There are many compounds that we need for health. Some of them are obvious, like vitamin C and vitamin D. But, others aren’t. A particularly interesting one of these is butyrate, also called BTA or butyric acid.
You may not have heard about it before but butyrate offers many health benefits.
In this post, we’re highlighting why the compound is so important and the various food sources of butyrate that you can rely on. The food options all offer the chance to increase butyrate and most have other health benefits at the same time.
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What is Butyrate? How Does it Help?
Butyrate (or butyric acid) is a short-chain saturated fatty acid. It’s most common in dairy products like butter, ghee and raw milk, while also being present in plant oils and animal fats.
We also produce butyrate in our colons through the fermentation of non-digestible carbohydrates, primarily fiber (1,2). Gut bacteria play a role in this process (3). As a result, having sufficient fiber and a healthy gut microbiome are both critical for ensuring our bodies produce enough butyrate. Both of those components need to come from the diet.
Butyrate has many important roles in the body. It helps control growth in the cells that line the gut while providing energy at the same time. The fatty acid also has anti-inflammatory benefits and promotes the function of the digestive system overall. It is also thought to play a powerful role in brain function and health (4)
Basically, it’s a fatty acid that you might not have heard about before – and one that is critical for health.
Because we don’t normally focus on butyrate, it’s possible to be consuming too little of it. Even if you’re getting enough for your body to function normally, increasing intake could offer extra health benefits and even reduce disease risk.
Research into butyrate is ongoing but it’s clear that there are many possible benefits and multiple mechanisms for positive outcomes. The compound is also safe, both in food and in supplement form (5).
As such, butyrate is a safe and potentially powerful way to improve health. If nothing else, getting enough butyrate is a good decision and there are many food sources of butyrate to choose from.
Benefits of Butyrate
The advantages of butyrate are a key reason why ghee and butter are both so powerful for health. Some of the most significant benefits are highlighted below, along with how butyrate promotes those outcomes.
Butyrate is often promoted as a supplement for weight loss, partly because it is a short-chain fatty acid.
Research suggests that obesity results in a different composition of gut bacteria, which may make weight loss more difficult (6,7). Short-chain fatty acids like butyrate may help to improve gut bacteria and the regulation of inflammatory responses, to promote weight loss (8).
Likewise, butyrate may reduce the appetite by altering hormone levels in the gut (9). That impact could help improve weight loss.
An animal study showed that supplementing with butyrate helped prevent obesity and insulin resistance, through increased energy expenditure (10).
That impact is possible in humans as well, although research is still in its early stages. There are also many other potential mechanisms that haven’t been fully examined and researched.
If nothing else, butyrate offers the chance to help reduce obesity naturally. That’s especially true if you’re getting the compound from foods rather than supplements.
Butyrate can help decrease inflammation by inhibiting NF-κB, which is a key component of the inflammation pathway (11). By doing so, butyrate may help reduce disease risk, along with the symptoms of some diseases.
This happens because chronic inflammation can promote the development of conditions like arthritis and cancer (12,13,14). In fact, inflammation may contribute to a large range of conditions, many more than we’re currently aware of.
The site Paleo Leap offers a detailed discussion of what inflammation is and why it is so significant for health.
Butyrate does also have an antioxidant impact (15). This outcome also has implications for disease, helping to protect people and boost overall health.
Protects and Boosts the Immune System
Butyrate can impact the immune system in several ways. First, it has anti-inflammatory effects. Reducing inflammation helps ensure that the immune system is responding to the right threats, which makes it more effective.
But, butyrate can impact the immune system directly as well.
One mechanism is through regulatory T-cells in the colon. These help the body to distinguish between your body and an actual threat, making T-cells critical to the immune system. Butyrate helps to regulate the production and development of these cells (16).
Butyrate also helps promote gut health. It can help to reduce leaky gut and the improve the effectiveness of the gut barrier (17,18). These outcomes may not seem like much but they’re both critical for the immune system as well.
