What the Heck is Butyrate and How Can It Save Your Brain and Improve Your Mood?
What the…?: No, it’s not the latest man-made psychedelic. It’s something your body produces naturally when you eat.
What the…?: No, it doesn’t have anything to do with coal or with Bitcoins. It has a lot to do with food and with health.
What the…?: Sorry, your body isn’t going to make much butyrate eating at McDonald’s and Taco Bell. Your body produces it from the fiber in your diet.
So let’s dive right into the first question in the title of this article.
What the Heck is Butyrate?
The name butyrate comes from the Latin butyrum, meaning butter.
Let’s start with the gut, and then we’ll get to the butter. Within the gut, there are approximately 1014 bacterial organisms. 1012 is a trillion, so 1014 is really a lot! It’s about ten times as many as the total number of cells in our bodies. It’s a “whole ‘nother world” alive with activity in there, so you better take care of them and get along with them!
Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid that is most commonly produced by probiotics (the good bacteria) in the colon. There are several other short-chain fatty acids, but butyrate is the one we’re focusing on. That’s because of the cutting-edge brain health research focusing on butyrate that’s been popping up in scientific journals the past few years.
You’re not going to have a lot of butyrate for your body to work with if you don’t have plenty of dietary fiber in your foods, hence the crack in the intro about fast food diets. Certain probiotics use dietary fiber as their food source for producing butyrate and other beneficial substances.
Here’s where butter comes in. Butter is the most well-known food source of natural butyrate, so that’s how it got its name from the Latin for butter. We’ll look more at butyrate and foods later on.
What Does Butyrate Do in the Body?
Butyrate is used for energy, especially by mucosal cells that line the wall of the colon. These cells get about 70% of their energy needs from butyrate. This is a major reason why a high fiber diet is associated with greater colon health.
Beyond that, high fiber diets have also been shown to increase butyrate circulating in the bloodstream, which is why it also supports brain health.
How Can It Save Your Brain and Improve Your Mood?
“Pharmacologically, butyrate has had a profoundly beneficial effect on brain disorders ranging from neurodegenerative diseases to psychological disorders.”
Megan Bourassa et al 2016
Most of the research on butyrate and brain health so far has been done with animals. Butyrate has been studied in animal models of Huntington’s disease (an inherited disorder that causes brain cell death) and Parkinson’s disease (a neurodegenerative disorder). In these studies, it has been shown to protect brain neurons from cell death and to extend the lifespan of mice with Huntington’s.
One reason researchers are excited about butyrate is that it has multiple modes of action in the brain. Here are a few of them.
* Brain Cellular Health – It works as an HDAC (histone deacetylase) inhibitor to support cell health on the genetic level by protecting the DNA wrapped around proteins called histones. It can “promote the expression of prosurvival, proregenerative and proplasticity genes.” (Bourassa 2016) In other words, it helps the genes survive, adapt and grow rather than getting damaged.
* Brain Immune Health – Butyrate provided immune benefits in the brains of mice when their diet was enriched with soluble fiber to increase the probiotic population of the gut.
* Brain BDNF – In a rat study, butyrate promoted brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a substance that increases the growth and differentiation of healthy neurons in the brain.
* Mania/BiPolar Disorder – In an “animal model of mania” (a rat study), sodium butyrate was able to both prevent and reverse the hyperactivity behavior. (Moretti 2011)
* Memory – Other animal research suggests that inhibiting HDAC activity in the brain with butyrate may support the formation of long-term memory. (Canani 2012)
* Anti-Inflammatory Effects – Adequate butyrate in the colon promotes a healthy colon lining. This, in turn, maintains a healthy intestinal barrier against harmful bacteria and lipopolysaccharides getting through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream. “These compounds are known to trigger the production of pro‐inflammatory cytokines and cause systemic inflammation.” (Shaafsma 2015)
Systemic inflammation leads to brain neuron damage and mood disorders, so the anti-inflammatory effect helps protect the brain and promote positive mood.
BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor)is ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain.’
John Ratey, M.D.
How Can You Boost the Butyrate in Your Body?
You’d better start mixing toothpaste with your shampoo. You’re getting a cavity in your brain.
Archie Bunker (All in the Family TV show, 1971)
If you’re “getting a cavity in your brain” and need more butyrate, you can find small amounts in a few foods like butter, ghee (clarified butter used in Indian cooking) and cow’s milk. But in general, most butyrate in our bodies is made within the digestive system. Selective species of probiotic bacteria produce butyrate as they “feast” on soluble dietary fiber components of our foods, fibers such as resistant starch, pectin and inulin.
* Foods high in resistant starch include beans, oats, and potato salad or pasta salad (potato and pasta that are eaten cold).
* Foods high in pectin include apples, peaches and apricots. Citrus fruits are high in pectin, but most of it is in the peel.
* Foods high in inulin include chicory root fiber, Jerusalem artichoke, onions and leeks.
One highly researched soluble dietary fiber is chicory root fiber, the most common source of inulin used in supplements. It is best known for its ability to increase bifidobacteria in the colon.
In fact, more than 25 human studies have shown that chicory root fiber stimulates the growth of bifidobacteria when taken 5 grams per day or more in food or as a supplement. Bifidobacteria have been shown to promote regularity, reduce diarrhea, support immune health and even reduce IBS (Irritable bowel syndrome) symptoms.
Germane to this article, new research published in 2017 demonstrated that the probiotic species called Anaerostipes is also selectively fed by inulin/chicory root fiber. This is huge news because Anaerostipes is one of the few probiotic species known to actively stimulate the creation of butyrate in the body. The study adds a new chapter to the unfolding story of chicory root fiber benefits. (Vandeputte 2017)
“Finally, we will summarize the current evidence that high fiber, butyrate-producing diets are capable of improving the health of our brains.” Megan Bourassa et al 2016
Don’t wait for a butyrate-based drug “someday.” Today you can start to boost your brain health and mood (as well as your colon health) by boosting the butyrate circulating in your body.
In practical terms, the starting place is to increase the amount of fiber in your diet, especially fiber that feeds the butyrate-building probiotics. Eat more high fiber foods like beans, oats, vegetables and potato salad. In addition, you can take fiber supplements that contain chicory root fiber or resistant starch. Happy eating, happier, healthier life!
Berni Canani et al. The epigenetic effects of butyrate: potential therapeutic implications for clinical practice, Clinical Epigenetics 2012, 4:4
Bourassa M et al. Butyrate, neuroepigenetics and the gut microbiome: Can a high fiber diet improve brain health? Neuroscience Letters, Volume 625: 56-63, 20 (June 2016).
Moretti M et al. Behavioral and neurochemical effects of sodium butyrate in an animal model of mania, Behavioural Pharmacology, 22:8, December 2011, Pages 766-772.
Schaafsma G & Slavin J. Significance of Inulin Fructans in the Human Diet, Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science, 14 (1) 37-47 (2015).
Vandeputte D et al. Prebiotic inulin-type fructans induce specific changes in the human gut microbiota, Gut, 66:1968–1974 (2017).