Dietary fiber is something you consume every single day, but most people think it travels through the body untouched and unused. What if we were to tell you that’s not the case? In fact, what if we were to tell you fiber works hand-in-hand with your gut microbiome on a daily basis?
That might surprise a lot of you, especially since most of us think bacteria is something we should avoid. Sure, there are bad bacteria strains out there that cause us harm, but there are also good bacteria strains out there that are necessary to survival, health, and overall wellness.
It’s true that dietary fiber is undigested by the body, but it’s the good bacteria living inside your gut that make use of it as food and fuel. As the gut microbiota ferment the fiber traveling through your GI tract, they’re producing short-chain fatty acids — which are essential to everyday health.
So, what are short-chain fatty acids?
Short-chain fatty acids are a type of fatty acid, the building blocks of fat inside the body, that have less than six carbon atoms attached to their tails. They differ from the popular long-chain fatty acids — such as omega-3 fatty acids — most people know about, which contain more than 22 carbon atoms.
Short-chain fatty acids are produced via bacterial fermentation — when your friendly gut bacteria ferments the fiber consumed in your diet. How much SCFA’s are produced depends on the type of bacteria, their food source, and how long it takes food to travel through the intestines.
Not all short-chain fatty acids are created equal, though. In fact, there are three main types of short-chain fatty acids that make up nearly 95% of all SCFA’s in the body — acetate, butyrate, and propionate. Let’s take a closer look at each type of short-chain fatty acid and what they do for the body:
Acetate, also known as acetic acid, is produced by Bifidobacteria, Lactobacillus, Akkermansia muciniphila, Prevotella spp., and Ruminococcus spp.. It helps regulate pH levels in the gut, regulates appetite, nourishes butyrate-producing bacteria, and protects against pathogens.
Butyrate, also known as butyric acid, is produced by Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, Eubacterium rectale, and Roseburia spp.. It provides around 90% of the energy used by the colon cells, prevents leaky gut, reduces inflammation and risk of cancer, and improves brain function and brain health.
Propionate, also known as propionic acid, is produced by Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes, and Lachnospiraceae. It’s one of the lesser-studied short-chain fatty acids but is known to regulate appetite, reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol, reduce fat storage, and reduce the risk of cancer.
Health Benefits of Short-Chain Fatty Acids
Your body is producing short-chain fatty acids whenever you provide your intestinal microbiota with dietary fiber — such as inulin, fructooligosaccharides, resistant starch, pectin, arabinoxylan, and guar gum. These are just some of the things your gut bacteria view as fermentable fiber.
As a result, your body gains a wide range of health benefits that lead to a happier, healthier, and longer-lasting life. In fact, short-chain fatty acids benefit much more than provide a healthy gut environment. Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent benefits of short-chain fatty acids.
Gastrointestinal Tract & Gut Health
Short-chain fatty acids provide a wide range of benefits for the gastrointestinal tract and overall gut health. Not only do they provide fuel for intestinal cells, but they improve the health of your intestinal barrier and prevent colon cancer — like colorectal cancer — through gene expression.
In addition to that, SCFA’s are very important to a healthy digestive system. Since butyrate production reduces inflammation, it can help treat inflammatory bowel disease — such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Short-chain fatty acids can also reduce diarrhea.
Prevent Leaky Gut
A lack of short-chain fatty acids could result in a leaky gut, also known as intestinal permeability. This is when tiny gaps in your intestinal lining become so large that molecules leak through. These molecules shouldn’t have access to the body and can cause a great deal of harm.
Improve the Immune System & Inflammation
Your intestinal lining plays an important role in a healthy and effective immune system. Since SCFA’s improve the health of this lining, it also improves immune function. Not only that, but SCFA’s help reduce intestinal inflammation, one of the most common immune responses.
Improve Insulin Sensitivity & Reduce Weight Gain
Short-chain fatty acids improve weight gain and reduce obesity in a number of ways. They reduce appetite, inhibit fat storage, increase the fat-burning process, improve energy metabolism, glucose metabolism, and fat metabolism, and improve insulin resistance.
Brain Health & Brain Function
Butyrate is one of the most versatile short-chain fatty acids because it can influence brain function and has beneficial effects on the central nervous system. This is possible via the gut-brain axis, which is what allows for gut-brain communication in the human body.
Not only can this help improve brain signaling, but it can improve memory, cognitive function, and help reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases — such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It can also reduce the risk of mental health disorders and autism.
How can you boost your production of SCFAs?
Certain types of fiber have been found to significantly boost the production of SCFAs.
- Inulin – found in Jerusalem artichokes, chicory root, dandelion greens, onions, garlic, leeks, and asparagus.
- FOS – short for fructooligosaccharides. This is a type of fiber found in plant foods especially garlic, onions, artichoke, and banana.
- Pectin – good sources are apples, pears, apricots, carrots, guava, and oranges.
- Resistant starch – in seeds, legumes, and unripe bananas – is formed when starchy foods such as potatoes and rice are cooked and then cooled.
These types of fiber are often known as prebiotics because they serve as such good food sources for your gut bacteria.
Some people find they experience gas and bloating when they consume foods high in prebiotics. This can be due to a medical condition called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, (SIBO) whereby the bacteria which should be in the colon migrate to the small intestine, where they aren’t usually found.
If this is the case for you, it’s best to introduce these foods very gradually and to work with a therapist to correct the balance of bacteria throughout your digestive tract.
Can You Test Your SCFA Production?
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could test the levels of SCFA’s in your gut? Well, believe it or not, there are effective ways of testing how well your body and gut are producing short-chain fatty acids. This can give you valuable insight into the health of your gut environment and overall gut health.
This is generally done with a stool test that analyzes the different types of SCFA’s being produced in your gut and gives you an idea of your gut microbiome. You can also take a urine test — known as an organic acids test (OAT) — that detects other substances found in your gut.
If you’re interested in learning more about the lovely benefits of short-chain fatty acids or would like to take a stool test to analyze your body’s production of short-chain fatty acids, contact me today.