Hair mineral analysis (HMA) is a valid diagnostic tool that, if used correctly, can give us clues regarding problems in our horse’s overall condition.
HMA tells about essential minerals and toxic mineral exposures — minerals that can accumulate over time and cause a wide variety of insidious problems, including skin abnormalities, allergies, intestinal problems, fatigue, poor stress tolerance, increased susceptibility to infectious diseases, infertility/breeding problems and tying-up.
HMA is not the same as a blood test. A blood test only shows what happens to be in the blood at the moment it is drawn. For example, unless a blood sample is drawn in the midst of a medical crisis, odds are the blood calcium level will be within normal. However, if the body has been dealing with altered calcium levels over a prolonged period of time, the HMA calcium level will likely show the abnormality.
HMA helps us evaluate mineral levels that have been accumulating in our horse over time. It gives us information that can help make a diagnosis or pinpoint a potential toxic mineral that may be causing a gradual deterioration of health. If you know what’s actually out of wack, you have a better idea of what to look for in your horse’s environment and feed.
Odd, ongoing problems like skin irritations, coughs, bizarre licking habits or breathing problems may all have their root in an obscure mineral imbalance. For a chronic, mysterious problem, hair mineral analysis may be a worthwhile tool. And, at a cost of $150 to $250, it is within the realm of reality when you’re dealing with particularly perplexing problems and diagnostic tests.
Critics of hair mineral analysis like to point to simplistic studies where a specific diet is chemically analyzed for a particular mineral, laboratory animals are fed that diet, and then hair analysis is done with results that do not reflect the diet change. However, there are many studies of populations that clearly show hair mineral levels accurately reflect regional soil mineral levels and dietary habits.
The flaw with many negative studies is that the animals were not on the diets long enough for the body to adjust and reflect the new balance in the hair. Another problem may be that the mineral deficiency being studied has a direct effect on the growth/metabolism of hair. Zinc deficiency, for example, causes hair to grow at a much slower rate than normal, resulting in mineral levels potentially appearing normal or even elevated until the animal or person reaches a state where total body levels of zinc are below normal.
Critics often state things like the “range of normal” is too great to be meaningful. Breed/age/sex/coat color can all influence what is normal. However, many of the same criticisms also can be leveled at blood tests. A valuable interpretation of hair (or blood) mineral levels always requires knowledge of the individual animal and an element of skill and experience with the test. What is “normal” for a 35-year-old pony most likely will not be normal for a racing Thoroughbred.
On Sept. 28, 1998, NBC News Dateline ran a segment on hair mineral analysis, describing it as a new alternative medicine approach. We imitated Dateline’s experiment by sending hair samples to three labs. We took the three samples from one horse who had assorted poorly defined health problems.
We did not pull Dateline’s trick of not specifying the species of origin (they submitted dog hair as human); the labs knew this was a horse sample. We believe labs need to know where the hair came from in order to give you correct “normal” levels. The results are in the chart at the end of the story.
However, we purposely did not inform the labs of the clinical problems the test horse was having:
• Chronic dry cough
• Dull hair coat
• Odd, hard-to-pinpoint lameness
• Joint problems disproportionate to his level of work
• History of being prone to laminitis on grass
• Very “oral,” licking everything in his path
• History of possible EPM that responded to treatment
• Development of strange, depigmented white spots throughout his coat, giving him a speckled appearance the owner described as looking like he was sprayed with bleach
• Doesn’t grow hair back on clipped areas of his coat.
While many of the values from the labs are close to each other, the results were not identical, so we investigated to find out why.
As with traditional blood tests, the numbers depend in part on the type of equipment used to test the sample. Different laboratories have different variations. Fair enough. However, internal quality control and reproducibility (if the lab runs the sample a second time results will be similar) for each of these labs was high, which is important.
It is also important to note how the hair is processed. All labs reduce the hair to inorganic ash before testing. The first step, washing, is the most likely to produce different results between labs. Hair can be contaminated by dirt, sweat, dust and dead skin cells, all of which can significantly change the results. TMI had the most aggressive washing procedures, which likely accounted for many differences.
Location of where the hair was sampled is important. Uckele wanted mane hair; Great Smokies requested chest hair; TMI wanted hair from the neck (sample hair was snipped from the location specified by the lab in the instructions). Hair grows at different rates in different locations (mane grows most rapidly), and time of year will affect the rate at which body hair is growing. A steady rate of growth more accurately reflects shifts in minerals over time.
More important than the actual numbers is how they are interpreted. We feel the lab must have a wide background in equine samples to form an accurate range of what is “normal.”
Only the Uckele Health and Nutrition lab focuses on horses. Its normal ranges are based on a sampling of horses from various locations and reported literature values. It runs over 200 equine samples per year. The TMI lab has a small database of equine samples and runs less than 100 per year. Its normals are based on a sampling of horses from Colorado only. Great Smokies is closing its veterinary lab.
In the Dateline story, HMA results were accompanied by specific supplement recommendations, often in reference to product lines from that laboratory.
The first question to be answered is whether a supplement program is an appropriate way to address any abnormalities found on a hair mineral profile. Many factors unrelated to diet do influence a hair mineral profile. However, many disorders also are associated with characteristic demands on the body’s supply of minerals and key nutrients.
