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Intestinal Injury Recovery: The Role of Feed Ingredients

All healthy animals’ gastrointestinal tract has one big thing in common: balance. A harmony and equilibrium exist between the microbiota, intestinal epithelial cells which carry out the digestive and absorptive function and the immune cells which carry out disease prevention and protection. Whenever this balance is disturbed, the health and performance of the animal is affected accordingly.

“Imbalances in this equilibrium, however, are inevitable – especially when stress occurs. Providing the right feed ingredients can help prevent or repair the tissue damage and inflammation caused by those imbalances,” said Kemin Technical Services Manager Venkatesh Mani, Ph.D. “Based on the nature of the stress, the ingredient could either be a prebiotic like oligosaccharide, probiotics like Bacillus and Lactobacillus, antioxidants, organic acids like butyric acid or minerals like zinc, copper and chromium.”

Three Phases of Rebuilding Gut Integrity

Because of the functional and physiological nature of the gut, as discussed earlier, avoiding injury altogether is impossible. When an animal endures stress — which could be caused by a variety of microbiological, physiological, social or environmental events — it results in tissue damage. When this damage occurs, the epithelium is sloughed into the lumen, leaving the villi exposed and vulnerable.

“Viruses, like rotavirus which affect the young pigs mostly, will tend to attack at the top of the villus and make the epithelium slough the exact same way an ischemic event will,” said North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine Clinical Sciences Department Head and Professor of Equine Surgery and Gastroenterology Anthony Blikslager, DVM, Ph.D., Diplomate ACVS, likening the damage to that incurred when tissues are subjected to inadequate blood flow.

This triggers the process to rebuild gut integrity:

  1. Villus contraction: The villi flatten by contracting myofibroblasts — muscular cells that are positioned underneath the epithelium. This reduces the surface area of the wound created by an evasive pathogen.
  2. Epithelial restitution: As the villi contract, epithelial cells at the edge of the wound flatten and crawl across the denuded villi to repair the damage.
  3. Tight junction restoration: Once the epithelium has restituted, the tight junctions have to “zip back up,” refastening the epithelial cells and restoring gut integrity.  

“You will see a flattened layer of epithelial cells that’s reforming the barrier and regaining integrity. That process of epithelial cells moving is called epithelial restitution. That’s going to give a sort of band-aid appearance of the restitution of the epithelium to get that barrier back in place,” Dr. Blikslager said. “Once it’s done that and the cells have restituted, it has to regain its barrier function, and it does that by zipping together these tight junctions that hold it together. It is just like Velcro® brand. These tight junctions meet in the middle to rebuild that barrier.”

Based on the age group of animals, the mechanism of repair process varies slightly between the young and mature animals. “In neonatal animals, the epithelial restitution is the principal driver of barrier recovery whereas in post-weaned animals, the principal driver of barrier recovery is the tight junction restoration,” Dr. Blikslager said.

What you can do to help the intestinal repair process?

A balanced diet is crucial for achieving optimum health and growth. Because the stress and injuries take the vital nutrients away, growth and performance are affected. Depending on the nature and extent of gut injury, a traditional ration may not have sufficient or have the right nutrients to help an animal heal faster.

Supplementing specific ingredients at the right time may help and also enhance the repair process. For example, introducing a prebiotic to the gut microbiome can help generate the molecules that repair gut tissue after damaging exposure to an invasive pathogen. It also helps in balancing the microbiota so that it becomes beneficial to the animals. This promotes more efficient gut tissue repair and improved overall gastrointestinal performance.

“On the other hand, feeding probiotics like Bacillus and Lactobacillus, may also help balance the microbiome which indirectly helps the repair process by preventing further damage from an invading pathogen or by secreting specific molecules that enhance repair,” said Mani. “Furthermore, an organic acid like butyric acid helps with mucosal repair, targeting improved intestinal barrier function by improving the functional intestinal architecture so that the animals’ digestive and absorptive properties don’t get compromised. Antioxidants help the healing process by providing vital support in each and every step of the process. Trace minerals like chromium, copper and zinc can either lessen the impact of stress thereby preventing further damage, act directly against a pathogen or be part of the enzymes which help the healing process. Beta-glucans, on the other hand, can actually prime the immune system so that the animals’ immune system is ready – even before a pathogen challenge happens.”

When is the optimal time to begin introducing these ingredients into an animal’s ration?

Anticipating that a negative event might happen and trying to feed the ingredients at the right time during pathogen exposure or a stress event may be difficult, and in fact, might not necessarily be beneficial. According to Blikslager, it’s a good idea to start feeding prebiotics early. Although epithelial cells are already capable of “crawling” to help restore tissues damaged by invasive pathogens, this process happens more slowly in pre-weaned animals.

“The various feed ingredients discussed thus far certainly do not have any negative effects towards livestock and poultry and have been shown to be beneficial to health and growth – even if there is no stress or pathogen challenge present,” said Mani. “Introducing the right feed ingredients early in life can promote proper gut health in these young animals, helping them develop better epithelial defenses, good digestive and absorptive function and a balanced microbiome. Together, these factors ultimately cultivate better natural defenses from enteric health challenges and related issues.”

“The approach we’re using is nutritional. We’re hoping it will enable the animal to repair much more rapidly,” Blikslager said. “We’re hoping we can improve gut health in those younger animals.”

Hear more from Dr. Blikslager and other gut health experts at


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