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What is butyrate?
Butyrate is produced when “good” bacteria in your gut help your body break down dietary fiber in your large intestine (colon). It’s one of several short-chain fatty acids, which are named for their chemical structure.
Dr. Cresci has studied butyrate for more than a decade. “It’s amazing how many beneficial things it does for the body,” she says.
Butyrate (pronounced “byoo-ter-ate”) plays an important role in digestive system health by providing the main energy source for your colon cells; it meets about 70% of their energy needs. And it may provide other health benefits, too, including supporting your immune system, reducing inflammation and preventing diseases like cancer.
What are the types of butyrate?
One type of butyrate is butyric (or butanoic) acid, a chemically modified version of butyrate sometimes used in foods and supplements.
Other types include:
- Ethyl butyrate (flavor enhancer).
- Hydrocortisone butyrate (corticosteroid).
- Sodium butyrate (used in supplements).
Where can I find butyrate?
Butter is a good source of butyrate, but you’d need to eat far more of it than is recommended; it’s high in saturated fat and can raise your risk of cardiovascular disease. Instead, boost your body’s butyrate levels by increasing your daily fiber intake with plant-based foods.
Because your body doesn’t break down fiber during the digestion process, it’s left for your gut bacteria to break down. Your healthy gut bacteria produce butyrate from dietary soluble, fermentable fibers that only they can break down.
Other sources include prebiotics and supplements that are high in fiber.
Foods to enhance butyrate production
You can promote butyrate production by consuming foods high in fermentable fiber. For excellent natural sources, eat a healthy diet rich in:
- Whole grains.
- Resistant starches like boiled potatoes and rice.
Let’s break down some of those categories a little bit further.
Many fruits contain fermentable fibers, including:
Veggies and legumes
Vegetables and legumes high in fiber include:
- Green peas.
- Leafy greens.
- Turnip greens.
Full-fat dairy products
It’s wise to consume these foods in moderation (no more than 5% to 6% of your total daily calories) because they’re high in saturated fat and cholesterol. They include:
- Milk (cow, sheep, goat, etc.).
If you don’t consume much fiber, add it slowly to your diet and drink plenty of liquids to maintain hydration. You may experience some gas or bloating, but it’ll begin to subside in a couple of days, says Dr. Cresci.
“If you eat a lot of fiber and don’t drink a lot of water, you can get really constipated,” she says. “Also, look at your urine. Aim for a light yellow throughout the day, which means you’re adequately hydrated.”
Is Butyrate the Same as Butyric Acid?
You may read about butyric acid or see it listed on supplement labels. But is it the same thing as butyrate?
Butyric acid and butyrate are different forms of the same molecule. Butyric acid is the form that you’ll find in food and many supplements.
Health Benefits of Butyric Acid
Butyrate has several beneficial effects. It may be helpful for weight loss, insulin resistance, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and more.
Here are four specific butyrate benefits to consider when deciding whether or not you want to supplement with this compound. Of course, always consult your physician.
#1: Weight Loss
Weight gain is a big problem in the modern world. Nearly 40% of American adults are obese[*].
If you’re looking to lose a few pounds, nothing beats a high-quality diet — but butyrate may help you slim down by balancing your metabolism and increasing your energy expenditure (or the number of calories you burn).
In purposely-fattened mice, just five doses restored normal glucose, leptin, and insulin sensitivity — all positive metabolic changes
Also, researchers have shown that (in mice) butyrate turns off a genetic receptor called PPAR-γ (“PPAR gamma”), which is a fat gene. In other words, it makes you store fat more easily. Turning it off may make it easier to lose weight
Finally, the short-chain fatty acid affects two gut hormones called GLP-1 and peptide YY. Both of these hormones help control your hunger. Getting more butyrate in your gut positively affects these hormones. As a result, you have less of an appetite, making it more comfortable for you to stay in a mild calorie deficit
But while the short-chain fatty acid may help with weight loss, it shouldn’t be your main weight loss tool. Start with a healthy nutrition plan, like the keto diet, then try increasing butyric acid to hit your goals.
