Butyrate could be gut health’s unsung hero. Feed your gut fiber to enable your gut microbiome’s regulation of metabolism, inflammation, and mood.
The Nutrient Deficiency that No One is Talking About
Starting with a curious question:
Can you identify the odd one out?
A.) Hershey’s Chocolate
B.) Queen bees
C.) Your gut on an industrialized diet.
OK, hold onto your answer and I’ll explain at the end.
Now on to another question: What if I told you that the majority of people in high income settings have a single nutrient deficiency that has been linked to the majority of diseases that affect our society: gut, cardiovascular, metabolic (e.g. obesity and diabetes), immune (e.g. allergy, inflammation, and autoimmunity), neurologic (e.g. anxiety, depression, and Alzheimers), muscle and even cancer? At first it might seem far fetched. Could one nutrient be linked to so much?
Nutrient deficiencies: lessons from the past
Consider what happens in the case of a single vitamin deficiency. For example, thiamine/B1 deficiency is a condition that is not uncommon in low and middle income countries where we focused attention at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It can lead to nerve issues, heart problems, brain abnormalities, and even birth defects. Symptoms include fatigue, irritability, poor memory, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, abdominal discomfort, and weight loss. It affects multiple body systems and we have a single name for this syndrome (beriberi) because we know exactly what causes it. If I started by listing the symptoms above however, you might be equally unsure that a single nutrient deficiency could cause all of this.
Is butyrate a missing link?
The truth is, there is a single molecule that only about 5% of people in the US are likely to have enough of daily. And while it may not be a cause of all the diseases listed above, there are growing and intriguing links to each (see references above). The molecule is called butyrate and history might just prove it to be one of the most important molecules of the 21st century.
So what is butyrate, you might ask? It’s a molecule made by our microbiome from fermentable fiber and is an important link between our diet, gut microbes, and overall health. Butyrate prevents leaky gut, alleviates inflammation, regulates metabolism, contributes to muscle and bone growth, and even helps grow and regulate cells in our brain. You can think of it like your gut microbiome’s superpower!
How fermentable fiber affects the gut microbiome
So how could we have neglected such an important molecule and why aren’t we all supplementing it like we do B vitamins in supplements and store bought goods? Part of the reason may be that it is a molecule that comes primarily from the microbiome factories in our lower intestines. It has only been in recent history that we have had the tools to understand the microbiome and the molecules it produces!
As to the reason we don’t get enough? Our gut microbe factories, just like us, need food–and modern food industry practices have been starving microbes of their favorite food, fermentable fiber. Modern food processing removes bran from wheat and rice leaving you with white bread and white rice. Plus, the standard American diet involves eating practices that tend to limit whole grains, fruits and vegetables. With all this, only 5% of this country’s population gets enough fiber so it stands to reason that only 5% of the population gets enough butyrate!
An intriguing hypothesis
Now I’ll raise what I find to be a most intriguing hypothesis. Could the fiber gap and resulting butyrate deficiency be one of the major factors contributing to many modern diseases? This is not a new hypothesis and indeed was raised by a popular Irish surgeon over fifty years ago, Dr. Denis Burkitt. In some realms like obesity, diabetes, gut disease, and heart disease; it is more than just a correlative connection and a multitude of studies that establish low fiber and butyrate playing a causative role. In other areas that involve the immune system, brain, muscles, and bones there are intriguing correlative connections. That said, studies are still needed to evaluate whether low butyrate might be partially to blame for some of these conditions.
The answer was underneath our noses all along
So now we’ll get back to the odd question at the start! All but C have sufficient butyrate. Hershey’s chocolate contains butyrate in its formula. Hershey’s used a process called lipolysis to help preserve milk in the early days when the dairy farms were far from the factory and has remained an integral part of the special formula.[24,25] It is actually what gives Hershey’s its distinct aroma! Butyrate also turns out to be one of the key microbiome-derived molecules that turns a worker honey bee consuming royal jelly into a queen bee and also gives her special reproductive powers and longevity! The odd one out is C, a gut on an industrialized diet, starving for butyrate.
Online stores or coming soon to a colon in you?
So where can you find this magical molecule? It is present in foods like butter, some cheeses, and even Hershey’s chocolate as you just learned, but in relatively low amounts.[28,29] A number of companies produce butyrate supplements and these may end up being really helpful for some conditions although the research still needs to catch up here. The majority of butyrate that promotes health comes from the lower gut produced by microbes from fermentable fiber. The beauty of this naturally produced butyrate compared to supplements is it’s delivered in the right amounts, at the right time, and in the right place.
So hats off to fermentable fiber, the microbes that consume it, and building a more butyraceous bottom and body! See blog on fiber for the science behind the best fermentable fibers for helping your body produce butyrate. Spoiler alert: resistant starch might be key.
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