Reprinted with permission
THE BENEFITS of MP SUPPLEMENTS
by William E. Jones, D.V.M.
Horsemen and Veterinarians have begun supplementing horses'
diets with mucopolysaccharides for nutritional therapy
and as a preventive aid
The old adage, "You are what you eat,"
is not literally true, of course. But as more is learned
about nutrition, we realize that it can produce wonderful
changes in health. Unless you are a biochemist, you
probably have not heard about mucopolysaccharides.
Yet these awkwardly named, unsung nutrients make up
a major part of the horse's body, as well as our own.
Mucopolysaccharides, more easily referred to as MPs,
are made in many varieties, but they all have similar
chemical building blocks. It now appears that they
may be especially helpful to the equine athlete.
According to Dr. Bruce W Halstead, medical director
of the Halstead Preventive Medical Clinic, MPs are as
important in nutrition as amino acids, essential fatty
acids, vitamins, and minerals. The MPs react with the
"bricks" of connective tissue, collagen and
elastin, to maintain the normal function and structural
integrity of the joints, arteries, heart, brain, skin,
and other tissues. They form cross-linkages with proteins
such as collagen, the basis of cartilage. In short, they
act as the internal structure of tissue, holding all cells
together - thus maintaining the elastic gel nature of
Surprisingly, these building blocks are not as easy for
the body to make from basic food substances as was once
thought by nutritionists. The distribution pattern of
MPs changes with maturation and aging. Researchers think
that the process of aging is directly connected to altered
MP metabolism. Pinch and rub the arm of an 80 year-old
person and then the arm of a 20-year-old person and you
will feel the difference MPs make to the connective tissue
under the skin.
Several companies produce and/or sell some form of nutritional
MPs for horses. A common source is freeze-dried bovine
trachea which, processed with various enzymes, yields
MPs called chondroitin sulfates. Another source of MPs
is the green-lipped mussel (Perna Canaliculus),
which is harvested near New Zealand. This edible shellfish
is reputed to contain a high concentration of MPs, and
Studies have shown that MPs exert potent anti-inflammatory
action on connective tissue diseases and have a powerful
capacity to regulate immune response. The MPs act in part
by coating cellular membranes, which can help limit inflammation.
This, in turn, allows an increase in the viscosity, or
lubrication capacity, of joint fluid. This means an MP
supplement can be helpful in preventing, and even treating,
joint problems in the racehorse.
According to Halstead, the broadest therapeutic application
of MPs in human medicine is in cardiovascular therapy.
The MPs are responsible for the elasticity of the blood
Rich proportions are found in the walls of the arteries.
MPs are important to the process of structural repair
and the control of inflammation. These qualities, along
with their capacity to limit coagulation inside the blood
vessels, all play potential roles in the prevention of
These actions are also beneficial to the racehorse. Chondroitin
sulfates in MPs give negative charges to blood platelets
and cells. This limits their tendency to clump and stick
together, thus preventing clot formation within arteries.
This is a physiological response much needed by the racehorse
when the spleen has dumped its contents of red blood cells
into the general circulation. The blood becomes extremely
thick, and the clumping of blood cells which often occurs
can cause problems.
There are many other known uses of MPs, according to
Halstead. They include the improved movement of white
blood cells, reduced susceptibility to "foreign substance
shock" (anaphylaxis), growth stimulating effects
including reversal of cortisone inhibition of growth,
increased sodium excretion, and increased resistance to
viral and bacterial infections. These are all effects
which are quite beneficial to the horse at the racetrack.
Veterinarians are using MPs as a feed supplement for
joint problems in horses. Dr. Bill Mitchell in Oklahoma
sees quite a few joint problems in his work on performance
horses. In some cases, he prescribes an MP feed supplement
and has observed tremendous change in some horses. With
others, he has not seen the benefit until after the horse
is taken off the supplement. Mitchell kept records on
35 cases of arthritis in which he prescribed MPs. He started
them all out with the feed supplement and asked the owners
to follow up, giving the supplement as long as it seemed
to be helpful. Twenty percent of the horses were still
on the supplement a year later.
One of the first researchers to explore the clinical
effects of MPs was Dr. John E Prudden. About 25 years
ago, he began experimenting with a remarkable wound-healing
substance made with a special preparation of cartilage
rings of cow trachea. The finished product was called
Catrix. Prudden and his colleagues conducted a most convincing
controlled study of the healing capacity of Catrix, using
two exactly corresponding incisions which were made on
opposite sides of a subject's body and deepened to the
muscle level. One of the paired incisions was treated
with topical Catrix powder and one was not. Otherwise,
the incisions were closed in an identical manner. Later,
the incisions were removed and the tissue was taken to
the laboratory for analysis of tensile strength. The result
was that the Catrix treated incisions were 42% stronger.
