- Butyrate is important for gut health and helps break down undigested carbohydrates.
- Butyrate, and the rest of the short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), have many diverse jobs in the body, including gene regulation, cell differentiation, immune modulation, intestinal motility, diarrhea control, and more.
- Butyrate acts as an anti-inflammatory agent in the colon and the fat-storage adipocytes. It may provide benefits for folks fighting chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and obesity, and may support brain health.
- Butter is one of the best sources of butyrate.
- Grass-fed cows tend to produce more nutritious butter with a better unsaturated to saturated fatty acids ratio. Organic butters have also been found to have a healthier fatty acid profile, with more omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventional butters.
- In addition to other beneficial fatty acids, butter contains small amounts of the essential fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K2.
- You can also stimulate your own butyrate production by consuming the right prebiotics.
- If you wish to increase your butyrate levels either through adding butter, prebiotics, or supplementation, be sure to discuss it first with your doctor, nutritionist, dietician, or another healthcare practitioner.
The Deeper Dive:
You may have heard of butyrate, especially in connection with your gut health. Although your friendly bacteria can synthesize it in your colon, you can also find other sources of this vital short-chain fatty acid (SCFA). One such source is butter.
It is no coincidence that the words butter and butyrate, or butyric acid, sound similar. The terms share their origins. This is most likely due to butter being the richest dietary source of butyrate. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of the term butyric acid is the Latin butyrum, which also serves as one of the origins of the English word butter. The term butter also has roots in the Greek bouturon.
Let’s take a closer look at what the literature has to say about the benefits of this SCFA found in butter.
Butyrate and Your (Gut) Health
Butyrate is one of the short chain fatty acids your intestinal microbiota synthesize when they break down undigested carbohydrates, such as dietary fiber and resistant starches. The main three SCFAs metabolized by the microbiome are acetate, propionate, and butyrate (at 60%, 25%, and 15% respectively).
Although it may be the third most prolific SCFA in the intestines, it is one of the most important. It is the major energy source of colonocytes (an epithelia cell found in the colon) and helps maintain the mucosal (surface membrane) health in the colon. Most of the butyrate you consume or that is produced remains in the gut to be used there.
Propionate is primarily used in the liver, and acetate enters into the systemic circulation to be used by the rest of the body.
Butyrate and the rest of the SCFAs have many jobs in the body, including as signaling molecules. Butyrate has also been shown to have a role in gene regulation, cell differentiation, immune modulation, regulation of the intestinal barrier, intestinal motility, diarrhea control, and visceral sensitivity. Furthermore, it is an activator of the G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) and an inhibitor of histone deacetylase (HDAC). With so many diverse roles in the body, it should come as no surprise that sufficient quantities of butyrate may play an important role in maintaining health in your gut and beyond—but, of course, there is always a balance.
It acts as an anti-inflammatory agent in the colon and may modulate oxidative stress in the colonic mucosa. Oral butyrate (0.5% of sodium butyrate) in the diet of mice helped improve acute ulcerative colitis after 14 days. In a small human study, butyrate enemas reduced visceral sensitivity (a common symptom in IBS and other functional gastrointestinal diseases where there is a reduced threshold for pain and discomfort in the abdomen caused by distension, pressure, or stimulation) in a dose-dependent manner.
Additionally, some researchers speculate that butyrate may offer some level of protection against colon cancer. Some early studies have shown promise, although more research is necessary to define the relationship. Studies have found an inverse relationship between fiber intake and the incidence of colorectal cancer. Many hypothesize butyrate as the important mediator of this relationship.
It may also have extra-intestinal effects, with preliminary studies (mostly animal and mechanistic studies) linking butyrate and benefits to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, obesity. It may also support brain health. It also may have an anti-inflammatory effect in adipocytes (specialized fat storage cells), which may help improve insulin sensitivity. One mouse study also found supplementing the diet with butyrate helped slow the progression of atherosclerosis.
Butter – #1 Dietary Source of Butyrate
Although your gut microbiome can synthesize butyrate, especially if you have sufficient butyrate-producing bacteria and the right prebiotics, some people feel the need to bring in outside sources of butyrate. Although you can supplement this SCFA, there are food-sources available as well.
As mentioned, the food with the highest level of butyrate is butter. Butter contains about 3 to 4% of butyric acid. Butyrate is found in the milk of most mammals, with the exception of sows’ milk. As a fatty acid, the concentration would be higher in butter because the process to make butter separates the fat from the milk. Cow’s milk, the most common source of butter, has a butyrate concentration of about 0.16 g/l.
There is also butyrate in milk from other mammals. One study found the butyric acid content of cow’s milk was 3.84% of the fatty acids, while the butyric acid content of other commonly consumed mammal milk was as follows: goat at 1.27%, sheep at 4.06%, and buffalo at 3.90%. Although it seems as though the sheep and buffalo content would be similar to that of cow’s milk, sheep and buffalo actually have a higher fat percentage of their milk (6.99 and 7.73 respectively), compared to goat milk at 4.07% and cow’s milk at 4.09%. This could lead to a higher overall percentage of butyric acid, depending on the animal and its diet.
