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SCFAs also keep the cells that line the colon (called colonocytes) healthy, providing them with their main source of energy. Although butyrate is the least abundant SCFA the body produces, it has a big impact on gut health.

“Colonocytes seem to love chowing down on butyrate, so most of it is taken up by the gut lining, where it contributes to a healthy colon,” notes internal-medicine specialist and gastroenterologist Will Bulsiewicz, MD, MSCI, author of Fiber Fueled.

In a healthy gut, the walls of the large intestine are intact but reasonably permeable. They allow nutrients to enter the system while preventing the escape of bacteria, toxins, and food particles.

When intestinal walls are damaged, they become permeable and “leaky.”

A range of factors can produce this condition, including stress, a low-fiber diet, and food intolerances. A leaky gut usually leads to widespread gut inflammation, which can trigger gastrointestinal (GI) disorders and more.

Meanwhile, enhanced butyrate production can build a sturdier gut barrier. “Butyrate fixes up the lining of the gut, like taking a beautiful historic home that’s been run haggard and restoring it to its original glory,” Bulsiewicz explains.

Functional-medicine physician Gregory Plotnikoff, MD likens this relationship to the adage that good fences make good neighbors. “Our neighbors — our bacteria — are doing all the maintenance work on this fence that is the gut lining,” he notes. “If they’re not producing butyrate, then the fence is not being cared for, and it becomes rickety and wobbly. It’s not doing the job it needs to be doing.”

One way butyrate protects the gut lining is by keeping inflammation in check, a task that we sometimes outsource to steroids like prednisone, says Plotnikoff. But butyrate helps regulate inflammation without the side effects of these drugs. “It’s in our power to roll back inflammation or to prevent it from even starting when it’s not necessary,” he says.

Notably, research has found a link between inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and a deficiency of butyrate-producing bacteria in the microbiome, as well as reduced microbial diversity. This may contribute to the overgrowth of an extra-nasty type of E. coli that often appears in the guts of people with IBD.

According to Bulsiewicz, this E. coli unleashes “pro-inflammatory proteins like a flamethrower as it proliferates, further enhancing dysbiosis and the rise of more E. coli.”

Butyrate helps arrest runaway inflammatory processes like these, and supplemental butyrate (in the form of capsules) is sometimes used to treat Crohn’s disease.

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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