If you read about the gut these days, you have probably heard of butyrate. Clearly you want this in your gut. But what exactly is it, and why is it healthy? Are there butyrate foods that you should be eating?
Let’s dive in and get the answers to these questions.
What is butyrate?
Butyrate is a type of fat, also called a fatty acid. It is much smaller than most of the other fats you get from foods. In fact, it’s one of the short chain fatty acids (SCFA).
All fats are made up of a backbone chain of carbon molecules. We categorize fats according to how many carbons they have in their chain. So, fatty acids can be either short, medium or long chain.
Fish oils are an example of long chain fatty acids. The DHA that you can get from fatty fish or take as a supplement has 22 carbons in the chain. Coconut oil contains lauric acid, a medium chain fatty acid with 12 carbons.
Short chain fatty acids contain less than 6 carbons in their chains. Some SCFA that are important in the body are acetate with 2 carbons, propionate with 3 carbons, and butyrate with four carbons.
How does butyrate help your gut?
The cells that line the inside of your colon, called colonocytes, regenerate faster than any area in the body. Colonocytes slough off every five days or so, and new cells grow in their place. The whole process requires a lot of energy.
That energy comes from butyrate. You might also see it called butyric acid. Colonocytes are able to use this fatty acid to keep the intestinal barrier strong, decrease permeability (leaky gut), and heal damaged cells more quickly. Research shows that increasing butyrate in the gut can help prevent or heal conditions like IBS and inflammatory bowel disorders (1).
Butyrate also enters the bloodstream and travels throughout your body. It can send signals into your cells, with messages that sometimes turn genes on or off. All genes code for specific proteins. This is how short chain fatty acids can tell your body to make proteins that strengthen your immune system (2).
Short chain fatty acids can influence the way your body uses energy, like suppressing the appetite and controlling blood glucose. These are some ways that a healthy gut might protect against metabolic conditions like obesity and diabetes (3).
Short chain fatty acids affect the production of neurotransmitters (2). Acetate alters the amount of glutamate, glutamine and GABA in the hypothalamus. Propionate and butyrate regulate genes that produce the precursors for serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine.
What are symptoms of low butyrate?
Low butyrate levels are associated with leaky gut and inflammatory bowel disorders, such as ulcers or Crohn’s disease. If you are experiencing any of these, you might have low butyrate (4).
You might have symptoms like abdominal pain, blood in your stool, chronic constipation or diarrhea, gas or bloating. Sometimes the gut causes symptoms that are not related to the gut, like skin conditions, poor energy, disordered blood sugar levels and brain fog. Autoimmune disorders are also linked to leaky gut.
How can you increase butyrate naturally?
What are the butyrate foods?
Milk fats such as butter and ghee contain some butyrate. Vinegars and some alcoholic beverages contain acetate. Cheese contains both butyrate and propionate (5). Fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut, soy sauce or yogurt produce short chain fatty acids during the fermentation process (6).
However, the amount of butyrate in these foods is small, not enough to take care of the needs of all the cells in your gut lining. On top of that, they are broken down and absorbed before they even make it down into your colon.
Certain bacterial strains are butyrate producers. These provide most of the short chain fatty acids for your body. As they break down plant fibers, your microbiome will supply your gut lining with all the butyrate that it needs.
Which bacteria produce butyrate in your gut?
Three of the bacterial species that are known to produce butyrate in your gut are Eubacterium, Faecalibacterium, and Roseburia. Lower amounts of these microbes are associated with disorders like colorectal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, and even preeclampsia in some pregnant women (4).
So can you just take a probiotic to increase these bacteria? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. You will not find these strains in commercial probiotic formulas.
These are anaerobic bacteria, which means they cannot grow in the presence of oxygen. It’s difficult to put anaerobic strains into a probiotic form that will survive the manufacturing, shipping and storage process.
Instead, the best way to increase butyrate-producing bacteria is to eat the foods that these microbes like. Feed them, and they will increase and thrive in your gut.
