By Dr. Peter D'Adamo
The Link Between Fats, Fiber, and Flora
Think that probiotics are the be-all and end-all to a healthy gut? Think again. It turns out that restoring balance and harmony to the gut is about treating the ecosystem as a whole. Just like throwing lots of grass seed is no guarantee of a luxurious lawn (if first you've not prepared the soil) taking expensive probiotics will not in themselves help the gut unless you've adjusted the ecosystem to allow them a chance to work. Besides probiotics, three other variables are involved: Your diet, your fiber intake, and the availability of short chain fatty acids in your gut. When these factors are all in balance, your 'symbiotic cycle' is ready to benefit from probiotics.
Although most health consumers are aware of the benefits of 'essential' fatty acids (such as linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid) and the 'conditionally essential' fatty acids (such as the omega-3s) few are aware of the tremendous importance of the short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Unlike the EFAs which are long chains of over twenty hydrocarbons, SCFAs are much smaller, often only having three or four hydrocarbons. Because of their small size, SCFAs are easily made by bacteria as part of their own life cycle (as fermentation byproducts).
The two principal SCFAs with biological activity are proprionic acid and butyric acid. Proprionic acid (PA) is commonly found on the skin, where it can be produced by bacteria. PA inhibits the growth of mold and some bacteria and is a common preservative for both animal feed and food for human consumption.
However, our interest is mainly with the other SCFA, butyric acid, and its salt, which is known as butyrate.
Butyrate: Energy for Healing
We mammals have a long history with butyrate. It has been in our gut for so long that the lining of our colon has evolved to use it as its primary source of energy. Without butyrate for energy, our colon cells undergo a self-destruction cycle and eventually die. With butyrate, the colon cells can grow and develop normally, better control the permiability of the gut, and regulate inflammation. Butyrates also have effects upon gene regulation and may play an important role in sugar regulation. Although the common conception about the health benefits of fiber are based more or less on the idea of fiber having a 'scrubbing' effect on the gut, its main health benefit is increasingly being viewed as its ability to act as a source for the production of butyrate. Butyrate is part of a 'symbiotic cycle' that serves to keep the gut healthy: bacteria produce butyrate, which nourishes the colon cells, which produce other factors (including elements of our blood type) that encourage the balance of beneficial flora. Knock out one part of the cycle and the whole thing stops working.
How to Get It.
There are two basic ways that we can increase butyrate levels in the gut:
- Bacterial fermentation of the fiber we ingest in our diet. Dietary fiber, by definition, cannot be digested and broken down by the body (which is why it is fiber). On the other hand, bacteria in the colon can break down the fiber that we consume into simpler carbohydrates, and one of the results is butyric acid. Butyric acid is an amazingly bad-smelling substance: in fact it is one of the reasons why a teenagers gym sneakers often smell so bad. Adolescents have a higher concentration of sugar in their perspiration, and the bacteria in the sneakers convert some of it into butyric acid. Many of the so-called 'pre-biotics,' foods that encourage the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut, are also great starting points for the production of butyrate.
- Foods and supplements: Butyrate also occurs in significant amounts in food. Butter is 3-4 percent butyrate, and not surprisingly many of the odiferous, pungent cheeses (such as parmesan) are also sources. Although butyrates are available in supplement form, their use is not widespread and consumer awareness of their great health benefits is quite low. In many situations, dietary sources will not be sufficient to correct an imbalance, but are often adequate to help maintain a healthy ecosystem.
Using a Butyrate Supplement.
If you plan on using a butyrate supplement, it may be helpful to know that I have developed one for use in my clinical practice that is also available for retail purchase. It is called Intrinsa and also includes the synergistic factors caprylic acid and larch arabinogalatan. Caprylic acid is a naturally occurring fatty acid that helps yeast overgrowth, while the larch arabinogalactan serves as a source of soluble fiber. Intrinsa works especially well when combined with the blood type specific diets and a blood type specific probiotic.
Putting It All Together.
A healthy gut requires more than just a probiotic. Just like any ecosystem, one cannot simply change one element and expect it to produce an effect on the entire system. Rather, just like a garden, the gut must be tended. Following the dietary recommendations for you blood type (and secretor status) is a great starting point. Adding a blood type specific probiotic (with blood type specific prebiotics) takes the level of care deeper. Finally, insuring that there is adequate opportunity for the production of butyrate completes the cycle. In disrupted situations (known as dysbiosis), adding a butyrate supplement may be necessary to 'prime the pump,' allowing the de-energized gut lining an opportunity to rebuild and regenerate. In situations like this, a butyrate supplement can help to get the 'motor to turn over' and give the system a chance to naturally rebalance itself.
Reviewed/ Revised: March 3, 2015