Meet the Short-Chain Fatty Acid That’s Essential for Gut Health (Hint: It’s Butyrate)

Sara Coughlin
Medically Reviewed
May 27, 2021

Gut health is an exciting, emerging field in medicine. With the ever-increasing wealth of information on what makes our microbiomes tick, it can be difficult to know what, exactly, you should adopt to improve your gut. As is the case with just about any routine change, doing something small to begin is always a good idea. And while there are many small changes you can make for better gut health , one area that’s been receiving more attention is getting enough butyrate, a little-known, gut-friendly compound.

Here, we spoke with Jennifer Katz, a former health coach with Parsley Health , to learn more about how butyrate works to support your gut health and beyond.

What is butyrate?

Butyrate, or butyric acid, is what’s known as a postbiotic: a byproduct of our gut’s natural fermentation process. Katz explains, when we eat foods that are rich in fiber , our gut bacteria consumes that fiber and leaves behind beneficial compounds—including, with certain foods, butyrate. She adds that butyrate is one of several short-chain fatty acids that support our overall health. Where long-chain and medium-chain fatty acids are relatively easy to acquire through the foods we eat, short-chain fatty acids tend to be less common in most people’s diets. Nevertheless, they’re important to seek out.

Why do short-chain fatty acids matter?

“Short-chain fatty acid is so important because it serves as almost an instant energy source,” Katz explains, adding that short-chain fatty acids are easier to turn into energy than their long and medium counterparts. “It can be a burst of energy for the brain; it can turn into ketones very quickly; it can help rebuild the epithelial cells in the intestinal lining.” Research suggests short-chain fatty acids may also help bolster the immune system and improve sleep quality .

How can butyrate specifically benefit your health?

According to Katz, recent and emerging research suggests that our microbiome specifically stands to benefit from a diet that provides us with an adequate amount of butyrate: “[It] can help maintain balance in the gut, it can help provide energy for the colon, and it has been shown to help reduce all-around inflammation .” And, given short-chain fatty acids’ ability to repair the intestinal lining, butyrate may also help prevent leaky gut .

This condition arises when our intestinal barrier is compromised: Normally, our intestinal lining is dotted with tiny perforations that allow only certain molecules to pass through and into our bloodstream. When those perforations tear, loosen, or get bigger, unwanted molecules (including large food particles, bacteria, and toxins) can make their way through as well, leading to an increase in inflammation , gastrointestinal discomfort (i.e., gas , cramps, and bloating ), chronic conditions like celiac disease and gluten intolerance and other, potentially more serious, health complications .

“Everything from diabetes to cancer to food allergies to general malaise to brain fog — you name it — can be linked to leaky gut ,” Katz says. Butyrate works to improve the function of our intestinal barrier , thus reducing our risk of developing leaky gut. Katz is quick to note, however, that these benefits come with a caveat: “[Butyrate is] newly studied, so a lot of these [findings] are brand new. The studies haven’t been repeated but they have shown really good things thus far.” In other words, butyrate is by no means a silver bullet, but it may still be in your interest to add butyrate-rich foods to your diet .

Who needs to worry about getting enough butyrate?

Because butyrate is a fairly specific and isolated compound, it’s unlikely that anyone will suffer from symptoms that can be directly linked to a butyrate deficiency. Instead, Katz says looking at your eating habits may help you determine whether you’re getting enough butyrate. “Those with a low fiber diet are probably lacking butyrate,” she says. “Fiber is extremely important for butyric acid to actually do its thing and to be made.” Again, the good bugs in your gut consume the fiber from the foods you eat and create butyrate in the process—so, insufficient fiber can mean insufficient butyrate.

Katz says people dealing with inflammation or gut imbalances, perhaps due to antibiotic use, indigestion, or IBS, are also more likely to lack butyrate. Aside from that, anyone who’s invested in having a healthy microbiome may want to take a greater interest in their butyrate intake, due to the positive impact it can have on intestinal function.

As far as how to increase your butyrate intake goes, Katz’s recommendation is simple: “This is one of those things that you can take preventatively. You can take a butyrate supplement, but you really do want to get it from your food.”

Key foods to increase butyrate

Where some foods contain the fiber necessary to create butyrate in the body, other foods are, in and of themselves, rich in butyrate. Chief among this latter category is a variety of dairy products (though if you’re intolerant or sensitive to dairy , you’ll want to steer clear) including the following:

You can also consume foods that don’t necessarily contain butyrate but will help the bugs in your gut create it. Here are the best foods to add to your diet:

  • High-fiber fruits and vegetables, including apples, broccoli, potatoes, and dark greens
  • Legumes
  • Nuts, particularly walnuts
  • Sauerkraut

When should you consider taking a supplement?

While most people should be able to get enough butyrate from foods alone, Katz notes two groups who may want to consider supplementing it instead.

First, she points to those with food intolerances and allergies. If you’re lactose intolerant, for example, you certainly shouldn’t try eating butter and cheese just because they contain this helpful compound. In that case, Katz says you may want to talk to your doctor about trying a supplement—and to consider gut healing or allergy therapy in order to work your way out of that intolerance.

Second, she points to people with imbalanced gut microbiomes and digestive issues that range from those who deal with IBS to those who have an ostomy bag or are undergoing colon therapies. This group may have microbiomes that are in such a “deficient state,” as Katz puts it, that starting with a butyrate supplement may help them play catch-up and eventually reach a point where they can more easily digest the kinds of foods that will naturally provide them with more butyrate. “It’s sort of a catch-22,” Katz says. “You need great digestion in order to get what you need out of the foods that give you butyrate, but you also need butyrate to get good digestion. It may depend on where you’re starting from.”

When in doubt, ask your healthcare provider about what you can do to increase or maintain your gut health. Starting that conversation will give you a much better idea of your microbiome’s individual needs.

The takeaway: Butyrate is a great addition to your already gut-friendly lifestyle

“[Butyrate] can do so much, but it has to go hand-in-hand with other lifestyle modifications and habits,” Katz says. Alone, it won’t make much of a difference, but when butyrate works in tandem with a lifestyle that prioritizes gut health —one that features prebiotic and probiotic foods , exercise, adequate rest , and stress-management practices—it proves itself to be a valuable cog in the machine that is your microbiome.

Sara Coughlin

Sara Coughlin is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She's covered health, wellness, and lifestyle trends for such publications as Refinery29, InStyle, SELF, Livestrong, and Food52.

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