March 14, 2023 11 min read
It may be the least abundant short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) produced by your gut microbes but butyrate sure packs a pretty hefty health punch.
Here, we’ll give you a comprehensive insight into what butyrate is, why your body needs it and the natural things you can do to help promote butyrate production and support your gut health.
It may not be wholly obvious, but the name butyrate comes from the Latin for butter, butyrum. The reason is that butter is actually the most valuable food source of butyrate, and it’s butyrate that gives gone off milk its potent yet distinctive smell.
Don’t let that put you off though because your body actually needs butyrate to thrive. And before you go and tuck into a slab of butter which we wholeheartedly do not advise, keep reading to get the lowdown on this awesome microbial metabolite.
The human gut microbiome is effectively a microecosystem within your gastrointestinal tract. The gut microbiome is the entire collection of micro-organisms and their genes within the colon. You may hear it referred to as the gut microbiota too, but this just refers to the micro-organism community, not their genomes[i].
The gut microbiome consists of both health-promoting and potentially harmful microbes. Most are symbiotic, so both you and the microbe receive benefits for them renting a space in your gut. Although pathogenic bacteria coexist with healthy microbes in small numbers, if something changes in the environment, for example, you take a course of antibiotics, get ill, or follow a specific diet, it can induce dysbiosis[ii].
Dysbiosis is an imbalance in the gut microflora[iii]. Yet, a healthy microbiome can prevent dysbiosis because good microbes work hard to keep your gut in balance, which in turn has many benefits, including:
One of the incredible ways your gut microbiome promotes your health is through the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAS). They are metabolites produced by the microbiota when they break down (ferment) fibre. Your body is not equipped to break down this vital nutrient, so your gut bacteria do it for you, yielding SCFAs. Butyrate is an important and well-researched SCFA, not least because it is the main source of energy for the cells that line your colon.
Let’s take a closer look.
Butyrate is an SCFA, a health promoting molecule produced as a bi-product from the bacterial fermentation of dietary fibre. It is what’s known as a 4-carbon short chain fatty acid which means it has a backbone that’s 4 carbons in length. Butyrate is also made up of hydrogen and oxygen molecules.
When you eat fibre, it travels undigested all the way to your colon where healthy gut bacteria break it down and transform it into metabolites your body can use. The human body is not equipped with the enzymes needed to digest fibre, so your gut microbiota does it for you.
This is why good bacteria are symbiotic; they get fed and in return provide you with useful metabolites. It’s a win-win situation for all.
Butyrate has many important functions in the human body despite being the least abundant SCFA[v], particularly for digestive, brain and immune health.
The main bacterial butyrate producers in your gut are:
Butyrate-producers thrive in environments that are low in oxygen, like your gut. That’s why, if you have a healthy gut microbiome, these species will thrive, contributing to the maintenance of your overall health.
Although Bifidobacteriadoesn’t exclusively produce butyrate, they do produce other SCFAs such as acetate and lactate which feed butyrate producers such as F. prausnitzii.This act of cross-feeding helps to nourish other good gut bacteria and increase their activity. In other words, Bifidobacteriamay inadvertently increase the production of butyrate in the gut.
Butyrate has many benefits throughout the body, some you can see and some that you can’t. It has gained interest within the scientific world because of its positive impact on cellular energy metabolism and intestinal homeostasis.
It may be small but butyrate sure is mighty, as you’re about to find out.
Butyrate is the main energy source for the cells that line your gut, called colonocytes. While most cells in the human body rely on glucose for their energy, the cells lining the gut are reliant on butyrate. Up to 95% of the total butyrate is used up by these cells. Some intestinal enterocytes (cells that line the inner surface of the intestines) can use butyrate for energy but mostly utilise glucose and glutamate[vii].
Many of the benefits butyrate yields in the body happen as a result of its ability to ‘energise’ your colon cells. For example, the cells must use oxygen to burn butyrate which drives down oxygen levels in the gut, promoting the growth of anaerobic bacteria and ultimately keeping the environment in optimum conditions.
