Short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) play a crucial role in colon health. After all, one of them is the primary energy source for colon cells. But their health benefits extend far beyond the colon. Research suggests they are essential for the gut, brain, and overall body health.
In this guide, we'll explore why SCFA production is so essential for health and how to get more of them through your diet.
Plus...we'll identify the most potent SCFA, the one Harvard doctors call "optimal" for health, and how you can ensure it gets to your lower colon where it's needed to perform the incredible health benefits cited in this guide.
What Are Short-Chain Fatty Acids?
Short-chain fatty acids contain fewer than six carbon atoms. Produced by bacterial fermentation of fiber in the lower colon, they are the primary energy source for colon cells. Therefore, they play an essential role in colonic health.
Short chain fatty acids are among the most significant postbiotic metabolites produced by beneficial (probiotic) gut bacteria.
Changes of structural properties of dietary fiber during digestion. Mouth: no significant changes Stomach: products of acid hydrolysis Small intestine: ileum microbiota fermentation Large intestine: microflora fermentation metabolites Nonfermentable dietary fiber scraps (with an image of a downward pointing arrow signifying excretion.)
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Classifications of Fatty Acids
Fatty acids are classified according to their carbon chain length.
Short-chain fatty acids: five or fewer carbons.
Medium-chain fatty acids: six to 12 carbons.
Long-chain fatty acids: thirteen to twenty-one carbons
Very long-chain fatty acids: 22 or more carbons
What Are The 3 Main Short-Chain Fatty Acids And What Are Their Functions?
The three most common short chain fatty acids are acetate, propionate, and butyrate, and they vary widely in the amounts produced.
Below is the percentage of total short chain fatty acids produced through intestinal fermentation of fiber: (1)
Each SCFA is produced by different types of friendly bacteria, giving them unique functions in the body.
Just five types of bacteria produce acetate: Bifidobacteria, Lactobacillus, Akkermansia muciniphila, Prevotella spp., and Ruminococcus spp.
This short-chain fatty acid has been shown to support healthy pH levels in the gut, regulate appetite, support butyrate-producing bacteria, and defend against pathogens. (2)
And that's not all.
A 2021 study published in theJournal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics found that acetate sharply decreased mice's heart rates and blood pressure.
This was a surprise, as all three short-chain fatty acids are known primarily for their positive effects on gut health. But this study suggests acetate may play a much more significant role in health.
The astonished researchers concluded: "This work has implications for potential short-chain fatty acid therapeutics as well as gut dysbiosis-related disease states." (3)
These three bacteria produce propionate: Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes, and Lachnospiraceae. Like acetate, propionate has been shown to help regulate appetite.
Research suggests that it may also reduce fat stores, lower cholesterol, and reduce cancer risk. It also appears to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. (4)
Studies also indicate it may promote significant weight loss. (5)
Butyrate, also called butyric acid, is produced by these three bacteria: Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, Eubacterium rectale, and Roseburia spp.
Butyrate is the most studied short-chain fatty acid, and the research results are impressive.
For instance, numerous studies show that butyrate supports a healthy gut and brain -- and everything in between.
We'll discuss specific scientifically-backed health benefits of butyrate later in this guide.
Why is the Gut Microbiome Crucial For Health?
Before delving into specific health benefits of short-chain fatty acids, especially butyrate, we need to explain their effects on gut health.
Approximately 100 trillion microbes -- primarily bacteria, but also fungi and archaea -- live in the gastrointestinal tract.
The collection of microbes that live within your gut is called the gut microbiome or gut microbiota.
There was a time when the scientific community believed that the gut microbiota was limited to the digestive tract.
But new technologies have revealed that the microbiome may affect metabolism, immune function, mood, mental health, behavior, and disease risk.
And guess what?
An imbalance in the gut microbiome, a condition called dysbiosis, has been linked to numerous conditions, including infections, obesity, atherosclerosis, hypertension, heart failure, type 2 diabetes, immune system dysfunction, chronic kidney disease, and many more. (6, 7)
And of course, dysbiosis is also associated with many gastrointestinal diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome. (8)
But how can the microbiome influence other parts of the body?
The Enteric Nervous System And Vagus Nerve
Though more research is needed, it appears that the enteric nervous system (ENS) participates in bidirectional communication with the brain. (This is also known as the gut-brain axis.)
For this reason, the ENS is often referred to as the "second brain."
The ENS, a division of the autonomic nervous system, is composed of two layers of neurons embedded in the gastrointestinal tract wall. It extends from the lower third of the esophagus to and through the rectum.
It regulates a wide range of sensations related to digestion, such as the muscular and secretory activity of the GI tract.
The ENS may also communicate with the brain via the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the human body, running from the brain stem to part of the colon. Vagus means "wandering" in Latin, an apt name given that the vagus nerve branches wander through the body, to the heart, lungs, digestive system, kidneys, spleen, and liver.