May Help with Inflammatory Gut Diseases
Some of the symptoms of inflammatory gut diseases (like Chron’s Disease and Inflammatory Bowel Disease) may be directly related to butyrate. Research suggests that people with these conditions may be less able to metabolize butyrate (19).
This may be a key reason for their symptoms.
But, oral butyrate supplements can help improve symptoms (20,21,22). This may be due to the anti-inflammatory impact, the butyrate itself or both. But, either way, it’s clear that butyrate is beneficial.
Can Improve Digestion
The previous impacts also mean that butyrate can improve digestion. This includes helping the digestive tract to be more effective.
The outcome has strong implications for overall health. After all, we want our digestive systems to function well.
Could Improve Brain Health
Recent research has suggested a connection between our gut health and brain function. Essentially, a good balance of gut bacteria may help to promote brain health, while a poor balance could have the opposite impact (23). This explains why there is a connection between gut health and mental health.
One study highlighted the role of butyrate in this relationship, suggesting that it can help improve brain health (24). Although research is just beginning, having enough butyrate may help prevent brain disorders as well. This is especially true when you are getting the compound through a high fiber diet (25).
Protects against Cancer
Additionally, people with an imbalanced gut bacteria that produce less butyrate may be at a higher risk of cancer (29).
Foods That Can Promote Butyrate
The foods here fall into two categories. Some are foods that naturally contain butyrate and can directly increase the levels of butyrate in your body. Other foods help promote butyrate production instead.
Both approaches are beneficial and the best health outcomes may come from a combination of the two.
Butter and Ghee
Butter contains around 3-4% butyric acid. It is considered the most significant dietary source of the compound, making it especially powerful (30). Despite myths to the contrary, butter is also good for you and has many health benefits.
Ghee is another good source of butyric acid. Ghee is basically clarified butter – and Dr. Axe highlights the differences in detail.
Because ghee is made from butter, it has many of the same nutritional properties. But, it doesn’t contain casein or lactose, making it perfect for people with allergies. Ghee also has a higher proportion of medium-chain and short-chain fatty acids, including butyrate. This means that ghee contains more butyrate than butter does.
As the Bulletproof blog points out grass-fed butter and grass-fed ghee each have significant advantages. The best option for health is to include both regularly in your diet.
Other Dairy Products
You can also get butyrate from other dairy options, including milk, cheese and yogurt. In fact, yogurt may be a particularly powerful choice because many brands also use probiotics.
Butyrate is produced from fiber and non-digestible carbohydrates. Research also shows that a high fiber diet can increase butyrate levels (32). This makes whole grains an effective way to increase your butyrate levels.
However, you do need to be careful. Many products are marketed as if they contain whole grains but tend to be heavily refined instead. In fact, the term whole grain just means that the bran, endosperm and germ of the grain all need to be present (33). They can be separated and processed individually first – and often are.
The site UC Davis Integrative Medicine offers further details about what the term whole grains means and how you can choose healthy grains.
To get around this pattern, you can turn to products like Ezekiel Bread, which uses sprouted whole grains. You could also use the grains directly.
Of course, grains are a controversial topic and I’m not going to address that here. If you feel that there are health benefits to grains, then they are a good way to increase butyrate levels. If you’re avoiding them, there are many other options.
Fruits and Vegetables
Anything that contains fiber is effective for increasing butyrate levels. This includes both fruits and vegetables, particularly ones that contain substantial fiber. Some common recommendations include:
Some fruits and vegetables are better than others for fiber. But, most contain some fiber. This means the best answer is often to simply vary your intake. That gives you access to the widest range of plant-based compounds.
Doing so allows you to eat seasonally as well. That’s great for your finances and means your food is always interesting.
Beans and Legumes
This is another useful group for increasing your fiber intake and raising butyrate levels.
