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You Need Butyrate for Healthy Digestion + Gut-Brain Communication. Here’s Why.

One of my recent fascinations has been with a compound called Butyrate.

Whether you’ve been wondering why you haven’t yet gotten your digestion to behave or you just want to KEEP your digestion running smoothly, think of Butyrate as a ‘building block’ for your healthy gut.

In order to understand what Butyrate is and why it is so important, let’s step back to talk about what it is and where it comes from.

Background on Butyrate: Understanding Short-Chain Fatty Acids

High-fiber diets boost some pretty impressive health benefits, reducing risk of type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, obesity, stroke and cardiovascular disease. One of the primary reasons that a high fiber diet is so health-promoting is because our gut bacteria ‘ferment’ (eat) certain types of dietary fiber.

During the process of fiber digestion, those bacteria in our guts produce compounds called Short-Chain Fatty Acids (or SCFA). Short-Chain Fatty Acids are critical players for digestive and whole-body health: they dictate how cells function, impact how healthy our gut lining is & have anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial effects to keep our immune system strong (source). One of these short-chain fatty acids is called butyrate

Why Is Butyrate So Important?

One of the really critical roles that butyrate plays is in Intestinal Barrier Function, meaning that it is an essential ingredient to keeping the lining of our intestinal barrier strong.

Butyrate is also able to increase the activity of mucin 2 (MUC2), which helps to build a protective mucin layer to defend against any pathogens or bacteria in the gut. 

Without that strong, intact barrier and protective mucin layer, the immune system in our gut becomes weaker and we become more vulnerable to development of allergies, food sensitivities, and digestive troubles like gas, bloating & diarrhea.

As an example of how this has translated to ‘real life’: in one study, thirteen patients with mild-moderate ileocolonic Crohn’s disease received 4g of Butyrate for 8 weeks. Seven (53%) achieved remission and two (16%) had a partial response. In this trial, mucosal levels of NF-kappaB and IL-1beta significantly decreased after treatment: a testament to how potent Butyrate’s anti-inflammatory effects are (source).

Beyond the Gut: Butyrate’s Role in the Gut-Brain Connection

In addition to it’s role in maintaining a protective lining in our intestine, Butyrate has effects outside of our intestinal tract as well: what happens in the gut does not stay in the gut. If we are lacking a nice strong, protective gut lining, compounds including undigested proteins and bacteria can cross over our epithelial wall and begin to release inflammatory molecules which signal to our brain.

The Relationship of Butyrate to Blood Sugar Related Brain Function
Another way that Butyrate could influence brain health is through it’s influence on receptors called ‘G-protein coupled receptors’ which influence how our body uses or handles glucose. 

If our cells are not processing sugar, or glucose, correctly, that is a big problem for brain health. When we have lots of glucose, or sugar, in our blood, our bodies secretes high levels of the hormone insulin to dump that sugar into our cells.  

Chronically high levels of blood insulin can decrease insulin receptors at the blood brain barrier, contributing to a state of insulin resistance in the brain. Some cases of mild cognitive impairment and even Alzheimer’s disease are thought to be related to insulin-resistance at the blood-brain barrier (source).

Interestingly, studies called metagenomics studies have shown a reduced amount of butyrate-producing bacteria and an increase of opportunistic pathogens such as Bacteroides caccaeClostridia and Escherichia coli in those with Type 2 Diabetes compared to healthy persons. 

What to Eat to Promote Butyrate production

Unfortunately, the “Western diet” is infamously low in dietary fiber [59], meaning that inadequate Butyrate production is likely also widespread. In order to encourage butyrate production, focus on intake of two types of fiber called resistant starches and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS). Some select sources are included below:

Resistant starches: whole grain and legumes; cooked and cooled potatoes, raw bananas, legumes and partly milled seeds

Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS): bananas, onions, asparagus & oat bran

In order to be able to produce adequate butyrate, we need to have the right type of bacteria in our microbiome including  Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, which belongs to the Clostridium leptum (or clostridial cluster IV) cluster, and Eubacterium rectale/Roseburia spp., which belong to the Clostridium coccoides (or clostridial cluster XIVa) cluster of firmicute bacteria[2]. That’s because these bacteria are most efficient at producing butyrate from the fiber that we eat.

Tying Butyrate & Gut Health Together

In summary: to produce enough Butyrate, we need both the right dietary inputs (fermentable fibers) and also the right bacteria (butyrate producers) in our guts to produce adequate amounts of butyrate. 

If you are really struggling with your digestive health, suspect that you might not have enough good bacteria (including butyrate producers) in your gut, and/or are having trouble with digesting higher-fiber foods right now, consider supplementation with butyrate salts for a higher, more consistent dose. Then, make sure that you have a full, comprehensive plan in place to restore your digestive health! After all, Butyrate is just one piece of the ‘puzzle’.

Interested in learning more about a functional nutrition approach to restore digestive health? Catch a replay of my recent webinar!

About Sarah Ferreira

Sarah Ferreira,MS,MPH,RD,CDN,CNSC,IFNCP,CHWC is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with complementary certification as an Integrative and Functional Nutrition Certified Practitioner and Certified Health and Wellness Coach. She is the owner of Mindfully Nourished Solutions, where she uses a whole-person, whole-food approach to explore the impact of nutrition on mood and cognition. Her individualized approach integrates an assessment of nutritional, genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors into a collaborative nutrition care plan using cutting-edge research designed to facilitate meaningful and restorative changes based around client goals and priorities.

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