There are so many labels available to describe the individual interests in this debate that it’s very difficult to even frame a simple sentence that describes it. A workable approximation for my purposes here is to define “natural” as substances that exist in a form that can be found in nature.
This blog topic was inspired by reading an article on the holistic treatment of Cushing’s disease – PPID, pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction. I actually agreed with many of the approaches suggested but it was conspicuously lacking the one thing that prolongs, often saves, the lives of these horses – the medication pergolide.
Ironically, pergolide is derived from a natural substance, the fungus ergot. It’s core structure is based on the ergot alkaloid ergoline. Ergot in its natural form is highly toxic, causing potentially life-threatening gangrene, convulsions or hallucinations. The development of pergolide took a chemical found in this naturally occurring fungus and refined it to produce something which is life-saving for a PPID horse.
Pergolide is a perfect example of where “natural” is not better. The naturally occurring alkaloid is far too toxic but it can be modified to make a drug that is far safer and highly beneficial. Many drugs are actually modifications of naturally occurring substances, some stronger and some weaker than the resulting pharmaceutical. Aspirin is another one, a modified form of the salicin found in White Willow Bark and Meadowsweet.
I use a LOT of natural substances instead of drugs. They can be just as effective, if not moreso. Examples are chondroitin sulfate and Spirulina with hyperreactive skin and airways, Jiaogulan for circulatory support in laminitis, acetyl-L-carnitine for muscle metabolism, L-leucine/HMB for building muscle bulk (instead of anabolic steroids). Natural substances can even be more effective, or just as effective but without certain side effects.
The flip side, as above, is that phamaceuticals can also be far more effective, even safer, in some instances. This includes vaccinations, dewormers and antibiotics where there are no natural alternatives equivalent in effectiveness and safety. In fact, advancements in those three areas are largely responsible for the dramatic increase in the horse’s average lifespan over the last 50 to 100 years, human too for that matter.
Some natural remedies are not only totally ineffective but also toxic. The current craze of using cobalt instead of EPO to boost red counts in racehorses is a perfect example.
The bottom line here is that “natural” has a lot to offer but it is not always better or effective and can be toxic. The intelligent approach is to take advantage of the best of both worlds, weigh all your alternatives for every situation in terms of risk versus benefit. Your horse will benefit. Be WHOLE-istic.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD