Steroid – Cortisone – Cortisol – Corticosterone

Steroidal compounds* are the basis of most hormones. Cortisol is such a hormone made and released by the adrenal cortex. The gland is naturally stimulated to produce this hormone by the release of ACTH (adrenocorticotrophic hormone) from the pituitary gland. Among other roles, the hormone is involved with fluid balance, sodium regulation and stress regulation. It also has potent anti-inflammatory properties, metabolic boosting properties and appetite and thirst stimulating properties.

Excess of the hormone is produced in Cushing's Syndrome (Cushing's Disease), which is usually characterised by overproduction of ACTH from the pituitary gland, stimulating overproduction of cortisol.

Cushing's in dogs : Cushing's in horses

Allergy in dogs : Allergy in horses

Modern drug medicine uses synthetic versions of this hormone (synthetic corticosteroids), to exert anti-inflammatory effects (esp. in allergic skin conditions in horses, ponies and dogs) or to boost appetite etc. Unfortunately, not only does it have very serious side-effects with long-term use (similar to Cushing's Syndrome) but it also suppresses symptoms very effectively, thus having a fundamentally negative effect on the healing process and making deeper disease more likely. It is immune suppressive and is used in organ transplant procedures and in cancer treatment. There are dangers if a patient encounters viral or bacterial challenge, while on synthetic corticosteroids. The drug can also obstruct the effect of homeopathic medication. Eventually, in the case of long-term synthetic corticosteroid treatment, the healing capability of the patient is removed and the eventual result is untimely death.

Synthetic corticosteroids are abortifacient.

Giving synthetic corticosteroids to horses and ponies can result in severe and intractable laminitis, as an example of iatrogenic disease (steroid-induced laminitis). This very distressing and sometimes fatal condition is entirely avoidable but regrettably cases still occur, despite having been recorded as long ago as 1980. Holistic treatment for this is best started from the outset. We often see cases that are months down the line and much less likely to be saved.

N.B.: If your horse has suffered this reaction, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate runs the SARSS Scheme, designed to receive and collate reports of suspected adverse events from medication. Please download a form and submit it, if you suspect an adverse reaction in your horse.

While it can be very tempting to use this drug and very seductive to repeat it, on account of its powerful symptom-relief, it should be treated as last resort medicine, on account of its inherent and insidious dangers. It behoves us to try to find a viable alternative to such powerful and suppressive therapy.

At the AVMC, we prefer it if patients come to us before resorting to synthetic corticosteroid treatment. This gives maximum chance of early therapeutic responses. However, if patients are already on corticosteroid, we do not demand cessation of this medication (contrary to popular belief). We set out to work through the corticosteroid treatment and, assuming we start to see success from homeopathic or other treatment, we can then discuss steroid reduction programs with the referring vet.

Patients on synthetic corticosteroid treatment programs should not be taken off treatment abruptly. This can cause a serious and possibly fatal crisis. Homeopathic medicines can be given to help a patient cope with synthetic corticosteroid medication.

On the positive side, corticosteroids can induce a temporary sense of well-being, increase appetite and can turn a case around in the short term, while efforts are made to find a deeper and more sustainable solution.

The ‘data sheet' of one such compound can be found at: This document details well-known side effects, contra-indications and warnings, that are broadly shared by all other similar drugs.

See also: Iatrogenic Disease : Side Effects : Immunotherapy

*N.B.: Cholesterol is a structurally-related compound, as are oestrogen and testosterone.

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