Written by Benjamin Semmens, Registered Nutritionist (BHSc)
Welcome back to another edition of Friday Q&A! This week’s question came from Riemke, who asked, “What are your thoughts on supplementing with butyrate?”
You may not know what butyrate is, but you definitely should! as it’s been suggested as one of the major components in keeping your gut ‘healthy’.
What is butyrate? Butyrate (aka Butyric acid) is a type of short chain fatty acid (SCFA) that if formed from the fermentation of dietary fibre (carbohydrates) in the gut by your healthy gut bacteria.
Butyrate has a special role in not only providing gut cells with energy that reduces the growth of bad bacteria, but also has an anti-inflammatory effect and can help to dramatically decrease inflammation in your body!
So, the theory is that supplementing with butyrate will have benefits for both your gut and overall health. However, if we can make butyrate from eating fibre is it necessary to supplement with it?
In this week’s editions of Friday Q&A you’ll learn all about what ‘gut health’ is, how having a healthy gut can improve your health and reduce your risk of disease, how to support a healthy gut, and whether you need supplement to have a healthy gut!
Congratulations to Riemke who won a $20 gift voucher just for asking Ben a question! You can send your questions to email@example.com
What is ‘Gut Health?’
In recent years, gut health has fast become the one of most popular health trends. 20 years ago, scientists assumed that our gastrointestinal tract was relatively simple in that it helps us to break down food into nutrients for the body to use and remove waste. Many scientists now believe that your gut health is one of the most important aspects of your health!
‘Gut health’ typically refers to your gut microbiome that contains approximately 100 trillion microorganisms (germs) such as bacteria (mostly), viruses, and funghi. While some bacteria are harmful to your health, many of these bacteria can benefit your health and influence many things including your fitness, behaviour, and overall health! (1)
While our understanding of the gut microbiome is still in its early stages, research so far has shown that poor gut health is associated with poor immune health, autoimmune conditions, hormonal disorders, skin conditions, IBS, IBD, diabetes, obesity, and even mental health conditions! (2)
How do I keep my gut healthy?
A healthy diet is key to ensuring a healthy gut. Studies show that one of the best ways to keep your gut microbiome healthy is to consume lots of fibre in the diet. Fibre is the indigestible part of plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, seeds, nut, grains, beans, and legumes (3).
When you consume fibre in the diet your friendly gut bacteria feed on fibre (a process called fermentation) and produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs are important for providing energy and are also anti-inflammatory that can reduce your risk of inflammatory diseases, type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and other conditions (4).
There are 3 main SCFAs that make up about 95% of your gut that include butyrate, propionate, and acetate that all have a variety of different functions.
Butyrate is essential to providing oxygen (energy) to gut cells that prevents the growth of bad bacteria. Propionate regulates energy production and signalling when you’re full. Acetate, the most abundant SCFA is important for cholesterol metabolism, energy production, and appetite regulation (5, 6).
Diets low in fibre reduce the production of SCFAs and alter the diversity of bacteria in your gut microbiome. Furthermore, low fibre diets degrade our gut barrier that can result in disease causing germs (pathogens) to intrude that increases the risk of infection and inflammation. This effect can help explain the link between poor western diets and chronic disease (7, 8, 9).
Two recent reviews found links between high fibre intake in benefiting many types of conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Crohn’s disease, and cancer. This is believed to be the result of beneficial changes in the microbiome and increased levels of SCFAs, in particular butyrate (10, 11).
Interestingly, the amount of fibre and type of fibre you eat effects the composition of bacteria in your gut, that consequently affects what SCFAs are produced. In fact, studies have shown that eating more fibre increases butyrate production, and eating less fibre reduces butyrate production (12, 13).
These findings suggest that eating adequate fibre in the diet is essential to support gut health by producing SCFAs that can help prevent the growth of ‘bad’ bacteria, support the gut barrier, and reduce inflammation and risk of illness (14, 15).
Butyrate is also found in both animal fats (eg. butter/ghee) and vegetable oils. However, the amount of butyric acid in these foods is rather small when compared to butyric acid produced from fibre in the gut.
How much fibre do you need to eat?
Most Australians do not consume enough fibre. On average, most Australians consume 20–25 g of fibre daily. While the recommended daily intake (RDI) of fibre in Australia is 30g/day for males and 25g/day for females, this may be little outdated with many studies suggesting 30-40g of fibre/day being optimal for health and reducing heart disease (16, 17).
You can increase your fibre intake by increasing your consumption of plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, grains, beans, and legumes. Hemp hearts contain approximately 4g of fibre per 100g and are a great way to increase your daily fibre intake! (18)
Should you be taking a butyrate supplement?
Ok, so now you have the background on SCFAs, fibre and health, but this still doesn’t answer Riemke’s question “Should I be taking a butyrate supplement?”
Let’s look at the evidence so far!
1. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a type of digestive disorder that is characterised by digestive issues that include irregular bowel movements, constipation, bloating, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain. SCFA like butyrate have shown to improve digestive complaints.
A 2013 study of 66 adults with IBS received either 300mg/day of butyrate supplement or placebo. Researchers found that participants taking the butyric acid reported significantly less abdominal pain after 4 weeks and improved bowel movements after 12 weeks (19).
2. Chron’s disease
Chron’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disorder (IBD) characterized by the inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract causing abdominal pain, severe diarrhoea, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition.
A small study of 13 patients with Chron’s disease were given 4g/day butyric acid for 8 weeks. At the end of the 8 weeks, 9 out of the 13 participants had improved symptoms (20).
3. Colon cancer
Currently most of the research has mostly been done on animals or isolated cells in a laboratory. However, butyric acid may have some benefit in reducing colon cancer.
A 2016 study found that butyrate blocked the growth of colorectal cancer cells and increased the rate of cell death. While another study found that SCFAs have an anti-tumour effect on colon cancer. However, more research is needed to confirm if these effects apply to humans (21, 22).
4. Insulin resistance & Obesity
Insulin is a hormone that shuttles sugar in the blood (glucose) into your cells where it’s used for energy.
Insulin resistance is when the cells don’t respond well to insulin and struggle to take in glucose that’s commonly seen in diabetes and prediabetes. Obesity can contribute to insulin resistance (23).
One of the unique benefits of butyrate and other SCFAs is that they have an anti-inflammatory effect. This has been demonstrated by high fibre diets in their ability to reduce inflammation (26).
One study done in test tubes found that butyrate reduced inflammatory chemicals that may be a potential therapeutic approach for inflammatory conditions. While, these are interesting results, more research is needed to see if butyrate supplements exert the same effects in humans (27).
Based on these studies a butyric acid supplement may be beneficial if you suffer from IBS, inflammatory bowel disease (eg. Chron’s disease) or are trying to prevent colon cancer. However, there is still limited evidence to support these claims in humans especially when it comes to diabetes, colon cancer.
Take home message
There is still so much unknown about the gut microbiome and its effects on health, so for now it may be best to stick to the basics when supporting a healthy gut.
This is simply achieved by eating a diet rich in fibre by eating lots of vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, grains, beans, and legumes – what’s healthy for is healthy for your gut!
More evidence is needed to confirm butyrate supplements effects on health. However, it is safe to use and may provide some benefit for certain conditions. The bottom line is that a butyrate supplement may not be necessary and it’s probably more beneficial and easier to get butyrate from fibre in the diet.
If you have any questions or need support with your health, feel free to email our head nutritionist Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article does not constitute as medical advice and does not take into consideration your personal circumstances. Please see your medical professional before implementing the above.