Butyrate in microbiome abates a host of ills, studies find

Let the bacteria do the work by feeding them right, advises UW Medicine gastrointestinalist. 

While there are routine reminders to eat fiber, whole foods, the right vegetables and the right carbohydrates, one important topic is typically left out of the conversation on a diet for a healthy gut, said Dr. Chris Damman, a gastroenterologist with the University of Washington School of Medicine. He studies the effect of nutrition on health by way of the microbiome.

In his clinical research and his new blog, Gut Bites, Damman explores how nourishing gut bacteria with the right foods will generate the necessary short-chain fatty acids that protect against, or reduce, symptoms in a variety of conditions. Recent studies have found that butyrate or butyrate-producing microbes protect against or are associated with less severe symptoms from a long list of chronic inflammation-related conditions: allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety, type 2 diabetes, and even some symptoms of long COVID.  

In the past couple of years a growing number of high impact papers have pointed to the importance of the molecule.

“These studies are still early, and many are in the realm of animal models or epidemiological associations, but the building body of evidence might just be a guiding light. The majority of people, especially in high income settings, may have a microbe-related nutrient deficiency that has been linked to many of the chronic diseases that affect our society,” Damman said.

“Butyrate could be the vitamin D of the next decade: the sunshine from within molecule.” Damman said. “Only 5% percent of us are eating enough fiber, and in effect, getting enough butyrate from our microbiomes. I think that contributes to some of these chronic diseases we’ve been seeing in high-income countries, and that are now on the rise in lower- and middle-income countries.”

Butyrate is known to feed the cells lining the colon, promote a healthy gut barrier, and prevent “leaky gut”.  This keeps bacterial products from crossing into the blood and brain and causing inflammation. 

“What is less appreciated is that butyrate, even at low levels, has direct effects on immune cells and neurons in the gut, body and brain,” Damman said.

This doesn’t mean rushing to your doctor and asking for a butyrate infusion or pill, he cautioned.

“People's knee jerk will be to consider giving butyrate therapeutically,” he said. “This has been done in metabolic disease, but with limited benefit.”

The best way to enhance butyrate in your system is literally to feed your gut bacteria (which include Bifidobacterium, Faecalibacterium, Eubacterium, and Roseburia). Butyrate is produced when these bacteria in the lower gut feast on fiber found in foods like whole grains (for example, oatmeal, brown rice, whole wheat), legumes (such as beans, lentils, chickpeas), fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Even dark chocolate is a source. 

“Then you get butyrate at the right time, in the right place, and in the right amounts”, said Damman.

One should consider eating a variety of different high-fiber foods because diversity in our diet means diversity on our gut microbiomes, Damman said.  It is recommended that you get about 25 to 35 grams of fiber a day. 

But sometimes getting enough fiber in whole foods alone can be tough for many individuals with busy lives. Public health messaging on increasing fiber has largely fallen on deaf ears over the past several decades. Diseases associated with lack of fiber and butyrate continue to rise.

Exploring these themes, Damman has just finished a randomized placebo controlled trial evaluating a supplemental prebiotic fiber mix that contains butyrate-friendly resistant starch on metabolic disease. 

“The results on markers of blood sugar levels, measured by HbA1c tests, look similar in impact to oral diabetes drugs without the side effects," he said. "Interestingly, measures of quality of life that include gut health, sleep, and mood were also improved.

“The ultimate goal of this work,” Damman said, “is to use evidence-based approaches to shine the light on the right whole and functional foods to help our microbiomes supply nutrients like butyrate to our bodies. If we can do this, there is hope for quenching inflammation and short circuiting the rising incidence of chronic disease.”

Media contact: Barbara Clements, bac60@uw.edu, 253-740-5043.

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Tags:gastrointestinalinflammationfood / nutritiongut microbiome

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