You may be thinking, but isn’t butter bad for you?
The fat content of butter led to its poor reputation, but it may not actually have a negative impact on cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. In one recent systematic review and meta-analysis, the researchers found that there were only small or neutral associations of butter with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and mortality. In one small study, adding butter to a potato led to a lower blood glucose response and a higher insulin response than olive oil.
Although studies directly demonstrating a health benefit from eating butter are scarce, that will likely change in the coming years as more researchers acknowledge the potential benefit of moderate butter consumption.
Selecting a Butter
Not all butter is created equal. You may have a favorite due to its taste, color, and/or texture, but there is more to selecting a kind of butter than its appearance. The fat content of cow’s milk can be altered by manipulating the diet of the cow. This means some cows may produce milk richer in butyrate than others. Grass-fed cows tend to produce more nutritious butter with a better unsaturated to saturated fatty acids ratio. In one study, pasture-fed cows produced butter that had higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid and trans-beta-carotene compared to butter from cows housed indoors and fed a total mixed ration diet. Organic butters have also been found to have a healthier fatty acid profile, with more omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventional butters.
Although studies looking at a comparison of butyrate content itself may be scarce, it would be safe to assume cows consuming a diet that provides a healthier fatty acid profile would have higher levels of butyrate as well. Plus, you may get additional benefits beyond the butyrate content. In addition to other beneficial fatty acids, butter contains small amounts of the essential fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K2.
When choosing which butter to consume, it is also important to recognize the potential for butter to be contaminated with toxins. One study found ten butter samples tested positive for polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), most likely from contaminated wrapping paper. The highest sample had 42,252 pg/g wet weight, while the other samples ranged from 180 to 1,212 pg/g.
In most samples, the levels of certain types of PBDE transferred from the wrapper to the butter was around 2 to 6%. The researchers calculated that with this level of contamination, the total daily estimated intake of PBDE from all dietary sources would be 22,764 pg/day, which was lower than previous calculations. Other reports have estimated a total intake of 213 ng/day (213,000 pg), with 24 ng/day (24,000 pg) coming from butter and other dairy products, and fats and oils contributing 47 ng/day (47,000 pg).
Although the FDA has yet to detail an acceptable intake level for PBDE, some preliminary studies have made associations between chronic PBDE intake and health concerns, especially in children. Thus, it is key to reduce consumption as much as possible, as with other environmental toxins.
There have also been studies that show butter contaminated with POPs (persistent organic pollutants), polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs), organochlorine pesticides and DDT. Although many of these contamination studies are on types of butters not made in the United States, U.S. sourced butter may still be contaminated—and the sources of butter you buy in the U.S. may not be from U.S. cows. The butter samples for the study looking at PBDE contamination was on samples collected from five supermarkets in Dallas, Texas.
Thus, when you go to buy your butter, opt for an organic variety, ideally produced from pasture-fed animals. This not only improves the fatty profile and overall nutritional content of the butter, but it also helps to decrease the contamination potential.
Getting Butyrate Beyond Butter
Although butter may be one of the best dietary sources of butyrate, you do not have to reach for butter to have sufficient quantities for your health. You can also reach for ghee or clarified butter. The production for these products generally removes any lactose or casein, making it more tolerable for those who have a dairy allergy or intolerance. If you can tolerate dairy but just do not like butter, then any dairy product will have some amount of butyrate.
Additionally, you can stimulate your own butyrate production by consuming the right prebiotics to fuel the commensal bacteria that produce butyrate. A few prebiotic sources include:
- Inulin (chicory root, dandelion greens, garlic, onion, leeks, and asparagus)
- Whole grain cereals (if you can tolerate)
- Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) (if you can tolerate: garlic, onions, and bananas)
- Nuts, especially almonds and pistachios
You can also find supplements that have butyrate or butyric acid, which are often combined with minerals such as calcium and magnesium or sodium and potassium. You can take these orally, intravenously, or through an enema. Although supplements are generally safe, one thing to note is that while butyrate is beneficial for the gut, excessive levels of this SCFA may not be beneficial systemically. High intravenous supplementation of butyrate has been known to lead to side effects, including nausea and a deficiency of potassium in the bloodstream. The exact amount to cause this is unknown.
One way to get around this may be to administer butyrate through an enema, since according to one study, while the colonic levels increased, the systemic levels did not differ significantly. The levels in the liver and gut increased, but the liver was able to metabolize what the gut did not use into acetyl-CoA, preventing any significant increase systemically.
The researchers postulate that butyrate synthesized from prebiotics would likewise be picked up by the gut cells and the liver to be metabolized, keeping it safe from high systematic levels. Most likely, butter consumed from dietary sources like butter would do the same.
If you wish to increase your butyrate levels either through adding butter, prebiotics, or supplementation, be sure to discuss it first with your doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, or another healthcare practitioner to make sure it fits in with your personal situation and health goals.