The antioxidant potential of butyrate is fascinating and more research is becoming known about how it can protect the body from free radicals.
Free radicals are unstable and extremely reactive molecules that are a byproduct of normal metabolism in the body. Free radicals contain electrons (a subatomic particle that carries an electrical charge) and to remain stable, electrons must be in pairs. However, free radicals have an uneven number of electrons, so there’s always one on a frantic lookout for a ‘date’, and if it can’t find one, the effects can be damaging. That’s why free radicals are often linked to inflammation and disease[viii].
But butyrate has been shown to increase the production of glutathione, a potent antioxidant which protects the gut from free radicals associated with colon cancer development[ix].
More recently, sodium butyrate has been shown to improve the activity of some antioxidant enzymes in living organisms[x]. What this really means is butyrate can drive down the levels of inflammation in your body by stopping the pro-inflammatory substances from working effectively, limiting their damage.
Although a leaky gut isn’t officially recognised by the medical world, a compromised gut lining can play havoc with your health. The lining of the gut is an effective barrier between the inside of the colon and the rest of the body.
Its responsibility is to control what can pass through and what must stay within the digestive tract and be removed from the body. Tight junction proteins in the lining relax to allow nutrients and water to pass through into the circulation and travel to where they are required.
Although the gut lining is naturally semi-permeable, some lifestyle habits can cause it to become ‘leaky’, like frequent snacking, excessive alcohol, or lack of exercise. When this happens, the tight junction proteins become less effective and allow potentially harmful substances, such as undigested food particles, toxins and pathogens to enter the body.
Butyrate can help to plug a leaky gut and keep the tight junction proteins working by supplying the colonocytes with energy. As well as this, butyrate stimulates the production of mucin, the main molecules found in mucus which also line the gut. The increased production of mucin strengthens the mucus layer and protects the body from toxins. Plus, increased mucins means an increase in the mucus-loving Akkermansia muciniphila!
As well as being a critical energy source for your colon cells and possessing anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, butyrate also has some fascinating anti-cancer activities.
Butyrate is a histone deacetylase inhibitor. Histone deacetylase is a potent enzyme produced in most cancers and by inhibiting its activity, butyrate can stop cancer cells developing by inducing cell apoptosis[xi].
Moreover, butyrate may also be a biomarker for cancer risk, progression, and severity. That’s because clinical studies have shown that patients with advanced colorectal cancer have a lower abundance of butyrate-producing bacteria and a lower production of SCFAs[xii]. Butyrate can also exert its anti-cancer effects by blocking many signalling pathways[xiii].
You can help to reduce your personal risk of developing bowel cancer by ensuring you follow a high fibre diet. Doing so will help to modulate your gut microbiome, increasing the abundance and activity of butyrate-producers.
But that’s not all. The effects of butyrate are not exclusive to the gut. In fact, this special SCFA has a range of biological functions that can elicit neuroprotective effects, benefitting your brain and nervous system.
Some research shows that by eating a high fibre diet and thus increasing the production of butyrate by your gut microbiome, butyrate can protect the brain via several mechanisms. For example:
Overall, that means butyrate may reduce the risk of these diseases. Equally, they may benefit from butyrate treatment or an increase in dietary fibre.
Actually, that heading is a little misleading because eating butyrate-rich foods is not ideal. If you eat foods containing butyrate, it’s it’ll be absorbed in your stomach or small intestine, so won’t reach your colon where it’s needed. Instead, you’ll want to look to feed your gut microbiome with prebioticsto harness the full effects of butyrate.
Prebiotics are nutrients, specifically fibre, that are broken down by your gut microbiota. Prebiotics feed these gut bacteria and when they are broken down, the metabolites produced (SCFAs) have health-promoting properties[xv].
By eating prebiotic foods, you’ll be providing sustenance to the many species of bacteria that produce butyrate, both directly and indirectly.
