The Health Benefits of Butyrate (and How to Boost Your Levels)
Put simply, butyrate is a very important molecule that appears to be intimately tied to our health.
Decades of research have found links between butyrate and a person’s risk for colon cancer, metabolic disease, and even the formation of long-term memories.
But despite its importance, many people may not be getting enough of it.
Butyrate is a type of short-chain fatty acid that humans can’t make on our own. Instead, we get butyrate from our food and from a series of reactions that take place in the gut microbiome that convert dietary fibers into a bounty of butyrate.
Whether it’s due to a recent round of antibiotics, an underlying condition, or simply a diet change, the loss of butyrate-producing bacteria in the gut microbiome can have far reaching effects in the human body.
Note : If you’re looking to increase your levels of butyrate-producing bacteria, you might want to learn more about Pendulum Glucose Control. It has 3 probiotic strains of bacteria that have been shown to produce high levels of butyrate.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- What is butyrate and how is it made?
- What are the health benefits of butyrate?
- What causes low butyrate levels?
- How to boost your butyrate levels
- Final Thoughts
What is butyrate and how is it made?
Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid that is thought to exert effects on a person’s body weight, blood sugar levels, sleep quality, and even their risk of developing some forms of cancer.
Butyrate’s name derives from the ancient Greek word for butter—the Greeks noticed that as butter or milk goes rancid, it takes on a potent smell, which is partly due to the production of butyrate in the dairy3.
We rely almost entirely on bacteria to produce our butyrate.
This is because butyrate is often made in the process of breaking down large, complex, and resilient molecules known as dietary fibers and resistant starches. It takes a lot of effort to break up these molecules, and human cells just aren’t good at it.
When you eat foods that are rich with these molecules—like green bananas, cold potatoes, or oats—your cells struggle to break them down.
As a result, the fibers and resistant starches tend to survive the digestive process. That is until they reach the gut microbiome, more specifically the large intestine.
Many species of bacteria can use fibers and resistant starches as sources of energy. These bacteria absorb the fiber and starch molecules and then begin to digest them, ripping them apart and extracting the parts of these molecules that they find useful.
Like other short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), butyrate can serve multiple different purposes within the body:
- Oftentimes it serves as an energy source for cells when sugar isn’t available (it is one of the primary sources of energy for the cells that line the colon, also known as colonocytes).
- Sometimes it’s used as a building block to help cells construct larger molecules.
- Other times it functions as a basic signaling molecule, able to change a cell’s behavior in dramatic ways (more on this below)1.
What are the health benefits of butyrate?
Once released into the gut, butyrate can have both local and global effects on the human body.
Research into the effects of butyrate covers many diverse topics and is still very much a work in progress.
So what do we know about butyrate and health, and where is the jury still out?
Fueling your gut cells
The body will use sugars, fats, and proteins for energy. Being a fatty acid, butyrate can serve as an energy source for some cells.
This is particularly true for colonocytes—the cells that line the intestinal barrier of the colon—who get 70% of their energy from butyrate.
When butyrate levels are low, colonocytes show signs of distress due to the lack of their preferred energy source.
This can then lead to cell death and inflammation1.
A well studied benefit of butyrate is its role in decreasing inflammation. It appears to do this through several mechanisms.
Many cells—ranging from the barrier cells that line the gut to the immune cells that patrol it—carry proteins known as GCPRs (short for G-protein-coupled receptors).
When triggered, these proteins set off a cascade of signals inside the cell that direct various behaviors.
Researchers have found that when butyrate triggers certain GCPRs, it can help immune cells behave with less aggression and also decreases the production of inflammatory signals from various cell types.
Boosting the immune system
In addition to its role in suppressing inflammation, butyrate supports our immune system in other ways as well.
High levels of butyrate in one part of the gut can indicate a potential infection (as some pathological bacteria grow, they start to shell out butyrate).
Immune cells in the gut can be triggered to investigate and respond to potential infections when they sense high levels of butyrate.
In this way, butyrate may help to prevent infections1.
Managing blood sugar levels, obesity, and type 2 diabetes
Butyrate has been well studied for its influence over obesity and blood sugar levels7.
Several studies performed in cells and mice have reported a link between butyrate production and the release of hormones that are known to suppress a person’s appetite, promote the breakdown of fats, and increase sensitivity to insulin.
The exact mechanism of how butyrate is linked to these hormones isn’t clear, but it likely has to do with the regulation of DNA and how or when sections of it are read.