#2: Colon Cancer
Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States, with about 100,000 new cases reported each year[*]. Some research suggests that butyrate may play an important role in preventing and treating this disease of the large intestine.
One of the most promising new treatments for colon cancer is using histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors, special drugs that make it harder for cancer to spread and can kill off cancer cells
Butyrate is a natural HDAC inhibitor. In other words, it reduces cell proliferation, helps kill unneeded cells, and affects cancer-related gene expression
For instance, rats fed wheat bran, a prebiotic fiber, had better cancer protection than rats fed other types of fiber[*]. Resistant starch — a prebiotic fiber found in legumes, unripe bananas, and potatoes — had a similar effect on colon cancer cells in rats
In one rodent study, mice fed a certain bacteria (Butyrivibrio fibrisolvens) had more butyrate and fewer precancerous colonic lesions
This is still a fairly new area of study, and most of the research for colorectal cancer is done with animal models, so take it with a grain of salt.
While the evidence shows promise against cancer in rodents, it’s too soon to say for sure whether the benefits apply to the human colon.
#3: Gut Disorders
Butyrate fuels your gut cells, decreases inflammation, and strengthens your intestinal wall, which can make it useful for a variety of gut conditions.
Your intestinal cells act as a barrier by forming a tight junction between you and the food you eat. Nutrients are allowed in, and toxins are filtered out. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
But sometimes — due to infection, an overactive immune response, poor diet, colonic inflammation, toxins, or even stress — the intestinal barrier can develop tiny holes. This is called leaky gut, and it’s connected to many chronic gut conditions, from IBS to Crohn’s to ulcerative colitis[*].
Fixing leaky gut is complicated, but butyrate can be part of the equation.
The SCFA helps repair and enhance gut barrier function by increasing protective mucus around your intestinal wall. It also tightens the junctions in the large intestine, so its contents can’t leak out
If your gut barrier is a picket fence, butyric acid helps repair that fence and fills in the gaps between the posts.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Leaky gut is strongly linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — a collection of chronic symptoms that includes abnormal bowel habits and recurrent stomach pain
In one study, 66 IBS patients were given sodium butyrate or placebo (along with standard IBS pharmacology) for four weeks. By the end of the trial, the butyrate group had significant improvements in pain when going to the bathroom. However, they didn’t see improvements in gas, stomach pain, or stool consistency
Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that typically affects the small intestine, though it may inflame any part of the gastrointestinal tract. Although the data for Crohn’s is limited, it’s promising.
In one trial, researchers gave 13 Crohn’s patients 4 grams of butyrate per day for eight weeks. Of the 13 patients, seven achieved total remission, and two achieved partial remission. The scientists believe this effect was a result of its anti-inflammatory effect on gut cells
#4: Anti-Inflammatory Effects
Inflammation is not a gut-specific issue. It’s usually chronic and systemic, which means it happens all over your body. Chronic inflammation seems to play a role in a lot of different diseases, from obesity to diabetes to cancer
Butyrate is a powerful anti-inflammatory — not just in your gut, but in the rest of your body, too. The short-chain fatty acid lowers inflammation in several ways, but the main pathway is through a transcription factor called NF-κB
Think of NF-κB as a switch that turns hundreds of other switches that can cause inflammation on or off.