The best way to boost your butyrate levels is to nourish the many different species in your gut microbiome.
Faecalibacterium prausnitzii is a major butyrate producer, so targeting this species is a good place to start. A healthy abundance of F. prausnitzii is associated with some significant health benefits, such as lower insulin secretion and increased healthy fat levels.
Current scientific evidence suggests that dietary interventions can be an important and quick modifier of the abundance of F. prausnitzii.Inulin-type fructans and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) can increase F. prausnitziilevels[xvi]. Some examples of foods include:
As well as directly influencing the abundance of butyrate producers like F. prausnitzii,you should also nourish the rest of the microbiome. For example, by feeding good gut bacteria like Bifidobacteria, you’ll increase their abundance and activity. This increased activity can increase the production of SCFAs that feed butyrate producers, in turn, boosting the production of butyrate.
That’s why it is so important consume a diet that is packed with phytonutrients and fibre which your gut microbes love to munch on. But be careful of fad diets like those that encourage low carbohydrate and high fat or protein intakes because these can deplete healthy bacteria levels by decreasing their favoured food source.
To keep your gut microbiota in balance and encourage a healthy production of butyrate, you should include foods like:
That’s not all, dietary supplements are also perfect for increasing the levels of butyrate produced by your gut, and human milk oligosaccharides are a perfect example. HMOs are the third most abundant component in human breast milk, and they’re renowned for their benefits for infants. But more recent research has shown that HMOs are also important for adult health.
HMOs are prebiotics, indigestible molecules that can travel through the digestive system to the colon, where they serve as a food source for the gut microbiota. HMOs, such as 2’-fucosyllactose (2’-FL) strengthen the Bifidobacteriacommunities in the gut, increasing the production of butyrate which strengthens the integrity of the gut barrier, modulates the immune system, and protects the body from inflammation[xviii].
At Layer Origin, we provide Human identical Milk Oligosaccharides (HiMOs), which do not contain any human milk but are molecularly identical to the HMOs found in breast milk. Instead, Layer Origin Nutrition’s HMO products are fermented from the sugar present in cow’s milk, called lactose but yield the same results.
You can help to bolster your microbiome through the supplementation of HMOs. Explore our range of HiMO products here.
If you want to guarantee a decent production of butyrate, you’ll need to look after your gut microbiota. No if’s or buts, without good nourishment and careful consideration of your lifestyle choices, you run the risk of causing imbalances or dysbiosis. And an imbalance can lead to gut inflammation, which has a major impact on the uptake of butyrate by colonocytes.
That’s because the butyrate transporters are down-regulated, so the colonocytes are unable to burn butyrate, causing an increase in oxygen levels in the gut. Remember, many of the good gut bacteria thrive in anaerobic conditions, so an increase in oxygen can reduce their numbers and increase the abundance of pathogenic bacteria who love oxygenised spaces.
Inflammation is a part of a vicious cycle in the gut and beyond. Chronic levels of inflammation are linked with the onset of several chronic diseases, including:
That’s why it is important to follow a diet that incorporates plenty of dietary fibre to help keep the gut environment in optimum conditions for your good gut bacteria to survive and thrive. Try to avoid diets that cut out certain food groups, like carbohydrates, because these can have a direct impact on the composition of your gut microbiome.
Butyrate is a special bacterial metabolite. It’s produced as a metabolic bi-product when gut bacteria break down the dietary fibre your body is unable to process. It may be small but it’s definitely mighty.
Butyrate has been identified for its numerous health benefits both in the gut and around the body. Without butyrate, the cells that line your colon would not have the energy to function which would directly impact its beneficial actions, such as its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Inflammation is present in many chronic diseases, and butyrate helps to keep it at bay. So, it is important to optimise the abundance and activity of butyrate producing bacteria in the gut. You can do this by consuming a fibre rich diet packed with prebiotics and through the supplementation of HMOs.
Written by: Leanne Edermaniger, M.Sc.
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