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Check social media, and you’ll find thousands of glowing posts for the latest microbiome buzzword: #butyrate.
From TikTok to Instagram to Twitter, users and advertisers are posting shoutouts to this short-chain fatty acid, claiming it aids in everything from digestion to depression. Butyrate enthusiasts are adding fiber-rich sauerkraut to soup, bingeing on butter and kombucha, and taking supplements to boost levels in their bodies.
But what is butyrate, and can it really do all that its fans say it does? Or is it all hype and no help?
Early evidence, mostly from animal studies, suggests the truth may lie somewhere in between. Registered dietitian and gut microbiome researcher Gail Cresci, PhD, RD, explains what you need to know about butyrate.
Butyrate is produced when “good” bacteria in your gut help your body break down dietary fiber in your large intestine (colon). It’s one of several short-chain fatty acids, which are named for their chemical structure.
Dr. Cresci has studied butyrate for more than a decade. “It’s amazing how many beneficial things it does for the body,” she says.
Butyrate (pronounced “byoo-ter-ate”) plays an important role in digestive system health by providing the main energy source for your colon cells; it meets about 70% of their energy needs. And it may provide other health benefits, too, including supporting your immune system, reducing inflammation and preventing diseases like cancer.
One type of butyrate is butyric (or butanoic) acid, a chemically modified version of butyrate sometimes used in foods and supplements.
Other types include:
Butter is a good source of butyrate, but you’d need to eat far more of it than is recommended; it’s high in saturated fat and can raise your risk of cardiovascular disease. Instead, boost your body’s butyrate levels by increasing your daily fiber intake with plant-based foods.
Because your body doesn’t break down fiber during the digestion process, it’s left for your gut bacteria to break down. Your healthy gut bacteria produce butyrate from dietary soluble, fermentable fibers that only they can break down.
Other sources include prebiotics and supplements that are high in fiber.
You can promote butyrate production by consuming foods high in fermentable fiber. For excellent natural sources, eat a healthy diet rich in:
Let’s break down some of those categories a little bit further.
Many fruits contain fermentable fibers, including:
Vegetables and legumes high in fiber include:
It’s wise to consume these foods in moderation (no more than 5% to 6% of your total daily calories) because they’re high in saturated fat and cholesterol. They include:
If you don’t consume much fiber, add it slowly to your diet and drink plenty of liquids to maintain hydration. You may experience some gas or bloating, but it’ll begin to subside in a couple of days, says Dr. Cresci.
“If you eat a lot of fiber and don’t drink a lot of water, you can get really constipated,” she says. “Also, look at your urine. Aim for a light yellow throughout the day, which means you’re adequately hydrated.”
Some supplements may encourage butyrate production, but you should talk to your healthcare provider before taking any. Most supplements use butyric acid and some kind of salt, but they haven’t been proven to be beneficial.
“The best way to get butyrate is to eat fresh fruits and vegetables that contain soluble fermentable fiber,” Dr. Cresci advises. “Feed your body so that it makes butyrate for you.”
You may have low butyrate levels and a higher risk of infection or inflammation in your gut if:
Early research shows that butyrate can benefit your gut health, but we need more investigation to understand how it works in people and whether it has other benefits. Butyrate could encourage weight loss, stabilize blood sugars, maintain or improve intestinal function, and protect against or help treat disease.
Here are some benefits butyrate is thought to do for your body.
Studies have shown that butyrate supplements may reduce the severity of disease-causing (pathogenic) bacterial infection by lessening inflammation. This could help prevent potentially fatal conditions such as sepsis.
Researchers have also linked low levels of butyrate to an increased risk of inflammatory intestinal disease and colorectal (colon) cancer.
Butyrate supports the gut barrier, which keeps bacteria and other microbes from entering your blood. A sodium butyrate supplement may help with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diverticulitis and Crohn’s disease.
In one study, 66 adults with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) who took a daily dose of sodium butyrate reported less abdominal pain. In another study, 9 of 13 people with Crohn’s disease reported improved symptoms after taking butyric acid every day for eight weeks.
Other research shows that a diet high in dietary fiber, which encourages butyrate production, could help lower your risk of colon cancer.
One laboratory study in human cancer cell lines found that sodium butyrate stopped the growth of colorectal cancer cells and caused cancer cell death (known as apoptosis). It’s also been shown to reduce damage caused by cancer or chemotherapy.
People with Type 2 diabetes often experience insulin resistance and obesity. Because butyrate helps produce gut hormones that regulate blood sugar levels, it may improve these symptoms. One study showed a potential link between butyrate production and lower insulin resistance.
Butyrate-friendly foods and supplements may improve brain health. Researchers have shown that butyrate can protect your brain and improve its ability to adapt (known as plasticity).
Some studies suggest that butyrate may help protect your body against widespread cardiovascular diseases. Heart and blood vessel problems can increase your risk of:
The promise of butyrate extends all the way to your bedroom. Emerging evidence suggests that your gut bacteria are a source of signals that promote sleep.
A 2019 study showed that mice and rats who received butyrate showed a dramatic increase in non-rapid-eye movement (NREM) sleep for four hours after treatment. NREM includes important stages of sleep for your physical and mental health.
It’s not yet clear exactly how much butyrate you need. According to the United States Department of Agricultures (USDA), the recommended intake for dietary fiber is 25 grams per day for women and 35 grams per day for men, or about 28 grams as part of a 2,000-calorie daily diet. Your value may be higher or lower, depending on your calorie intake. This fiber should be a mixture of soluble (butyrate-generating) and insoluble sources.
We need more research to know if butyrate is safe and at what levels, but here are a few concerns worth noting:
In other words, more butyrate isn’t necessarily better. As always, when it comes to supplements, don’t take advice from TikTok celebs. Talk to your healthcare provider instead.