For example, one study showed that people with type 2 diabetes who were given a high-fiber diet had an increase in butyrate producing bacteria that correlated with a >20% decrease in A1C levels (compared to a <15% decrease in the control group).
These results are echoed in numerous other studies showing that increased fiber, and increased butyrate producing bacteria improve blood sugar regulation18.
Fixing leaky gut syndrome
Additionally, butyrate seems to prompt cells that line the gut to form a tighter barrier, decreasing the likelihood that pathogens (like bacteria) can cross into the blood —an action that would elicit a very strong inflammatory response1.
This anti-inflammatory effect may not be restricted to the gut, either:
These GCPRs are found on cells throughout the body, including neurons and adipose (fat) cells.
Not only does butyrate suppress inflammation—which itself can increase the chances of cancer—butyrate may also decrease the likelihood of cancers such as colorectal cancer.
It does this by triggering cells to shut off genes that help cells grow in an uncontrollable, pathological way (a hallmark of cancer)1.
This is an active area of research as scientists explore if and how butyrate may be able to help in treating or preventing cancer.
Antioxidants are generally considered beneficial for human health.
That’s because there are some molecules within the bloodstream (known as free radicals) that can cause extreme damage to our cells—leading these cells to die or to become cancerous.
Because of this, cells deploy an armory of antioxidants to defend against these highly reactive molecules.
Butyrate may have some influence over when a cell unleashes its antioxidant defense systems.
However, scientists aren’t certain how butyrate does this.
It likely has something to do with butyrate’s ability to control what genes are read, but it's possible other factors are involved as well. More research will be needed to fully understand butyrate’s role in antioxidant release.
Suppressing hunger and food cravings
Evidence suggests that butyrate may affect many of our behaviors, including our sleep and eating habits.
This happens through what’s known as the microbiome-gut-brain axis, or the line of communication between the gut microbiome and the brain.
For example, mouse studies have found that butyrate can alter the levels of many hunger related hormones, including leptin.
Leptin is a hormone that is produced in fat tissue located near the gut and it decreases a person’s sense of hunger.
It is thought that, by increasing leptin levels, as well as several other hormones that affect appetite, butyrate may have the effect of decreasing a person’s appetite and changing their eating habits1,7,9.
Another study found that mice who were given a butyrate pro-drug (meaning it's a drug that is turned into butyrate once in the body) experienced a 50% increase in non-rapid eye movement sleep, indicating a potentially deeper sleep2.
The authors suggest that this effect was likely due to butyrates influence over certain hormones released from the liver.
There is also a substantial amount of research exploring how butyrate affects brain function and activity3.
Proteins that help sense butyrate are found in the brain, suggesting butyrate can have a direct effect within the brain.
Highlighting this potential, some researchers showed that increasing butyrate levels in the brain helped to increase memory formation in rodents (specifically showing that animals treated with butyrate learned to expect a pattern of events more than rodents who didn’t get butyrate).
It is worth noting, though, we do not know how much butyrate reaches the brain under normal conditions.
So far, experiments demonstrating a potential effect of butyrate in the brain had to artificially boost the levels of butyrate in the brain (through the use of specially made drugs or injection of butyrate).
Nonetheless, these studies have produced very interesting findings that suggest butyrate plays a role in:
- Improving long-term memory storage
- Staving off depression
- Slowing the progression of certain neurological diseases3.
To what extent butyrate contributes to these processes under natural conditions (without butyrate boosting drugs) is unclear.
What causes low butyrate levels?
Humans get butyrate primarily from two sources:
Food and butyrate-producing bacteria in the gut microbiome.
Low butyrate levels can happen when:
- There is a decrease in the number of butyrate producing bacteria in your gut you decrease the amount of butyrate containing foods in your diet
- Your body is less able to absorb butyrate.
Fiber is a major component in the diets of cattle and other farm animals, so they too have a gut microbiome that is capable of converting that fiber into butyrate which ultimately finds its way into the animal’s milk3.
If you don’t eat much dairy, your body will have to look elsewhere for it’s butyrate.
Like all ecosystems, the gut microbiome is a complex environment where survival of bacterial species depends on their ability to get nutrients and outcompete other bacteria for scarce living space.
For butyrate-producing bacteria, this means they stand the best chance at survival when their host (the person who’s gut they live in) eats fibers and resistant starches.
When these are lacking from the diet, the butyrate-producing bacteria may not be as competitive and are less likely to thrive.
As a side effect of this, lower levels of butyrate are produced1.
Antibiotics can also dramatically shift the landscape of the gut microbiome.