In this way, the gut microbiota influences overall health.
There are more neurons in the ENS than in the entire spinal cord.
An estimated 70% of immune cells are located in the gut.
The estrobolome, a group of gut microbes, regulates estrogen levels.
The Negative Effects of Gut Dysbiosis
There must be a precise balance of beneficial and harmful bacteria to support health.
If the microbiota becomes imbalanced, it can increase your risk for numerous health problems.
Fortunately, short-chain fatty acids can help balance gut bacteria. This is particularly true of butyrate.
What Are The Health Benefits of the Butyrate Short-Chain Fatty Acid?
Here are six of the most impressive health benefits of butyrate.
Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBD)
Inflammatory bowel diseases cause chronic inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract.
There are two types of inflammatory bowel disease: Crohn's disease and Ulcerative colitis.
IBD can be dangerous, as it damages bowel tissue.
Butyrate has strong anti-inflammatory properties that research suggests may prevent IBD or relieve its symptoms.
There are a couple of ways that butyrate may control inflammation.
First, it regulates the immune response, which automatically reduces gut inflammation. Second, butyrate is the primary energy source for colon cells, which helps gut bacteria thrive. These bacteria help keep inflammation at bay. (9)
Leaky Gut Syndrome
The leaky gut syndrome occurs when the gut barrier integrity has been compromised, allowing harmful substances to "leak" into the bloodstream. This can cause widespread inflammation and numerous health problems.
Your intestinal epithelial cells (intestinal barrier) act as a crucial line of defense. Lining your intestinal barrier are tight junction proteins that act as gates allowing substances -- but only certain substances -- to come in and out.
They stop toxins from seeping into your body (while still letting food and nutrients through!)
This makes your gut barrier “semi-permeable”.
If these “gates” are weakened, it can increase the permeability of the gut barrier, potentially letting more harmful substances through into your body.
And butyrate can help.
Indeed, a deficiency of butyrate is associated with an altered intestinal barrier function. (11)
Research shows that replacing butyrate-producing bacteria may help repair and enhance barrier function. (12)
Insulin resistance occurs when the body's cells do not respond to insulin appropriately, causing elevated blood glucose levels.
Over time, insulin resistance can lead to weight gain, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
Studies show that butyrate supplementation “can prevent and treat diet-induced insulin resistance in mice" (13) due to its positive effect on energy expenditure and mitochondrial function.
In other words, butyrate may increase insulin sensitivity.
As discussed earlier in this guide, butyrate is colon cells' primary energy source. Therefore, it nourishes the colon lining, which can help prevent colon cancer.
In addition, research shows that butyrate accumulates in colon cells, reducing inflammation and restricting tumor progression! (14)
But it gets better. It seems that butyrate activates the G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) in cancer cells to trigger “cell suicide”, causing those cells to die off. (15)
Numerous research studies show butyrate's beneficial effects on weight control.
For example, researchers fed obese mice a high-fat diet supplemented with butyrate in one study.
"Fasting blood glucose, fasting insulin, and insulin tolerance were all preserved in the treated mice" despite the high-fat diet. (16)
In addition, butyrate supplementation increased insulin sensitivity, boosted metabolism, and reduced body fat. Isn't that the perfect one-two-three punch for weight control? (17)
Butyrate has even been shown to support neurological health, reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, and boost brain function.
For example, in several studies, butyrate supplementation stimulated new brain cell growth following a stroke, which may aid stroke recovery. (18)
It has also been found to boost cognitive function in both neurotypical people and those with autism. (19)
And due to its anti-inflammatory properties and its positive effect on the mitochondria, butyrate may defend against Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases. (20)
Butyrate in the gut environment can affect the brain through the gut-brain axis, that bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain.
Food Sources of Butyrate and Other SCFAs
The best way to get short-chain fatty acids from your diet is to eat a wide variety of resistant starches, aka plant foods.
Great fibrous foods include:
Problems With a High-Fiber Diet
Research consistently shows that eating fiber is good for health.
But there are few problems trying to get enough butyrate through high-fiber diets.
First, butyrate is the least abundant short-chain fatty acid produced from bacterial fermentation. So, you'll need to eat a LOT of fiber to get the bare minimum amount you need for your health.
Second, all that fiber can cause significantly painful and embarrassing gas, bloating, and other gastrointestinal upsets.
The Problem With Butyrate Supplements
At this point, you're probably wondering if you can supplement your fiber intake with butyrate supplements.
There's a problem with this method, too.
First, butyrate is a highly stinky and foul-tasting molecule that few people would willingly put in their mouths.
Second, butyrate is an "unstable" molecule, meaning the digestive system destroys it before it gets to your lower colon, where it's needed to provide all its incredible health benefits.
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