Updated on February 2, 2023
Butyric acid is a multi-functional molecule long recognized for its distinct smell, its biting flavor, and—most importantly—its wide range of health benefits. Because of the involvement of butyric acid in a wide range of biochemical processes, butyric acid can aid in the prevention, management, and/or treatment of a variety of health conditions, including gastrointestinal problems, metabolic disorders, and neurological disorders.
Butyric acid is a short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) consisting of an acid “head” molecule linked to a chain of carbon and hydrogen atoms. For the human body, there are two sources of butyric acid. First, it can come from diet, either through animal fats, plant oils, or nutritional supplements. In addition, butyric acid is directly synthesized by bacteria in the colon during the fermentation of non-digestible fiber.
Functionally speaking, butyric acid is a highly versatile molecule, which is why it has such a wide range of benefits. Within the body, butyric acid can act in the following capacities:
Most of the scientific research on the benefits of butyric acid focuses primarily on the GI tract, where it seems to have the most significant effects. That makes sense because butyric acid is derived mostly from food and from fermentation in the gut microbiome. Studies have shown that butyric acid can have positive impacts on patients with both functional and inflammatory bowel disorders.
Functional bowel disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), can be characterized by a wide range of symptoms, including constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, among others. Although clinical studies are limited, several have shown that butyric acid can lead to statistically significant reductions in abdominal pain and improvements in the normalization of bowel movements in IBS patients. The exact mechanism underpinning these effects is not fully understood. However, the presence of butyric acid in the gut can inhibit the growth of “bad bacteria” that negatively affect function and can cause infection, which likely explains the reduction of symptoms. Butyric acid can also impact water absorption in the gut, which is relevant for patients who experience diarrhea.
Although clinical studies probing the benefits of butyric acid for patients with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease are lacking, there are in vitro studies that support anecdotal evidence. Through its effects on gene expression, butyric acid indirectly impacts the activities of pro-inflammatory mediator proteins in the cell—most notably NF-KB—as well as the differentiation of T-regulatory cells. That means it can have important effects on the inflammatory aspects of the immune response and potentially modulate the inflammatory response. Additionally, researchers have found that exposing human colon cells to butyric acid also increased levels of glutathione (GSH), a powerful antioxidant, and reduced levels of reactive oxygen species, which suggests that butyric acid supplementation might be able to limit the oxidative damage that contributes to an unbalanced inflammatory response in the gut.
Although the research on the potential for butyric acid to contribute to weight loss efforts is still in the early stages, animal studies suggest that there might be benefits of butyric acid for patients with metabolic issues. For instance, in one mouse study, a supplement of butyric acid significantly reduced metabolic issues in mice that were fed a high-fat diet. There is also some evidence suggesting that butyric acid promotes the release of hormones that suppress appetite. Although it is clear that human studies will be needed before any strong conclusions can be drawn, butyric acid supplementation presents an exciting avenue for researchers and clinicians who are looking for innovative ways to help patients confront issues related to energy intake and metabolism.
Although most of the evidence-based benefits of butyric acid are tied to the gut microbiome and/or the GI tract, the growing understanding of the gut-brain axis within the medical community has prompted researchers to consider a possible role for butyric acid for brain health. As a group of researchers from Weill College of Cornell University pointed out in a 2016 review, butyric acid might be an ideal candidate for providing nutritional support for complex neurological disorders, because it has such wide-ranging functionality.
A variety of studies provide preliminary evidence for this hypothesis. For instance, several studies suggest that the sodium salt form of butyric acid can protect neurons from cell death in various animal models of neurological conditions. Many neurological conditions are also associated with a reduction in the availability of glucose in the brain, which can be directly impacted by the beneficial effects that butyric acid has on the expression of energy metabolism-related genes, as well as the compound’s interaction with GPCRs that are involved in energy balance and metabolism. Interestingly, the Cornell researchers propose that butyric acid could also serve as an energy substrate for brain cells, the way it does for colon cells, which could potentially help restore energy homeostasis in patients with neurological conditions.
Although future exploration of the benefits of butyric acid will likely proceed in many different directions, the early laboratory and clinical evidence clearly indicates that butyric acid can have positive impacts on patients with a wide range of conditions. Given the strong biochemical support for the potential efficacy of butyric acid in providing nutritional support for individuals with gastrointestinal, neurological, and metabolic conditions, researchers and clinicians alike are looking ahead to larger-scale clinical studies that support the growing body of anecdotal evidence on the real-world benefits of high-quality butyric acid supplements for patients. Some are already recommending butyric to their patients, and many well-informed patients are increasingly integrating it in their treatment plans.
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