Aside from targeting the bacteria that may be causing an infection, antibiotics also affect bacteria in the gut microbiome, potentially devastating the population of butyrate-producing bacteria (as well as other species)7.
Lastly, some health conditions can affect the microbiome composition.
It has been found that type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, and other conditions correlate with a decrease in butyrate producing bacteria3.
How to boost your butyrate levels
Fortunately, there are multiple ways to boost your butyrate levels.
In essence, each approach aims to make sure that you have a balance of butyrate-producing bacteria in your gut and to make sure you’re giving these bacteria the food they need to survive—fiber and resistant starches.
What specific bacteria help create butyrate?
Production of butyrate is a collective effort as some bacteria partially break down carbohydrates (like fiber and resistant starches) and release the fractured molecules into the gut where other species can then convert these molecules into butyrate4,5,11.
There are many species of bacteria that either contribute to the butyrate making process, or are responsible for the actual production of butyrate.
- Faecalibacterium prausnitzii
- Eubacterium rectale
- Roseburia spp. (Roseburia faecis, Roseburia inulinivorans, Roseburia intestinalis, and Roseburia hominis)
- Clostridium butyricum
- Clostridium beijerinckii
- Eubacterium spp. (Eubacterium hallii)
- Anaerostipes spp. (Anaerostipes butyraticus, Anaerostipes caccae, and Anaerostipes hadrus)
- Butyricicoccus pullicaecorum
Additionally, species of bacteria in the Bifidobacterium genus are known to help break carry out the first steps in fiber digestion, providing molecules to the gut microbiome that the above species can use to make butyrate11.
Are there probiotics that can increase your butyrate levels?
In evaluating probiotics, it's important to make sure they have the right bacteria and, ideally, come with a prebiotic to help those bacteria survive.
One such probiotic is Pendulum Glucose Control, which helps deliver several species of butyrate producing bacteria (Eubacterium hallii, Clostridium butyricum, Clostridium beijerinckii) as well as inulin to help these bacteria establish a competitive foothold in the microbiome environment17.
Boosting butyrate producing bacterial species is believed to help reduce blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes through many potential mechanisms including reduced gut inflammation, decreased insulin resistance, and alterations to the liver’s processing of fats and sugars.
This hypothesis is supported by recent findings using Pendulum Glucose Control.
In a double-blinded study, researchers gave patients with type 2 diabetes this probiotic for 12 weeks, measuring their change in blood A1c levels from the beginning of the study to the end.
Results showed that people who received butyrate producing bacteria via Pendulum’s Glucose Control had significantly reduced A1C levels, suggesting better (and robust) regulation of their blood sugar levels.
What foods can increase your butyrate levels?
There are several foods that can help boost butyrate levels. As mentioned, dairy products tend to be high in butyrate.
But you can also boost your butyrate levels by eating foods that are rich in fibers and resistant starches. As the specific strains mentioned above break down these fibers, it will produce butyrate in the large intestine.
- Guar gum
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Cooled boiled potatoes
- Cereal Bran
In general, foods that come from plants tend to have fibers and digestion resistant starches. These help give plants the structural strength they need to grow upward and outwards.
Is butyrate the same thing as butyric acid?
Essentially, yes. Butyrate and butyric acid are two forms of the same molecule in the same way that a pen and a pen without its cap are the same thing—it’s a pen either way, but it’s usefulness might differ depending on if it has its cap on or not.
Butyric acid is butyrate with an extra hydrogen molecule attached to it, which alters how it interacts with other molecules.
Butyrate can fluctuate between states, existing as butyric acid in one environment and then transitioning to butyrate in another (or vice versa).
Butyrate is the more common form of the molecule in nature3.
After decades of research, it is clear that butyrate is an important molecule that can influence many aspects of our health.
With the right diet and some help from probiotics, it is possible to boost your butyrate levels and potentially improve many aspects of your health.
Note: If you’re looking to increase your levels of butyrate-producing bacteria, you might want to learn more about Pendulum Glucose Control. It has 3 probiotic strains of bacteria that have been shown to produce high levels of butyrate.