Even if you don’t normally enjoy them, beans and legumes are worth including in your diet. Fiber is one reason but there are many others as well. If you don’t normally eat beans, you may need to increase your water intake at the same time.
For butyrate and fiber, some of the most useful choices include the following:
These options tend to be nutrient dense as well. For example, lima beans are high in iron, while black beans offer significant protein and antioxidants as well.
There are countless ways to include these in your diet as well. For example, the site Minimalist Baker offers a recipe for black bean brownies that are actually healthy.
Seeds and Nuts
You can also get fiber from various seeds and nuts.
For nuts, some of the best options are almonds and walnuts. These both offer many other health benefits as well and can be relevant for weight loss. But, the fiber content is lower than most other items on this list. As such, they’re a good dietary addition but they won’t be your main source of fiber.
Increasing seed intake is also very easy. For example, chia seeds can be sprinkled on top of just about anything and they’re a powerful addition to smoothies as well.
There are also many foods that have fiber added to them. Most will use a label, such as ‘extra fiber’ or ‘fiber fortified’. This isn’t the best way to get your fiber, of course, but it can work well in some situations.
If you do this, make sure you read the labels carefully. After all, extra fiber is no good if you’re getting it through heavily processed meals that are high in sugar.
A related option would be protein shakes.
Many of these are high in fiber. That fiber may be added in for some brands but others simply get it from natural ingredients. Along with protein, fiber helps you to feel full. So, it’s no surprise that protein shake brands include it.
Plus, if you’re making the shakes with dairy milk (rather than almond milk, for example), you’re getting some butyrate directly from that as well.
You’ll have to shop around for the right product and the best answer will vary depending on your needs. Thankfully, there are many good brands to choose from.
Butyrate is produced through fermentation. This means that some fermented foods and beverages will contain butyrate as well. For example, kombucha and kefir can both be sources of butyrate.
However, this is a less reliable option than other items on the list. The amount of butyrate (and whether it is present at all) depends on a range of factors, including the specific bacteria involved in the fermentation, the steps followed and the other ingredients used.
Even so, fermented foods are a good inclusion in your diet. They help promote good gut health, which is desirable. That outcome may help promote butyrate production indirectly as well. After all, you need a good balance of gut bacteria to produce butyrate in the first place.
If you’re interested in this area, the site Mind Body Green offers six different ways to promote gut health. Paleo Hacks also offers a useful guide to help you know when you may have problems with your gut bacteria.
Other Ways to Boost Butyrate
Of course, food isn’t your only option. What about a supplement instead?
GABA powder is one such option and the site Livestrong.com discusses this powder in detail. Basically, GABA stands for gamma-aminobutyric acid, making this powder perfect for increasing butyrate levels.
It is also simple to use. For example, you can simply add the powder in water or other drinks. It can even be included in meals. There are also GABA pills and liquids, if you would rather get the compound that way.
Regardless of the form, GABA is a perfect alternative if you want more butyrate than food can provide or if you’re just looking for a simpler answer.
Butyrate and related compounds are sometimes used in food flavors and essences. As such, some foods with added flavoring may increase butyrate levels. But, GABA powder and food-based sources are much more powerful than flavorings.
There is no shortage of options for increasing butyrate levels. Choices like butter, milk, ghee and fermented foods can all provide the compound directly. You can also increase production by relying on sources of fiber and ensuring you have a good balance of gut bacteria.
What’s more, all of these options are powerful for health anyway. A diet focusing on these foods would often help you to lose weight overall and could easily decrease disease risk.
And finally, there is considerable flexibility. You could get enough butyrate regardless of the diet you’re on. So, it doesn’t matter whether you’re following a paleo, keto, vegan or Mediterranean approach – or something different entirely.
Want to Improve Your Health?
Better health starts in the kitchen, with the food that you eat and the meals you prepare. Getting the best outcomes involves making good choices about the food and the ingredients that you use.
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