Butyrate is a substance produced by our microbiome that’s thought to boost gut health.
But while butyrate supplements and high-butyrate foods (such as butter coffee) have become popular in functional and integrative medicine circles, the jury’s still out as to their effectiveness.
In this article we’ll investigate whether you should be seeking out high-butyrate foods for gut health.
But before we go into more detail, here’s a quick overview:
Butyrate is produced by gut bacteria and also found in a few foods (e.g. butter). Studies indicate the benefits of butyrate (which is a healthy fat) include being protective against colon cancer and colorectal cancer. It may also help in conditions such as traveler’s diarrhea and colitis.
An effective way to boost butyrate is by eating a diet high in prebiotic fiber, which feeds the good bacteria that produce butyrate.
However, high butyrate levels don’t always correlate with better health. People who are obese or have metabolic disease (including reduced insulin sensitivity) have been shown to have higher stool butyrate levels, for example.
Prebiotic-rich (butyrate-boosting) diets are also unhelpful for people with gut sensitivities, as they can exacerbate bloating and abdominal pain.
A regimen like the low FODMAP diet is the research-based choice for those with a sensitive gut. This lower-fiber elimination diet can relieve gut symptoms and offer benefits despite a temporary decrease in butyrate levels.
What Is Butyrate and Why Is It Important?
Butyrate (butyric acid, sodium butyrate) belongs to a family of fats known as short-chain fatty acid or SCFAs. Along with acetate and propionate (the two other main SCFAs), butyrate nourishes the colon cells called colonocytes that line the inside of the colon (large intestine) [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Keeping the internal lining, or mucosa, of the colon healthy helps maintain a strong intestinal barrier. In turn, reduced gut permeability keeps out improperly digested food molecules that can trigger food sensitivities.
Butyrate is produced when gut bacteria that live in the colon ferment the indigestible fiber and carbs (such as resistant starch) that our gastrointestinal tract can’t digest. This fermentation process produces SCFAs as a metabolite (byproduct). Of these, butyrate is best known. Other common SCFAs include propionate and acetate.
Having high levels of butyrate may seem like it can only be a good thing. But more butyrate = better gut health isn’t a reliable rule. In fact, butyrate levels can be high in some gut and health conditions but low in others, as illustrated in this table:
Some data suggests more severe IBD correlates with higher butyrate, while other research suggests that IBD patients might have lower levels of butyrate in the stool, but higher levels in the blood, compared to healthy controls [9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 10 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]
Can Butyrate Foods Help Improve Gut Symptoms?
A handful of clinical trials have looked at the effect on human health of taking butyrate supplements or eating prebiotic-rich foods to stimulate natural butyrate production. But these have also yielded mixed results. For example:
Randomized clinical trials examining oral sodium butyrate supplementation (combined with standard medicines) noted significant improvements in IBS symptoms [11 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
A systematic review of eight randomized controlled trials (high-level evidence) found that butyrate enemas weren’t effective for treating ulcerative colitis, with only one study showing a significant improvement in disease activity compared to placebo [13 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
A 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis of 20 clinical trials concluded that in human health studies, resistant starch and inulin (two types of prebiotics) didn’t significantly increase total butyrate, nor did they lower the risk of cancer [12 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
High-dose prebiotics helped more patients with mild and moderate ulcerative colitis go into remission, but also caused more flatulence and bloating [13 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Butyrate supplements given to pregnant and lactating rats induced insulin resistance and fat deposition in the animal’s offspring [14 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
What Works Instead of Foods With Butyrate for Gut Health?
To truly give your sensitive gut a chance to heal, high-butyrate foods and prebiotic-rich, high-fiber diets probably aren’t the answer.
Instead, the research suggests that for good symptom relief in conditions such as SIBO, IBS, and inflammatory bowel disease, the FODMAP diet is a good option.
The FODMAP Diet
The low FODMAP diet cuts down on the troublesome carbohydrates and prebiotic dietary fibers that can cause gas and bloating in susceptible people. A typical list of FODMAPs includes wheat, legumes, milk, and some varieties of fruit and vegetables, such as mango, onions, asparagus, and leeks.
Research shows that for many people with IBS and similar gut issues, eliminating these high FODMAP foods can cut down on uncomfortable symptoms and improve health considerably.
A large 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis found that a low FODMAP diet was associated with a moderate to large improvement in IBS symptom severity and significantly better quality of life scores compared to control diets [14 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
A 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis found that a low FODMAP diet was associated with significant improvements in gastrointestinal symptoms and abdominal pain, compared to other diets. No side effects were reported [15 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
The interesting thing is that a low FODMAP diet works to help heal gut problems while temporarily reducing butyrate production and bacteria diversity in the gut [16 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 17 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. So, while the theoretically better thing might be to eat a high-fiber diet and boost your butyrate levels, the actual clinical evidence for people who have compromised gut health is in support of the opposite approach.
A low FODMAP diet doesn’t have to be forever. Over time, you should be able to start reintroducing these foods again, finding your own individual tolerance level to each one as your gut heals and becomes less sensitive.
This underscores that there’s no need to be concerned about a low FODMAP diet temporarily producing less butyrate. It’s only a theoretical concern anyway, but one that’ll disappear once you’re able to broaden the variety of foods and fiber in your diet again.
Combining a low FODMAP elimination diet with a well-formulated probiotic is likely to improve gut symptoms quicker. Extensive research has shown that probiotics can:
A recent literature review to determine the effect of probiotics on butyrate and other SCFA production in the microbiome found only one study involving humans where butyrate and other SCFAs increased [26 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Though probiotics are really useful for gut health, it appears that increasing butyrate isn’t a primary route of action.
Choosing a Quality Probiotic
Choosing your probiotic carefully matters. One study of 26 commercial probiotics found all differed in some way from their label claims, and some even contained unacceptable microbes .
To ensure quality, make sure the product you choose has been manufactured to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Current Good Manufacturing Practice standards, and third-party tested for potency and quality. Having a high potency and a mixture of different probiotic species for broader benefit is also a good idea.
Should You Boost Your Butyrate Foods Intake?
Trying to bump up your butyrate levels by eating lots of foods with butyrate or a prebiotic-rich diet could be counterproductive for people with gut sensitivities. Butyrate foods and supplements can be useful for maintaining good health, but the low FODMAP diet has much more research backing for when your gut is sensitive.
It’s not likely to matter that the FODMAP diet will likely temporarily reduce your butyrate production. You can increase the fiber in your diet (to optimize butyrate levels) in time, when your gut is healthier and can tolerate it.
My book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You, has a comprehensive step-by-step plan of how to turn poor gut health around. Or for more individual gut health and support, request a consultation with an experienced practitioner at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine.
The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.
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