

Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., senior nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER), stated, “The performance horse may need more fat than what is found in forage to keep up with energy demands. In that case, it will usually be in the form of something higher in omega-6s.” This poses a problem because omega-3s promote an anti-inflammatory response, whereas omega-6s promote an inflammatory response. As a result, equine athletes are predisposed to inflammation.

The solution lies in a desirable ratio between the two types of fatty acids. Grasses naturally contain 0.3:1 omega-6 to omega-3, meaning more omega-3. Crandell recommends adding an omega-3 source to favorably shift the ratio in a high-grain diet more toward that of forage.

What is the best way to add omega-3s to balance the ratio in the diet? A popular plant-based source is flaxseed. Rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), flax oils are a common addition to performance feeds. ALA undergoes a conversion in the body to produce two products: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). These two molecules, especially EPA, play a role in the anti-inflammatory response. However, the conversion rate from ALA to EPA and DHA may not be efficient enough to offer the full potential of the anti-inflammatory molecules. There is limited research on the conversion efficiency in horses, but humans have an estimated rate of only 8-20% from ALA to EPA and 0.5-9% from ALA to DHA, depending on age and gender*. This means that the anti-inflammatory properties in flax are less available than other omega-3 sources.

"Marine-based omega-3 products provide the greatest protection against inflammation," advised Crandell. Fish oils such as EO•3 already contain EPA and DHA and, therefore, do not have to undergo conversion in the body. This makes sense because the fish consume plants and plankton, perform the conversion themselves, and create rich stores of EPA and DHA. Premade molecules mean less conversion work for the horse and more anti-inflammatory benefits.

The Science Behind EPA and DHA

Cell membranes are partially comprised of fatty acids. The fatty acid profile in the cellular membrane is a reflection of the fatty acid profile in the diet. In other words, the fat the horse consumes is the fat observed in the cellular membrane. Consuming an oil already high in EPA and DHA results in higher EPA and DHA concentrations in the membrane.

"EPA plays a significant role in decreasing inflammation. It inhibits both the production and release of pro-inflammatory compounds produced by omega-6s," Crandell explained. "Through a series of enzymatic reactions, omega-6 becomes arachadonic acid (AA). AA is responsible for producing many pro-inflammatory compounds in the body and resides in the cellular membrane, where it waits for an enzyme to catalyze its release. EPA inhibits the enzyme needed to produce AA and competes with the enzyme needed to release AA from the membrane. Therefore, high levels of EPA ensure lower circulating pro-inflammatory compounds."

DHA is a large molecule that takes up real estate in the cellular membrane. Its size and arrangement in the membrane cause it to swing back and forth. "This movement prevents the formation of lipid rafts—a type of pop-up command center for organizing signaling molecules that, in turn, activate inflammatory responses," she said. 

Fish oil provides both EPA and DHA, which play an important role in reducing circulating pro-inflammatory molecules. Equine athletes, in particular, benefit greatly from fish oil omega-3 supplements. It works on the front line against exercise-induced inflammation to stop it before it occurs. EO•3 is a great source of fish oil that will increase the omega-3 content in your horse’s diet. EO•3 is appropriate for horses of all activity levels, from weekend trail horses to endurance horses and racehorses.

*Stark, A.H., M.A. Crawford, and R. Reifen. 2008. Update on alpha-linolenic acid. Nutrition Reviews. 66:326–332.