- Liu, Hu et al. “Butyrate: A Double-Edged Sword for Health?.” Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.) vol. 9,1 (2018): 21-29. doi:10.1093/advances/nmx009 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29438462/
Szentirmai, Éva, et al. “Butyrate, a Metabolite of Intestinal Bacteria, Enhances Sleep.” Scientific Reports, vol. 9, no. 1, 2019, doi:10.1038/s41598-019-43502-1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-43502-1
Stilling, Roman M., et al. “The Neuropharmacology of Butyrate: The Bread and Butter of the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis?” Neurochemistry International, vol. 99, 2016, pp. 110–132., doi:10.1016/j.neuint.2016.06.011. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27346602/
Fu, Xiaodan, et al. “Nondigestible Carbohydrates, Butyrate, and Butyrate-Producing Bacteria.” Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, vol. 59, no. sup1, 2018, doi:10.1080/10408398.2018.1542587. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10408398.2018.1542587
Pryde, Susan E, et al. “The Microbiology of Butyrate Formation in the Human Colon.” FEMS Microbiology Letters, vol. 217, no. 2, 2002, pp. 133–139., doi:10.1111/j.1574-6968.2002.tb11467.x. https://academic.oup.com/femsle/article/217/2/133/501025
Busnelli, Marco et al. “The Gut Microbiota Affects Host Pathophysiology as an Endocrine Organ: A Focus on Cardiovascular Disease.” Nutrients vol. 12,1 79. 27 Dec. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu12010079 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7019666/
Wouw, Marcel Van De, et al. “Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis: Modulator of Host Metabolism and Appetite.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 147, no. 5, 2017, pp. 727–745., doi:10.3945/jn.116.240481. https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/147/5/727/4584720
Archer, Douglas L, and Dean C Kramer. “The Use of Microbial Accessible and Fermentable Carbohydrates and/or Butyrate as Supportive Treatment for Patients With Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 Infection.” Frontiers in medicine vol. 7 292. 5 Jun. 2020, doi:10.3389/fmed.2020.00292 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7290455/
Abdul Rahim, Mohd Badrin Hanizam et al. “Diet-induced metabolic changes of the human gut microbiome: importance of short-chain fatty acids, methylamines and indoles.” Acta diabetologica vol. 56,5 (2019): 493-500. doi:10.1007/s00592-019-01312-x https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30903435/
Myhrstad, Mari C W et al. “Dietary Fiber, Gut Microbiota, and Metabolic Regulation-Current Status in Human Randomized Trials.” Nutrients vol. 12,3 859. 23 Mar. 2020, doi:10.3390/nu12030859 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7146107/
Rivière, Audrey et al. “Bifidobacteria and Butyrate-Producing Colon Bacteria: Importance and Strategies for Their Stimulation in the Human Gut.” Frontiers in microbiology vol. 7 979. 28 Jun. 2016, doi:10.3389/fmicb.2016.00979 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4923077/
Seo, Seung-Oh, et al. “Characterization of AClostridium Beijerinckii spo0Amutant and Its Application for Butyl Butyrate Production.” Biotechnology and Bioengineering, vol. 114, no. 1, 2016, pp. 106–112., doi:10.1002/bit.26057. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27474812/
“NCI Drug Dictionary.” National Cancer Institute, www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-drug/def/clostridium-butyricum-cbm-588-probiotic-strain
Markowiak-Kopeć, Paulina, and Katarzyna Śliżewska. “The Effect of Probiotics on the Production of Short-Chain Fatty Acids by Human Intestinal Microbiome.” Nutrients vol. 12,4 1107. 16 Apr. 2020, doi:10.3390/nu12041107 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7230973/
Boesmans, Leen et al. “Butyrate Producers as Potential Next-Generation Probiotics: Safety Assessment of the Administration of Butyricicoccus pullicaecorum to Healthy Volunteers.” mSystems vol. 3,6 e00094-18. 6 Nov. 2018, doi:10.1128/mSystems.00094-18 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30417112/
Moens, Frédéric, et al. “A Four-Strain Probiotic Exerts Positive Immunomodulatory Effects by Enhancing Colonic Butyrate Production in Vitro.” International Journal of Pharmaceutics, vol. 555, 2019, pp. 1–10., doi:10.1016/j.ijpharm.2018.11.020. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S037851731830838X
- Perraudeau, Fanny, et al. “Improvements to Postprandial Glucose Control in Subjects with Type 2 Diabetes: a Multicenter, Double Blind, Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial of a Novel Probiotic Formulation.” BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care, vol. 8, no. 1, 2020, doi:10.1136/bmjdrc-2020-001319. https://drc.bmj.com/content/8/1/e001319
- Zhao, Liping, et al. “Gut Bacteria Selectively Promoted by Dietary Fibers Alleviate Type 2 Diabetes.” Science, vol. 359, no. 6380, 2018, pp. 1151–56. Crossref, doi:10.1126/science.aao5774. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6380/1151