Inside all of us is the gut microbiome, the trillions-strong community of bacteria whose job it is to keep you healthy. It handles some of the digestion of your food, metabolizes nutrients and makes vitamins. It also protects your gut lining from springing leaks by fortifying the gut’s cell wall, pretty important stuff considering the gut houses roughly 70% of your immune system. The gut microbiome also houses certain types of bacteria which, when properly fed, produce powerful, health-supportive compounds like short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). One of the most well-studied SCFAs is butyrate – and it’s one you won’t want to leave home without. If you want your body to run well from head to toe, here’s the 411 on this essential compound that everyone can use a little more of – and how to get yours:
Never heard of butyrate? In a nutshell, butyrate is a short chain fatty that’s produced when certain strains of gut bacteria feast on their favorite plant fiber, the stuff that makes your beneficial gut bacteria thrive. Once the plant fiber, largely indigestible by human cells, passes down to your colon, the gut bacteria work on fermenting it, producing short chain fatty acids, butyrate among them.
So, why do SCFAs matter? Because they deliver big body wins. They help your body better absorb minerals from the food you eat and help maintain your bacterial balance, preventing the bad guys from gaining the upper hand. But wait, there’s more. Lots more.
Butyrate’s got superpowers.
What makes butyrate extra special is its built-in superpowers that are major contributors to good health. Hundreds of studies have found links between too little butyrate and increased colon cancer risk, metabolic disease, and even cognitive and memory decline. When it comes to protection, the more butyrate the better. This multifunctional molecule helps your body do all sorts of great things, like:
- maintain the integrity of the gut wall by feeding your gut cells, aka ‘colonocytes,’ and keeping that wall strong and leak-free
- provide energy and fuel for your colonocytes, keeping them healthy and strong
- limit inflammatory responses, calming the immune system and blunting production of inflammatory signals
- prevent cancer development by suppressing inflammatory responses (which can promote the development of certain types of cancers)
- curb appetite, which in turn can help keep weight in check and obesity risk down
- stimulate glucagon-like peptide-1, a hormone produced by the gut, which helps improve blood-glucose regulation and curb diabetes risk
- reinforce the immune system’s defenses against pathogens
Butyrate is good for your head too.
Not only is butyrate good for your gut, but current thinking is that it may also support mental health, with neuroprotective effects thrown in for good measure. Research indicates that there are butyrate-sensing proteins in the brain, suggesting butyrate has positive effects on memory, mood and slows the progression of neurological disease progression. It’s a great example of the two-way communication between gut and brain that we call the ‘gut-brain axis’ . What else can butyrate do for you? It may also help you sleep better – it’s thought to play a role in encouraging the brain’s release of sleep-inducing hormones. So, your mission: fill up on fiber and start boosting your butyrate supply with help from your in-house bacterial production team.
Manage your microbes.
As butyrate is tied into so many aspects of health, and your body relies on your bacteria to produce it, you’ll want to make sure you’re not falling short. What takes a bite out of your bacterial butyrate production team? The gut distressors, like leaky gut is a big one, as are chronic health conditions like diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s. Another drag on production is antibiotic use. Remember that killing bacteria is their job description, and that carpet-bombing also takes out the good guys that produce butyrate (antibiotics don’t discriminate). What else will have a negative impact? An unhealthy low fiber diet of gut-irritating, processed foods, and especially sugar, which over-feeds the bad guys and starves the good, causing imbalances (aka ‘dysbiosis’).
Top your butyrate tank with a prebiotic assist.
Helping your body produce more of it is always a good idea. For some of my patients, I may recommend butyrate in supplement form, but ideally, you want to get as much as possible by feeding your own gut bacteria.
The best foods to start with are prebiotic foods, which contain the kinds of fiber that fuel your beneficial gut bacteria – you know, the guys that produce those good-for-you SCFAs, including butyrate. You’ll get the most bang for your buck – and keep your bacteria thriving — if you eat the widest a variety of produce possible, helping to boost microbial diversity. (If you feed them, they will grow.) Think colorful low sugar fruits (berries are always good); high-fiber veggies (love the leafy greens and their stalks); nuts, seeds, and legumes; and moderate amounts of gluten-free whole grains like quinoa, wild rice, buckwheat, millet, amaranth, and arrowroot.
The more diversity in your diet, the more diverse and plentiful your butyrate-producing bacteria will be.
First stop: the produce aisle.
As butyrate is mostly made from fermentable fiber and resistant starches, to take advantage of foods that will foster optimal butyrate production, make a beeline for the produce aisle. While you’re there, opt for either organic or fresh from the farmers’ market options, or choose conventionally grown items according to the recommendations of the Environmental Working Group’s Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce which identifies foods that are OK to buy from conventional (non-organic) sources and which ones are best bought from healthier sources. Here are the tasty prebiotic plant-fiber super-stars:
- Chicory root
- Citrus fruits
- Dark leafy greens
- Dandelion greens
- Jerusalem artichokes or sunchokes
Toss in a little ‘resistant starch’ while you’re at it.
In addition to the above, you can also boost butyrate production by including some prebiotic ‘resistant starch’ foods, that is, starches that don’t raise glucose levels and aren’t digested in the small intestine. Resistant starches (unlike fast-moving, blood-sugar-spiking simple carbs) move down to the large intestine where their fibers slowly ferment and act as a prebiotic, encouraging the production of more butyrate. Among the resistant starches to add to your mix:
- Lentils, black beans, kidney beans and chickpeas
- Green/under-ripe bananas
- Tiger nut flour for baking
Make it delicious.
Though you get the benefits of eating fiber, you can add some foods which contain butyrate, like some forms of dairy. Sources like milk, butter and hard cheeses like parmesan and Reggiano can round out your repertoire, so if dairy agrees with you, add them to your list. Just be sure to always source the healthiest options possible – look for organic or farmers’ market products from healthy, pasture-raised animals.