The Role of Butyrate-Producing Probiotics in Gut Health

The Role of Butyrate-Producing Probiotics in Gut Health

A Fact Finder on Butyrate and Butyrate-Producing Gut Bacteria

Key Takeaways

  • Butyrate-producing probiotics are friendly gut bacteria that produce a substance called butyrate.
  • Some butyrate-producing species include Faecalibacterium prausnitzii and Eubacterium rectale
  • Butyrate plays a role in maintaining a strong intestinal barrier, has anti-inflammatory properties, and may even reduce colon cancer risk.
  • People with conditions such as a leaky gut, SIBO, or IBS are sometimes advised to try to increase gut butyrate production.
  • However, trying to force the gut to produce extra butyrate may not be the right step for everyone with gut health issues.
  • Probiotics that are butyrate-producing in vitro (under lab conditions), might not actually produce extra butyrate in people.

Most of us are familiar with the benefits of probiotic bacteria, while butyrate is another name that’s become popular in gut health. But what’s the connection between the two? Should you look for butyrate-producing probiotics?

In this article we’ll dig into the topic of butyrate-producing probiotics, and also look more broadly at the role of butyrate in gut health.

What Is Butyrate and What Are Butyrate-Producing Probiotics?

The Role of Butyrate-Producing Probiotics in Gut Health - What%20is%20Butyrate Landscape L

Also known as butyric acid, butyrate is a type of fat, classified as a short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) produced by our gut microbiome. Some types of gut bacteria produce butyrate as a metabolite when they feed on (ferment) prebiotic fibers and other indigestible carbohydrates [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. This fermentation process creates butyrate as well as two other SCFAs, propionate and acetate.

You can either consume butyrate-producing bacteria directly, or feed the bacteria that produce butyrate in the gastrointestinal tract. The best foods for producing butyrate in the gut are those with a high content of prebiotics, such as onions, leeks, asparagus and Jerusalem artichokes.

The most prolific butyrate-producing probiotics in the human gut include [2 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 4 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]:

  • Faecalibacterium prausnitzii (up to 14% of the total fecal microbiota)
  • Eubacterium rectale (up to 13% of the total gut microbiota)

Other more minor butyrate-producing probiotics include: 

  • Roseburia spp.
  • Blautia
  • Lachnospiraceae
  • Ruminococcus
  • Clostridium
  • Anaerostipes
  • Butyricicoccus pullicaecorum

You’ll notice that the common names you’d expect to see on the label of a probiotic supplement, like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria, aren’t listed above. This is because many of the beneficial effects of probiotics are likely unrelated to butyrate production. 

Probiotics Aren’t Always an Effective Butyrate Boost

Butyrate producing probiotics: gut bacteria 3D illustration

Bacteria that are butyrate-producing in the lab may not significantly increase butyrate levels in people when you consume them anyway. For example:

  • A 2020 review to determine the effect of probiotics on SCFA production in the human intestinal microbiome found only one study where butyrate was increased, and this was a non-significant increase [3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • An eight-week randomized clinical trial of supplementation with a butyrate-producing probiotic (Butyricicoccus pullicaecorum) found no difference in butyrate levels between the probiotic and placebo group [5 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • In a 2021 review of the butyrate-producing probiotic Clostridium butyricum, only one study measured stool butyrate levels, finding only a small, statistically insignificant increase in butyrate [6 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Later in the article we’ll look at the benefits of probiotics for gut health, and why it’s not necessary to specifically seek out butyrate-producing probiotic strains. But first, let’s look at what butyrate does and the effects it has.

The Functions of Butyrate

After being manufactured by microbes in the human colon, butyrate carries out various helpful roles in the gut. Butyrate can also get distributed and act beyond the large intestine, for example in the brain, liver, and fat tissue [7 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Studies that are largely in vitro (laboratory-based/mechanistic) suggest butyrate [8 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]:

  • Has anti-inflammatory properties, which could theoretically help improve the immune system within the gut
  • Helps improve gut barrier function, important to prevent the leakage of pathogens/toxins and allergens into the bloodstream
  • Is the major energy source for colonocytes (cells that make up the internal lining, or mucosa, of the colon)
  • Has antioxidant properties
  • May help to keep a good microbiota composition and to correct dysbiosis
  • Is a “histone deacetylase inhibitor” (HDAC inhibitor); this means it has a modulating effect on the destruction of cells that could turn into cancer cells

Butyrate’s Variable Health Effects

Person with a stomachache

How butyrate affects gut health in people, as opposed to in a lab situation or in animals, is less clear-cut. Human clinical trials involving a range of gut conditions have produced these mixed results:

POSITIVE effects have been noted in IBS, diverticulitis, and traveler’s diarrhea:

  • A 2013 randomized clinical trial (RCT) involving 60 patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) found that 12 weeks of butyrate treatment (using sodium butyrate supplements) in conjunction with standard medicinal therapy was associated with significantly decreased abdominal pain, reduced pain during bowel movements, and less constipation compared to placebo supplementation [9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • A 2014 RCT found that 12 months of supplementation with sodium butyrate (300mg per day) was associated with significantly decreased episodes of diverticulitis (acute inflammation of pouches that can form in the intestine) compared to a control group. Subjective quality of life was also higher in the sodium butyrate group compared to the control group [10 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • Sodium butyrate (250mg per day) taken for three days in combination with other SCFAs before and during travel was associated with a reduced risk of abdominal symptoms like pain, bloating, nausea, and fevers [11 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

NO OR MIXED effects were reported in IBD and colon cancer:

  • A systematic review of eight randomized controlled trials (high-level evidence) found that butyrate enemas weren’t effective for treating ulcerative colitis (a type of inflammatory bowel disease or IBD), with only one study showing a significant improvement in disease activity compared to placebo [12 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • In another study, high-dose prebiotics, which stimulate butyrate production, helped patients with mild and moderate ulcerative colitis go into remission. However, the prebiotics also caused more flatulence and bloating [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 (butyrate-stimulating prebiotics) didn’t lower the risk of colorectal cancer or significantly increase butyrate levels [14 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

More Isn’t Better

It’s also not a simple case of higher butyrate levels equals better gut health. For example, in people with IBS-C (irritable bowel syndrome where constipation is the main symptom), levels of butyrate in the stool tend to be lower than in controls. But by contrast, in IBS-D (irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea), butyrate levels have been found to be higher than in controls [15 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

People living with obesity also tend to have higher butyrate levels [16 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 17 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source], as do people with poor metabolic health, including insulin resistance and raised blood glucose [18 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. 

One theory as to why butyrate levels can sometimes be higher in sicker people is that acute inflammation could reduce the ability of intestinal cells to utilize butyrate correctly. Increased levels of SCFAs in the blood could also occur because of increased gut permeability in patients with poor gut health [19 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 20 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Probiotics (Not Butyrate) Help Tackle Gut Issues

While the evidence for butyrate is inconsistent, the research on the benefits of probiotics for gut sensitivities is much more solid.

A quality probiotic can improve gut microbial balance and bring relief for patients with IBS, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and IBD, among other conditions [21 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 22 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 23 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 24 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 25 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 26 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 27 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]

To choose a quality probiotic, look for one that is:

  • Manufactured to good manufacturing practice standards
  • Has a high potency
  • Broad spectrum (containing more than one species of bacteria)

Based on the successes I’ve seen in patients, choosing a probiotic based on these criteria above is sufficient. How a probiotic might affect your butyrate levels isn’t a concern. In fact, most studies where probiotics have benefited gut health haven’t measured butyrate levels at all.

Prebiotic Supplements and Butyrate

Prebiotic fibers, found naturally in foods such as legumes, onion, and whole grains, but more commonly taken as supplements, are often recommended as a way to grow more butyrate-producing probiotics in the gut [28 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Studies confirm that prebiotic supplements are an effective way of increasing butyrate production, and probably more effective than consuming butyrate-producing probiotics directly.

For example: 

  • When HIV-positive subjects supplemented with a prebiotic for six weeks, there was a significant increase in butyrate production and increased abundance of butyrate-producing bacteria [29 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • A 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis found that resistant starch (a prebiotic) increased stool weight and butyrate concentration in healthy adults, while also benefiting colon function [30 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • Seven studies found that prebiotic supplements such as inulin, fructans, and raffinose increased the butyrate-producing bacteria F. prausnitzii [31 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

That said, not all studies show a significant increase in butyrate when prebiotics are consumed [14 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 32 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

More than this, while consuming prebiotics is a key way to feed the gut microbes and optimize butyrate production in healthy people, it can have the opposite effect in people who already have compromised gut health.

Low FODMAP Diet

Butyrate producing probiotics: FODMAP Food List

Many people with bloating and gut sensitivity find their symptoms worsen with the intake of prebiotic foods and supplements, and even with dietary intake of a wider range of carbohydrates and dietary fibers. In these people, a low FODMAP diet (which minimizes the intake of carbohydrates and fibers that can trigger gut sensitivities) is often a much safer and more effective option.

Strong research supports that the low FODMAP diet can:

A low FODMAP diet helps tackle gut sensitivities despite temporarily reducing butyrate levels. In one randomized controlled trial, butyrate was significantly lower after people began a low FODMAP diet, but signs of inflammation were also significantly lower — a sign that the gut is beginning to heal [36 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Later on, when your gut has begun healing and you’ve built up some tolerance, you can very likely reintroduce and consume enough healthy, high-fiber foods to optimize butyrate production.

Butyrate-Producing Probiotics: A Summary 

Probiotic supplements are beneficial for gut health problems, but there’s little evidence that you get extra benefit from probiotics that specifically target butyrate production. 

Too strong a focus on eating the best foods for producing butyrate is also a potential problem for many people with gut sensitivities. A modest fiber low-FODMAP diet is likely to produce better results. 

For more individualized help with gut health issues you can book an online consultation 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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