Best Butyrate Foods
So what foods do butyrate producing microbes like to eat? We call the foods that feed our gut microbiome prebiotic foods. Remember, the probiotics are the microbes themselves. The prebiotics are the foods that the microbes eat.
A prebiotic food contains dietary fiber that you cannot digest and absorb. It has to be resistant to your stomach acid and enzymes. This way it is available to be fermented by your gut microbes.
This fermentation process produces substances (like butyrate) that help the microbes to thrive, and also benefit your health as the host (7).
Here are some good prebiotic foods:
- Psyllium seed
- Whole wheat, bran and rye
Resistant starches are just like the name says. They resist absorption in the upper part of the digestive tract and pass down into the large intestine.
Some of the foods on the list below naturally contain resistant starch. Others need to be processed to transform their natural starch into a resistant starch.
Here are some foods that contain resistant starch:
- rolled oats
- green bananas and banana peel (You can add a small piece of banana peel to a smoothie.)
- white beans
- potatoes or rice, cooked and then cooled completely
When you cook and then cool some starches such as potatoes, rice or pasta, the natural starch is converted into a form of starch that resists digestion. Now these fibers are available to feed your gut microbes. This is also called retrograded starch (8).
Cook potatoes, rice or pasta as you normally would. Then, cool them completely in the refrigerator. Now you have turned them into a resistant starch.
You can reheat them if you wish before eating, or eat them cold. Think potato salad and leftover rice or pasta.
Plants contain large phytonutrients called polyphenols. There are over 8000 different types of polyphenols identified in nature so far.
You might have heard that polyphenols are powerful antioxidants. They are associated with a decreased risk of health conditions like cardiovascular disease and cognitive disorders.
Another health benefit is that polyphenols feed your gut microbes. They are an amazing prebiotic food that increases butyrate and other beneficial substances in your gut (9).
Here are some of the foods that are high in polyphenols:
- Green tea
- Dark chocolate, coffee and cocoa
- Olive oil
- Flax seed
- Black olives
- Red wine and grapes
- Fragrant spices like cloves, cinnamon, ginger, oregano, rosemary and turmeric
Should you take a butyrate supplement?
It may not be very effective to take butyrate by mouth. Your stomach and small intestine can easily absorb short chain fatty acids. They probably aren’t making it down to your colon where they can provide fuel for those cells.
Butyrate supplements and enemas are often prescribed for people with inflammatory bowel disorders, because they get the butyrate right where your body needs it to heal the cells of the large intestine.
Even if supplemental butyrate does end up in the colon, it is a short term solution. After the cells use butyrate, it is gone. You need to have the bacteria in place to produce your own steady supply of butyrate, and keep those bacteria fed. This is why the best solution is to eat foods with plenty of probiotics and prebiotics.
Can you get too much butyrate?
There is some conflicting evidence regarding butyrate and its effect on obesity. Some of the research shows more butyrate can help to alleviate obesity. These are mainly animal and test tube studies.
There is also some research showing that obese individuals have higher levels of butyrate. Some of the research also shows that people with IBS diarrhea have more butyrate in their stool. So more is not necessarily better when it comes to butyrate (3).
This is why it might be better to give the body what it needs to regulate its own production of butyrate, rather than flooding it with supplements.
Bacteria in your gut produce the short chain fatty acid called butyrate. Butyrate provides energy for the cells of your gut lining, so that they can grow and function normally.
Butyrate can also signal genes in your cells to turn on or off. It can influence your immune system and the amount of neurotransmitters available to the brain. There is growing evidence that butyrate can benefit appetite and energy balance.
Short chain fatty acids are a wonderful example of the symbiotic relationship you have with the organisms living in your gut. You feed bacteria with the types of plant foods that they need to survive, and they produce substances which help you to thrive.
Prebiotic foods, resistant starches and polyphenols all provide your gut bacteria with the materials they need to make butyrate.
Butyrate supplements might not make it to your colon where they strengthen the gut cells. Even if they do, they are only a temporary solution. Eating a diet with lots of probiotics and prebiotics keeps your gut healthy for the long term.
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