Dietary sources of butyrate
Butyrate, a four carbon SCFA, is mainly formed from microbial saccharolytic fermentation in the colon and, to a minor extent, can also be produced from the fermentation of residual peptides or proteins (also referred to as proteolytic fermentation). Dietary fiber intake can lead to butyrate production in multiple ways: butyrogenic fibers increase butyrate production by acting as a substrate for bacterial fermentation, whereas bifidogenic fibers increase the abundance of bifidobacteria, which cannot produce butyrate themselves but increase butyrate production indirectly. Examples of dietary fibers that stimulate butyrate production include resistant starch and nonstarch polysaccharides such as arabinoxylans, β-glucans, oligofructose, and inulin. Resistant starch is naturally present in among others legumes, unripe bananas, and cooled-down cooked potatoes but can also be added or fortified into bread and cereals. Arabinoxylans are mainly found in wheat-based products such a breakfast cereals and bread. Some of these breakfast cereals such as oats and barley may also contain β-glucans, which is also naturally present in edible mushrooms and seaweed. Inulin can be found in a diverse set of plants and vegetables including Jerusalem artichoke, onion, and chicory root and is used as a fat replacer in many food products and, similar to oligofructose, can serve as replacement for sugar. Studies have shown that specifically resistant starch is potent in stimulating butyrate production and yields more butyrate compared with nonstarch polysaccharides.
How Does Butyrate Work?
Butyrate inhibits histone deacetylase (HDAC), an enzyme that packs up DNA into tight, compact structures and prevents it from being expressed; in other words, butyrate loosens up the DNA structure and increases gene expression
Drugs that inhibit HDAC are currently used to manage bipolar disorder and prevent epileptic seizures. Early research suggests that they may also be effective antidepressants
The relationship between butyrate and HDAC helps explain why our gut flora have such a large influence on our mental health. Sure enough, people with major depressive disorder have fewer butyrate-producing bacteria in their intestines
Functions & Benefits of Butyrate
Because butyrate is present in essentially everyone’s colon and produced by almost everyone’s gut flora, this section will describe the physiological function of butyrate and the potential benefits of supplementation.
Butyrate supplements have not been approved by the FDA for medical use and generally lack solid clinical research. Regulations set manufacturing standards for them but don’t guarantee that they’re safe or effective. Speak with your doctor before supplementing.
1) Gut Health
Butyrate is essential for maintaining a healthy environment in the gut. In the human colon, anaerobic bacteria such as Clostridium butyricum, Roseburia intestinalis, and Faecalibacterium prausnitzii ferment carbohydrates and produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs): acetate, propionate, and butyrate
Colon Cell Energy Source
Butyrate nourishes the colon wall, maintains a healthy lining and barrier function of the colon, and prevents intestinal inflammation
In the mitochondria of colon cells, 70-90% of butyrate is oxidized into acetyl-CoA, which is then used to generate large quantities of ATP, the primary form of cellular energy
If you don’t have enough butyrate-producing bacteria in your gut, you may be more likely to develop diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and even colon cancer
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Short-chain fatty acids, especially butyrate, can reduce the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). In one study of 13 people with Crohn’s disease, a type of IBD, butyrate supplements improved 69% of cases, with symptoms completely disappearing in 54% (seven participants)
There are a variety of approaches for using butyrate to manage IBD and colitis. The treatment strategies range from a high-fiber diet to butyrate-producing probiotics, coated butyrate tablets, and rectal enemas
Diarrhea & Gut Inflammation
Resistant starch is a type of soluble fiber that your gut bacteria can ferment into butyrate. A diet containing lots of resistant starch improved diarrhea in a trial of 57 baby boys . Good supplementary sources include Jo’s Resistant Starch.
Butyrate can also prevent inflammation and stomach ulcers caused by alcohol. Mice given butyrate before alcohol had less inflammation and damage to the lining of their stomachs
Sodium butyrate in combination with other SCFAs and silicon dioxide was also shown to benefit traveler’s diarrhea, a condition common among those who travel to exotic countries
According to a great many studies, butyrate is vital for healthy gut flora, controlling inflammation, and maintaining a strong intestinal barrier.
