A Papaya a Day Keeps the Ulcers Away
by Madalyn Ward, DVM
Since digestive health plays such an important role in our horses’ health and happiness, and since we’ve focused so much on ulcers recently, in this article I’m offering a highly educational article by Gillian Clissold on beneficial properties of papaya on digestion. Enjoy!
The Role of Papaya
Papaya aids digestion in part by increasing mucous secretion in the mouth, esophagus and stomach. In some cases, a horse that had been turning its nose up at food starts eating within moments of the administration of papaya. There seems to be what could be called a “reverse Pavlovian response”. The horse’s mouth waters, so it feels the urge to eat.
Even more importantly, papaya initiates a thickening of the horse’s natural stomach lining which provides protection against excess acid. It both gives damaged tissues a chance to heal, and helps prevent new ulcers. In horses moving vigorously (race horses, eventers, endurance horses) the esophageal mucous protection can help keep reflux from damaging the esophagus. In an ulcer study published in the March 2005 issue of The Horse Journal, “rapid relief within three to five days” was reported. The same study reported that the other major natural products for digestive problems, herbal blends, worked considerably more slowly.
In one case a weanling with severe ulcers and a bloated stomach did not respond to expensive pharmaceuticals but did recover to papaya. A race horse that had such severe ulcers it could not race, even after many weeks on an acid reducing pharmaceutical, had a clear endoscopic exam after three weeks on papaya, and then won a stakes race.
Unlike most of the conventional anti-ulcer treatments, papaya is safe for long-term use. The calcium/magnesium antacid type products work by neutralizing acid and coating the stomach wall with a chalky protective layer. However, if they are used over an extended period, resulting high levels of magnesium can interfere with the absorption of calcium. Low calcium levels can cause nervousness, bone changes, weak and aching muscles and abnormal heart rhythms. The expensive pharmaceuticals which reduce acid production are great for most acute ulcer symptoms. However, acid is needed to control and modify bacteria in the gut. If the acid levels are low for many months, “bad” bacteria, particularly Salmonella, can overpopulate the digestive tract and create conditions for colic. Furthermore, prolonged low acid levels can cause poor absorption of vitamin B12, inefficient utilization of dietary protein, food allergies, bloating and foul manure.
Papaya is also useful in conjunction with administration of certain medicines. Many barn managers “prep” the horse with a half dose of papaya to trigger extra mucous in the digestive tract lining just before they administer an anti-inflammatory capable of damaging the stomach lining. They then administer the anti-inflammatory, and follow up with another half dose of papaya to wash away the foul taste of the medicine.
Similarly, endurance riders and eventers who give electrolytes to their mounts mix the powder with papaya before administering. The extra mucous triggered by the papaya protects the mouth, esophagus and stomach from the caustic burn of frequent electrolyte administrations.
The mucous producing characteristic of papaya is complemented by the enzyme it contains, papain. Papain is the main active ingredient in meat tenderizer. It closely resembles the digestive enzyme pepsin. Old horses benefit from papaya because its enzyme breaks down what their less efficient digestive tract can’t and they gain weight. Papaya also helps foals who get “scours” when the hormones in their mother’s milk changes during the first heat presents the foal’s digestive tract with a new challenge, for which it does not have the appropriate microbe population. The papain enzyme picks up where the foal’s own system is insufficient.
Weaning is a stressful time, too. Not only are foals anxious (creating conditions for an ulcer), but they must deal with a change in diet, for which they may not have the correct balance of gut “bugs”. In addition to the papaya induced ulcer-preventative mucous secretion, the papain helps weanlings digest new diets while their gut microbes are adjusting.
Cribbing often decreases when horses have papaya daily. Cribbing incidence at weaning is drastically reduced, and about half of adult cribbers also reduce or cease the habit. While most positive effects of papaya are evident in a week, in the case of a confirmed cribber, it can take up to a month for improvement. (Cribbing associated with stomach pain or missing nutrients is most responsive to papaya.)
Similarly, when antibiotics kill good gut bacteria, leaving the digestive tract unable to sufficiently break down food, diarrhea results. Papaya picks up where the bacteria leave off, and antibiotic-induced diarrhea can improve.
When horses get diarrhea during trailering, it can in part be due to anxiety-induced changes in gut motility not allowing absorption. The papain enzyme helps break down the food in the limited time it is in the gut and may reduce the diarrhea.
A final important characteristic of papaya is its taste and consistency. It has the viscosity of tomato ketchup, and is extremely sweet. This makes it ideal for camouflaging unpleasant medicines. One racehorse trainer wasted several hundred dollars of expensive antibiotics, which his horse spit out on the walls, before he realized that the horse would happily swallow the dose if it were mixed with papaya. Horses who need extra salt in hot weather, but refuse it in their food, lap it up if it’s mixed in papaya.
Papaya apparently tasted so good to one horse that he grabbed a bottle left close to his stall, chewed off the cap and licked up the resulting spill. Another owner found that if he approached the fence with a dosing syringe full of the fruit, his horse would immediately gallop over.
Papaya is also a mild “blood thinner”. The increased circulation associated with the slight anticoagulant effect may account for the very shiny coats and high incidence of dapples that many horses on papaya enjoy. Some caretakers also report an improvement in joint health as well. Papaya should not be administered to a horse that is on an anticoagulant already, as there may be an additive affect. Some stages of pregnancy can be complicated by bleeding, so it is unwise to administer papaya to a mare who is pregnant or who is about to be bred.
Finally, some papaya-fed horses become quieter and accept training more readily. Papaya contains no tranquilizer, so it must be that a horse with a more comfortable digestive tract is happier.
Reprinted with permission.
Madalyn Ward, DVM & Bear Creek Veterinary Clinic, www.holistichorsekeeping.com