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Here’s a fact that reads like a riddle: Half of you isn’t you.

Fifty percent of the cells in your body are microbial, and they include fungi, protozoans, viruses, and bacteria. These microbes — known collectively as the micro­biome — significantly affect your digestion, immunity, mental health, and more.

Given their supporting role in so many key functions, it’s no surprise that you’re healthier when your microbes are well fed and happy. One way to ensure this is by consuming enough fiber.

Fiber is food for gut microbes — and it prompts some of those microbes to produce an impor­tant short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) called butyrate.

Also known as butyric acid or butanoic acid, this SCFA contributes to an astonishing number of health benefits, including improved digestion, better detoxification, stronger overall immunity, and reduced risk of cancer.

Lackluster butyrate levels, on the other hand, can contribute to problems in all these areas. “If we don’t have good butyrate levels, then these critical functions are impaired,” explains functional-medicine physician Gregory Plotnikoff, MD.

Butyrate plays a role in so many bodily systems that diagnosing low levels of this molecule can be daunting. A stool test read by a healthcare practitioner trained to recognize optimal and suboptimal levels is the best way to learn if your butyrate production is flagging.

Test or no test, it’s worth doing what you can to boost butyrate on your own. “Butyrate has been overlooked for far too long,” Plotnikoff says. “It is a powerfully protective molecule that is in our power to activate and promote.”

Fatty Acids 101

You need fatty acids in your diet to support optimal brain and gut health. These molecules are the building blocks of fat — both the fat you eat and your adipose tissue. They consist of chains of carbon atoms with some hydrogen atoms attached, and they come in three sizes: short-chain, medium-chain, and long-chain.

Long-chain fatty acids are most common in animal foods and provide the essential omega-3 fatty acids in coldwater fish, eggs, walnuts, and chia seeds. Medium-chain fatty acids are found in coconut oil and milk fat, and they’ve enjoyed recent acclaim for their role in MCT (medium-chain triglyceride) oil — a key ingredient in Bulletproof coffee.

Short-chain fatty acids are present in foods like butter and cheese, but our gut microbes typically produce most of the SCFAs the body needs. These endogenously produced SCFAs include butyrate, propionate, and acetate, which work ­together to keep the gut and immune system in working order.

The best way to boost the body’s butyrate production is by supplying the gut with plenty of dietary fiber. Gut microbes break down indigestible fiber and turn it into SCFAs, which are ultimately responsible for the many health benefits associated with fiber: regular bowel movements and overall colon health, right-sized LDL cholesterol levels, steady blood sugar, and stable body weight.

Boost Your Butyrate

If you’re eager to increase your own butyrate levels, here are several ways to start.

1. Eat more butyrate-containing foods.

Some foods contain butyrate naturally. These include hard cheeses (think Parmesan and pecorino), butter, full-fat yogurt, and fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, pickles, and tempeh.

2. Eat more butyrogenic foods.

Certain foods, especially those high in fiber, promote butyrate production in the gut: flax and chia seeds; beans and lentils; high-pectin fruits, such as apples and berries; and vegetables like garlic and onions.

Whole grains are also supportive, and resistant starch from green bananas and cold potatoes helps feed the microbes that make butyrate. Functional-medicine physician Kara Parker, MD, ABIHM, IFMCP recommends adding a table­spoon of potato starch to soups or smoothies.

3. Get enough sleep.

Rest is a critical factor in butyrate production. “In deep sleep, you repair the gut,” explains Parker.

In turn, optimal butyrate levels also help support sleep. One animal study found that SCFAs send sleep signals to the brain, and that higher butyrate levels increase duration of deep, non-REM sleep.

4. Fast.

According to Parker, a fast-mimicking diet (which involves fasting for 12 or more hours) may help raise butyrate levels. “When you stop putting the food in, you stop making the gut do the functions of digestion, and you allow it to switch to absorption and repairing the holes,” she explains. “This helps heal a leaky gut and helps grow more anti-inflammatory bacteria.” (For more on intermittent fasting, see “Everything You Need to Know About Intermittent Fasting“.)

5. Exercise.

Studies show that exer­cise increases butyrate levels in the gut, perhaps because it encourages blood flow to the bowels, says Parker. She cautions against overdoing it, though, because stress can exacerbate gut permeability. “Marathon runners classically have breaches in their intestinal barrier,” she says.

Researchers are still seeking to define the line between exercise levels that improve gut health and stressful extremes that exacerbate permeability.

6. Mind your stress.

When the body gets overly stressed for too long, cortisol levels rise, and the hormone is “an inflamer of dysbiosis and a suppressor of a healthy microbiome” that contributes to gut permeability, says Parker.

7. Supplement.

If you experience gut pain, constipation, or poor sleep, and you already eat a varied, fiber-rich diet, you may wish to work with a healthcare provider to try butyrate supplements.

This can be especially useful if you’ve just finished a course of antibiotics and are having a hard time getting your gut back on track. “For a week of normal antibiotics, it can take up to a year to rebalance the microbiome, so, you’re going to lose some of the players that make butyrate,” Parker explains.

She says most of us will regain those bacteria over time through diet, but sometimes the process is too slow. “If you have severe bowel symptoms — an inflammatory bowel, or acute GI distress — you might want to take some butyrate for a period of time to help reduce that.”

In these situations, Parker may prescribe sodium-butyrate or calcium-butyrate capsules. It is possible to get too much, so she recommends working with a functional-medicine provider to get the right dose.

This was excerpted from “The Little Molecule That Could” which was published in the May 2022 issue of Experience Life magazine.

Helen Martineau

Helen Martineau is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I came across your article and I can’t believe I haven’t heard about this before. I have suffered from everything under the sun with gut problems.
    I’m calling my doctor tomorrow. Thank you for your article. AM

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