Prudden later published a book in which he described
how he discovered that Catrix was effective in treating
osteoarthritis when given orally. He had been treating
two types of digestive tract inflammation by injecting
large amounts of Catrix under the skin. In a flash of
scientific insight, he realized that he could treat the
diseases "topically" by giving Catrix to his
patients orally. In this way, he could bring the MPs into
direct contact with the diseased intestinal tract.
This new approach, chosen specifically for intestinal
inflammation, opened more doors. "Many of these patients
also suffered from osteoarthritis," Prudden wrote.
"When their arthritis began to improve, I realized
that the drug might be effective by the oral route, a
feature I had not expected with so complex a biological
mixture. Subsequent clinical observation and laboratory
tests have led me to believe that it is almost as effective
when administered orally as when injected under the skin."
Prudden went on to do extensive research with the use
of Catrix in the treatment of arthritis. He prescribes
a freeze-dried bovine trachea product called "Mucopolysaccharide
One of Halstead's colleagues, Dr. Lester M. Morrison,
explored the absorption, distribution, metabolism, and
excretion of MPs administered to animals and patients
in his book Coronary Heart Disease and the Mucopolysaccharides
(Glycosaminoglycans). Morrison pointed out that it
is important to know whether the MPs actually get to the
cells which show improvement, and if they do, whether
complete MPs, or just their fragments, enter the cells.
And if the MPs enter the cells, Morrison asked, what form
do they take inside the cells?
Morrison knew that conventional medical theory would
question whether the relatively large MP molecules would
be able to enter the cells, even when injected. "These
questions become even more critical when it is considered
that acid mucopolysaccharides such as the chondroitin
sulfates appear to yield results when administered orally."
They worked, but how?
Given the success of oral administration, Morrison expected
to find MPs in significant amounts in the circulating
blood and in urine following ingestion, And since it was
known that the cells could excrete MPs, he suspected that
they could also take them in.
He went on to find evidence that MPs such as chondroitin
sulfates and their derivatives could be absorbed through
the intestines. Studies of patients at the University
of Tokyo School of Medicine showed that at least two types
of chondroitin sulfates could be absorbed. One was a natural
form chondroitin-4-sulfate which was traced by a radioactive
"tag." The other was an altered, "polysulfated"
form of chondroitin-6-sulfate which was traced directly.
The tracing of "tagged" chondroitin-4-sulfate
showed that about 40% was absorbed within the first 24
hours. Surprisingly, large size molecules were found in
blood and in urine, and were shown to have been absorbed
through the intestine.
After citing the findings of a whole series of studies,
Morrison concludes that a proportion of chondroitin sulfates
given orally to animals and human subjects is absorbed
in intact form, without major chemical changes. The studies
indicated that the degree of depletion of the MPs in the
tissues could affect the amount of uptake. In other words,
cells needing MPs may take up more than those which are
There have been many laboratory animal studies of MP
absorption which show that this form of nutritional therapy
can be effective in man (and horses). A considerable amount
of empirical, practical evidence, along with data from
solid research, makes it quite probable that oral administration
of mucopolysaccharides can result in intact uptake and
use in tissues that need them.
In conclusion, mucopolysaccharide supplementation may
be beneficial to the horse in several ways. Those horses
in greatest need, or in a state of deficiency, tend to
receive more benefit from supplementation. Osteoarthritis
(more commonly referred to as degenerative joint disease
in the horse) is helped through MP supplementation. The
healing of strains and sprains, which often plague equine
athletes, is improved with MP supplementation. Repaired
tissue is stronger because of MP supplementation. Various
forms of intestinal inflammation (enteritis), which are
common in horses at the racetrack, are helped during the
healing phase with MP supplementation.
We still do not know exactly how oral MPs work to help
the horse, but human trials, lab animal studies, and practical
evidence provide enough proof to many horsemen and veterinarians
that they are using mucopolysaccharides as nutritional
therapy and a preventive aid.
Dr. William E. Jones has been authoring Veterinary
Update for Horsemen's Journal since 1980 and has
been writing on various aspects of equine medicine for
the past 15 years.