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Check social media and you’ll find thousands of posts abuzz about the latest microbiome buzzword: #butyrate.
From TikTok to Instagram to Twitter, users and advertisers are tweeting about this short-chain fatty acid, claiming it helps with everything from digestion to depression. Butyrate enthusiasts are adding fiber-rich sauerkraut to soup, consuming butter and kombucha, and taking supplements to increase levels in their bodies.
But what it’s butyrate, and can it really do everything its fans say it does? Or is it all hype and no help?
Early evidence, mostly from animal studies, suggests the truth may lie somewhere in between. Registered dietitian and gut microbiome researcher Gail Cresci, PhD, RD, explains what you need to know about butyrate.
What is butyrate?
Butyrate is produced when the “good” bacteria in your gut help your body break down dietary fiber in your large intestine (colon). It is one of several short-chain fatty acids that are named for their chemical structure.
Dr. Cresci has been studying butyrate for more than a decade. “It’s amazing how many beneficial things it does for the body,” she says.
Butyrate (pronounced “bwoo-ter-ate”) plays an important role in digestive health by providing the main source of energy for your colon cells; meets about 70% of their energy needs. And it may offer other health benefits, 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 that is 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 should eat much more than recommended; it is high in saturated fat and may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Instead, increase 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 digestive process, it’s left to your gut bacteria to break it down. Your healthy gut bacteria produce butyrate from soluble and fermentable dietary fiber, which only they can break down.
Other sources include prebiotics and supplements that are high in fiber.
Foods to increase butyrate production
You can boost butyrate production by eating foods high in fermentable fiber. For excellent natural sources, eat a healthy diet rich in:
Let’s break down some of those categories a little further.
Many fruits contain fermentable fiber, including:
Vegetables and legumes
High-fiber vegetables and legumes include:
- The artichoke.
- Green peas.
- Leafy greens.
- Turnip greens.
Full fat dairy products
It is wise to consume these foods in moderation (no more than 5% to 6% of your total daily calories) because they are high in saturated fat and cholesterol. They include:
- Milk (cow, sheep, goat, etc.).
If you don’t consume a lot of fiber, slowly add it to your diet and drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. You may experience gas or bloating, but it will start to subside within a few 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, watch your urine. Aim for a light yellow throughout the day, which means you’re hydrated enough.”
Butyrate and butyric acid supplements
Some supplements can boost the production of butyrate, but you should talk to your healthcare provider before taking any. Most supplements use butyric acid and some type of salt, but they have not been proven to be helpful.
“The best way to get butyrate is to eat fresh fruits and vegetables that contain soluble, fermentable fiber,” advises Dr. Cresci. “Feed your body so it makes butyrate for you.”
What can lower my butyrate levels?
You may have low butyrate levels and a higher risk of infection or inflammation in your gut if:
- You don’t eat enough foods that help your body produce butyrate.
- You eat foods that lower the levels of butyrate-producing bacteria in your body, such as a low-carb or high-protein and/or fat diet. These foods reduce dietary fiber intake, which means less butyrate.
- Your body is less able to produce and absorb butyrate due to certain medications (antibiotics) or you have disturbances in your gut microbiome due to chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
What does butyrate do for my body?
Early research shows that butyrate may benefit gut health, but we need more investigation to understand how it works in humans and whether it has other benefits. Butyrate may promote weight loss, stabilize blood sugar, maintain or improve bowel function, and protect against or help treat disease.
Here are some benefits that butyrate is thought to have for your body.
1. Reduce inflammation
Studies have shown that butyrate supplements can reduce the severity of disease-causing bacterial infection (pathogens) by reducing inflammation. This can help prevent potentially fatal conditions such as sepsis.
Researchers have also linked low butyrate levels to an increased risk of inflammatory bowel disease and colorectal (colon) cancer.
2. Ease gastrointestinal conditions
Butyrate supports the gut barrier, which keeps bacteria and other microbes from entering your bloodstream. A sodium butyrate supplement may help with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diverticulitis, and Crohn’s disease.
In one study, 66 adults with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) who took a daily dose of sodium butyrate reported less abdominal pain. In another study, 9 of 13 people with Crohn’s disease reported improved symptoms after taking butyric acid daily for eight weeks.
3. Reduce the risk of colon cancer
Other studies show that a diet rich in dietary fiber, which encourages the production of butyrate, may help reduce the risk of colon cancer.
A laboratory study in human cancer cell lines found that sodium butyrate stopped the growth of colorectal cancer cells and caused the cancer cells to die (known as apoptosis). It has also been shown to reduce damage caused by cancer or chemotherapy.
4. Increased sensitivity to insulin
People with type 2 diabetes often experience insulin resistance and obesity. Because butyrate helps produce gut hormones that regulate blood sugar levels, it may improve these symptoms. One study showed a possible link between butyrate production and lower insulin resistance.
5. Protect your brain
Butyrate-friendly foods and supplements can improve brain health. Researchers have shown that butyrate can protect your brain and improve its ability to adapt (known as plasticity).
Early studies suggest it may help prevent or treat stroke, depression and other diseases that affect the brain, such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
6. Treat cardiovascular diseases
Some studies suggest that butyrate may help protect your body against widespread cardiovascular disease. Heart and blood vessel problems can increase the risk of:
7. Improve sleep
Butyrate’s promise extends to your bedroom. New evidence suggests that your gut bacteria are a source of sleep-inducing signals.
A 2019 study showed that rats and mice given butyrate showed a dramatic increase in non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep for four hours after treatment. NREM includes important stages of sleep for your physical and mental health.
How much butyric acid do I need?
It is not yet clear how much butyrate you need. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the recommended intake for dietary fiber is 25 grams per day for women and 35 grams per day for men, or about 28 grams as part of a 2,000-calorie daily diet. Your value may be higher or lower, depending on your calorie intake. This fiber should be a mixture of soluble (butyrate-producing) and insoluble sources.
Does butyrate have any side effects?
We need more research to know if butyrate is safe and at what levels, but here are some concerns worth noting:
- Some healthcare providers suggest avoiding butyric acid supplements if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Butyrate has also been shown to cause symptoms in people with bloating or sensitive bowels (food intolerances) who need lower levels of fiber.
- In obese people who already have high butyrate levels, supplementation may not be a good idea.
In other words, more butyrate is not necessarily better. As always, when it comes to supplements, don’t take advice from TikTok celebrities. Instead, talk to your healthcare provider.