Probiotics Get All the Buzz, but This Unsung Hero May Be More Effective for Gut Health

 By KATHERINE CHANG 

While many factors can make the difference between a happy gut and one that gives you major digestive drama, probiotics have gotten all the glitz and glory for boosting gut health. But there’s an unsung hero of balancing the gut microbiome that counts benefits such as repairing gut lining, taming gut inflammation, and managing GI symptoms such as bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.

A recent study measured how almonds (yes, almonds!) affect the gut, and found that a reason they were beneficial in improving gut symptoms and gut microbes was because they help to increase a specific microbiota compound called butyrate. Butyrate has been associated with several gut-friendly perks, with some experts even claiming butyrate is more effective than probiotics. So what is butyrate, and just how does it work its magic? Spoiler: The health benefits go beyond just the gut. I asked experts to give a crash course on butyrate, its benefits, and how we can get the most out of it. Gut healing ahead. 

What is Butyrate?

“Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) produced through microbial fermentation of dietary fibers in the gut,” explained Dr. Sara Mesilhy, a gastroenterologist. Simply put, butyrate (AKA butyric acid) is a byproduct of our gut’s natural fermentation process. When we consume fiber-rich foods, our gut bacteria digest and break down the dietary fiber in the colon and produce butyrate. “Butyrate helps control inflammation, supports the integrity of the intestinal barrier, and regulates energy expenditure,” Dr. Mesilhy continued. Juliana Tamayo, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian, added that butyrate functions as an energy source for cells in your colon, essentially allowing them to function more effectively and allowing gut microbes to flourish and help maintain a balanced gut microbiome.

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Health Benefits of Butyrate

So we already know that butyrate lends a helping hand to the gut, but its pros don’t stop there. Research suggests that the short-chain fatty acid butyrate has multiple beneficial effects on overall human health.

Improves gut health

“Butyrate helps regulate the growth and function of the cells lining the colon, known as colonic epithelial cells,” explained Mary Sabat, MS, RDN, LD, a nutritionist and ACE-certified personal trainer. In addition to promoting the health of the colon cells, Sabat cited that butyrate supports a balanced immune response and enhances the integrity of the gut barrier, reducing the likelihood of intestinal permeability and other forms of gut dysfunction, like leaky gut syndrome. What’s more, research found that enhanced production of butyrate encourages regular stool output (read: a well-functioning gastrointestinal system). 

Enhances sleep

“A healthier gut also means fewer problems sleeping,” Tamayo mentioned. In fact, a study suggests that butyrate is a sleep-promoting agent and plays a major role in sleep onset and sleep quality, inducing significant increases in non-rapid-eye movement sleep (NREMS) and the duration of deep sleep.

Reduces inflammation

Chronic inflammation is a major risk factor, which if unchecked, can eventually start damaging your healthy cells, tissues, and organs, leading to cell damage. And your gut microbiome is a key factor that regulates the level of inflammation, not only in your gut, but throughout your entire body. Enter butyrate. “Butyrate has anti-inflammatory properties and can help reduce inflammation in the gut,” Sabat affirmed. “It modulates immune cell activity and reduces the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, potentially benefiting conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).”

Increases insulin sensitivity

Insulin sensitivity refers to how responsive your cells are to insulin, an essential hormone that controls your blood sugar levels. A person with low insulin sensitivity also has insulin resistance, or higher blood glucose levels, which can show up as anything from unhealthy weight to fatigue or dizziness to increased risk for prediabetes. “Butyrate may have a positive impact on metabolic health,” Sabat stated. “It can improve insulin sensitivity, enhance glucose metabolism, and help regulate appetite and body weight.” 

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Supports brain health

The gut microbiome is deeply connected to the brain through the gut-brain axis, a bi-directional superhighway of communication between our brain and gut, linking emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with intestinal functions. Short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate only add to their strong connection. After all, they are known to contribute to the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is essential for neuronal survival and growth, serves as a neurotransmitter modulator, and participates in neuronal plasticity vital for learning and memory. According to Dr. Mesilhy, butyrate can protect the brain and improve its ability to adapt (also known as “plasticity”) thanks to its neuroprotective effects (read: safeguarding the central nervous system from neuronal damages caused by chronic or acute neurodegenerative diseases), thereby supporting its optimal health.

How To Get More Butyrate

Because the body produces butyrate when gut bacteria digest and break down dietary fiber in the colon, the simple way to get more butyrate is to eat more fiber (such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and legumes) to provide the necessary substrates for gut bacteria to produce butyrate (Sabat cautioned to gradually increase your fiber intake to allow your gut bacteria to adjust and avoid digestive discomfort).  

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