The results and recommendations from Great Smokies and TMI were clearly based on common human diets, exposures and disease states. Toxic element levels were difficult, if not impossible, to compare because of different accumulation rates to be expected in the hair from different body locations.
Both Uckele and Great Smokies came up with toxic levels of aluminum, a problem we subsequently learned is common in horses east of the Mississippi. Great Smokies and TMI added silver and arsenic to the list (Uckele didn’t test for silver; arsenic was normal). Some of the elements reported as potentially at toxic levels were so obscure (e.g. thorium or zirconium) that little information is available on them.
Regarding minerals, levels of the most stable — calcium, magnesium, copper, zinc, phosphorus and molybdenum — were similar between labs, and key ratios such as calcium to phosphorus were virtually identical between Uckele and Great Smokies (similar washing procedures). TMI’s analysis called tin low (but there’s no established role of tin in the diet) and molybdenum low, although molybdenum was inside the norma l range for Uckele. This is probably because molybdenum content in natural diets is quite different for horses in Colorado than a broader cross-section across the country. Also, we found TMI’s normal ranges extremely wide — too wide, we think, to be of much use.
Uckele Health and Nutrition had a lot to say about nutrient elements, with an extensive list of individual abnormal values and abnormal mineral ratios. Major areas were toxic aluminum; abnormally low calcium and magnesium; and several values they felt clearly indicated chronic inflammatory stress, including reversed sodium:potassium and elevated iron:copper; plus depletion of key trace minerals.
Uckele suggested a detailed supplement program to rebalance the horse’s mineral levels, which we had our test horse follow. Within the first week, our horse’s owner noted a difference in the horse’s attitude — he was much more bright and energetic. Next to show benefit was his coat, becoming deeper and glossier. The persistent cough, which he’d had most of his life (dam and brother also have “allergy” problems), ceased. His level of soundness also improved, however, he was also on a joint nutraceutical. The clipped areas regrew hair after failing to do so for months and, oddest of all, his oral behavior ceased. The white spots became less noticeable but remained (see aluminum sidebar).
HMA And Disease States
We were pleased we didn’t get any disease names or causes from any lab, just a list of abnormal values that could have been cause, effect or a combination of both. Hair mineral analysis alone cannot diagnose disease. However, it may detect patterns of change that have been associated with certain types of disease or problems.
We know owners of older horses suspected of having Cushing’s disease (symptoms of long hair coat that doesn’t shed out, pot belly, high water consumption and urine output) who are frustrated by the difficulty in diagnosing this disease by blood tests, even sophisticated, expensive ones.
Uckele supplied us with several case histories and hair mineral patterns. The hair mineral pattern of the horses with a diagnosis of Cushing’s disease all had high potassium, low sodium, low sodium:calcium ratio, low tissue calcium and low tissue chromium. These hair mineral patterns are all typical of a horse who has been having a prolonged period of high levels of cortisol and other hormones from the pituitary gland. The cortisol causes the reversed sodium and potassium levels and produces a loss of calcium that eventually results in osteoporosis in Cushing’s disease. Despite the profound and classical changes seen on hair mineral analysis, blood tests were normal. However, some aspects of this pattern of hair mineral changes are not exclusive to Cushing’s. Low potassium, high sodium and reversed sodium-to-potassium ratio can be seen any time the horse has been experiencing abnormally high levels of cortisol for a prolonged period. A common example is the horse with an extensive allergy of any type.
We received the hair mineral analysis of a horse with a history of hives that had failed to respond to conventional drug therapy (see photo). His hair mineral analysis showed the sodium and potassium changes (although not as severe as in Cushing’s disease), as well as key changes in trace mineral patterns, that Uckele says are typical of horse samples from animals with a great deal of inflammation.
The alterations in trace mineral patterns arise because the trace minerals are needed for the activity of key enzymes the body needs to control inflammation. The need for these enzymes is so great that normal dietary intake cannot keep up, and tissue levels eventually drop below normal. Uninvolved and potential toxic minerals, such as iron, are then stored in the body at higher levels to take their place. This horse responded dramatically to a dietary supplement program designed to provide higher levels of the nutrients his body required to fight the inflammatory/allergic response.
Combining hair mineral analysis with traditional medicine and a dietary ration analysis is a worthwhile approach when gathering information in an effort to solve a perplexing syndrome. However, simply having a hair mineral analysis done without the aid of a veterinarian and shoving the horse full of “recommended” supplements is both foolhardy and expensive. Hair mineral analysis isn’t a cure-all.
HMA, in the hands of people qualified to interpret the results, offers a glimpse into the internal mineral balance of the horse unavailable from any other test. It is of unquestionable value in detecting toxic mineral levels and has the potential to provide many more important insights into a variety of disorders. HMA results must be combined with a complete medical history, physical exam, nutritional analysis and other diagnostic tests.
Any experienced hair mineral laboratory can perform the test, but determination of whether or not it is within normal for a horse and what any abnormalities could mean is best placed in the hands of one with as extensive an equine background as possible, such as Uckele.