Butyrate suppresses the activity of cells and proteins that drive inflammation
In one study on human cells, butyrate drastically reduced the activity of interleukin-12 (IL-12), an inflammatory cytokine, while increasing interleukin-10 (IL-10), which is generally anti-inflammatory
In mice, butyrate-producing dietary fibers counteracted inflammation and illness caused by bacterial toxins. The inflammatory cytokines inhibited by butyrate included interleukin-1 (IL-1), tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), and interferon gamma (INF-y)
Butyrate may reduce inflammation by increasing the activity of immune cells called regulatory T cells or Tregs. These specialized cells stop other immune cells – Th2, Th2, and Th27 – in their tracks, before they lose control. In turn, Tregs prevent the lining of the gut from overreacting to harmless food proteins
Butyrate also strengthens the barrier formed by cells in the colon wall, thus preventing microbes and bacterial toxins from invading the bloodstream
Inflammation Due to Aging
As we grow older, inflammation increases throughout our bodies. In aging mice, a diet high in fiber that produces butyrate counteracted age-related increases in inflammation, suggesting that butyrate may be especially helpful to the elderly. Human studies will be required to confirm this benefit, howeve
Animal and cell studies show that butyrate inhibits inflammatory cytokines and prevents inflammatory bacterial toxins from entering the bloodstream.
3) Fine-Tuning the Immune System
As an HDAC inhibitor, butyrate adjusts the immune system in a number of ways.
HDAC inhibitors improve the tumor-targeting abilities of immune cells like T cells and natural killer cells; they are currently under investigation as potential cancer drugs. This class of compounds also reduces many inflammatory signals and increases Tregs, a type of white blood cell that prevents allergies and autoimmunity
Butyrate more specifically protects the gut barrier and prevents pathogens and other harmful agents from crossing into the bloodstream
4) Brain and Nerve Cells
The gut and the microbiome strongly affect the brain. Your gut bacteria “talk” to your cells by releasing butyrate, which (as an HDAC inhibitor) turns on certain genes
Butyrate may improve learning and long-term memory. Similar to exercise, sodium butyrate increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in mice. Simply put, butyrate supplies “brain food” (neuro = brain, trophic = food) to the hippocampus, the brain’s hub for memory and emotions. This gives birth to new neurons, called neurogenesis, a process that can reshape the brain
The effect of butyrate supplements or intestinal butyrate concentration on cognition has not been tested in humans. However, this effect has been repeated multiple times in animals, and probiotics containing butyrate-producing bacteria have been associated with reduced stress in humans. Human trials on butyrate and cognition are likely to be next
There’s a huge overlap between cognitive enhancement and recovery from brain damage. Both rely on neurogenesis, a process that replenishes and reshapes the brain.
In a mouse study, sodium butyrate given after a stroke supported the development of new nerve cells in the damaged areas. It also strengthened the blood-brain barrier in mice with brain trauma, which helped them recover. Butyrate-producing bacteria also strengthened this barrier in mice
Clostridium butyricum, a butyrate-producing species of bacteria, may help manage vascular dementia, a disease whereby blood vessel blockages prevent brain cells from getting enough oxygen. In a mouse study, animals with C. butyricum in the gut experienced less cell death in their brains
These effects have not yet been investigated in human trials.
Butyrate may also help manage other types of nerve damage. In guinea pigs, sodium butyrate protected nerve cells in the ear after treatment with antibiotics, thus preventing hearing loss
Mice with brain damage due to lack of oxygen fared better when they were given the butyrate-producing bacteria Clostridium butyricum before the injury
Sodium butyrate also prevented the death of nerve cells in the spine of mice with spinal muscular atrophy
Animal studies show that butyrate is neuroprotective and may improve memory and reduce the impact of brain trauma. Human trials will be needed to confirm these effects.
5) Social Life
Butyrate may impact your social life. Along with other fatty acids produced by your gut bacteria, butyrate is a “social odor.” According to one study, it may even influence whether people will find you attractive
Humans can detect even the tiniest amount of butyrate by smell; in fact, our noses are better at picking out butyrate than almost any other chemical on Earth. At high concentrations, it triggers a disgust response because it may indicate that something is rotting or diseased. At low concentrations, however, it can tell us about the immune status of other humans
Some researchers have suggested that a light smell of butyrate in another person’s body odor may indicate that they are healthy, strong, and a good person to socialize with