OK, so you might be thinking, why on earth do I need to know anything about short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and I kinda get where you are coming from. As it turns out, they are without doubt very important, especially if you are looking at ways to improve your gut or overall health and wellbeing.
What are SCFAs
In this post about prebiotics, I explain how the main function of prebiotics are to feed/fertilise the good bacteria in your gut. These prebiotic fibres are used by the gut bacteria to produce SCFAs through a process of fermentation. SCFAs are therefore catabolic end-products from the fermentation of these prebiotic fibres.
In a nutshell, when you ingest prebiotic-rich fibres your gut microbes ferment them to produce SCFAs. The fermentation is highly dependent on how healthy and diverse your gut microbes are. Additionally, how diverse your dietary fibres are. An unhealthy gut means below optimal fermentation and thus insufficient production of SCFAs.
So why is having sufficient levels of SCFAs such a big deal?
There are many reasons for this, but I am going to try and simplify things for you. These SCFA end products play a key role in maintaining a range of functions which include:
- Providing fuel for the cells in your gut
- Strengthening the gut barrier
- Modulating immune function
- Reducing inflammation in the gut
- Helping with bile flow – yikes super important part of digestion!
- Producing mucous, which helps to fend of pathogens
- Supporting the gut-brain connection – hello happiness and goodbye anxiety/depression
That is not all. SCFAs also help to:
- Produce proteins, a key building block for the cells
- Metabolise carbohydrates
- Produce antibiotics to support the immune system
- SCFAs can diffuse to blood circulation and thereby positively impact other organs
Isn’t this amazing! Well, maybe it’s the nutrition geek in me, but I think it is pretty cool that the fibres we get from food can create all this magic with a little help from our microbes!
So why I am sharing all this with you?
Firstly, I think it is awesome and worth sharing. Secondly, I see so many clients who for various reasons just don’t have sufficient levels of SCFAs when we test their poo! Thirdly, we know that low levels of SCFAs are associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, autoimmune disease, digestive problems and so much more.
What impacts SCFA production?
There are lots of reasons why you might not have sufficient levels of SCFAs, but here are a few.
IBS / Long-term use of the low-FODMAP diet
One of the key carbohydrate food groups typically excluded when using the low-FODMAP diet is oligosaccharides.
Gut microbes such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium specialise in fermenting oligosaccharides, which in people with IBS can lead to bloating, pain, gas, indigestion and more.
When anaerobic bacteria ferment these carbohydrates, they provide the body with important SCFAs such as acetate, propionate and butyrate. It should be noted that when we look at comprehensive stool assessments, these three SCFAs are the key markers to consider. Unsurprisingly, levels of acetate, propionate and butyrate often come back as really low in people with IBS. One of the reasons for this is understandably avoiding foods that trigger symptoms, which tend to be oligosaccharides for many.
The only way you can address this is by working with an experienced and qualified practitioner who can help you to address the root cause and support the reintroduction of these food groups. I have done this with a wide range of clients and know that every client will need different support.
Long-term use of a restrictive ketogenic diet
A ketogenic diet consisting of a high intake of bacon and fat and low levels of vegetables is most certainly going to impact your SCFA production. Fortunately, we are seeing a shift in the approach to a more veg-friendly ketogenic diet. Despite this it might not be the best option if your microbiome is already suffering from a lack of diversity and abundance. Having said this, I do have clients on a veg-friendly ketogenic diet and interestingly, this has resulted in significant improvements in inflammation, weight, energy and digestion.
Typical Western diet
This is one of THE most common drivers for disease and the answer lies in insufficient SCFA production. A diet high in processed foods, beige in colour with little fibre will undoubtedly lead to increased inflammation, higher risks for diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and all disease for that matter. Living on a diet of pasta, bread, pastry, vegan sandwiches from Greggs is not going to save your internal planet, that is for sure!
Low and imbalanced microbial balance/diversity
Whether as a result of infection, antibiotics, western diet, restrictive ketogenic diet, low-FODMAP, high levels of stress, the end result is not favourable. As mentioned at the outset, SCFA production is dependent on having good levels of microbes in the gut to ferment the carbohydrates. People with Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), Candida, Yeast, Fungal infections and parasitic infections might struggle. This is why it is important to understand what is driving the imbalance and target this to start with.
Pushing for SCFA production at the wrong time can actually worsen symptoms for some people, so timing is key!
How can you improve your SCFA production?
As mentioned above, you might need to address underlying factors first. If you are healthy with no issues, then here are a few things that you can do to boost your SCFAs.
- Eat the Rainbow – aim for a greater diversity of vegetables and fruit in your diet
- Include good levels of prebiotics.
- Maximise your intake of probiotic foods and consider a probiotic supplement.
- Include foods high in resistant starch, such as green banana/plantain, oats, lentils, rice and sweet potatoes
- Consider a butyrate supplement, such as BodyBio Butyrate.
Like with all things, results don’t come overnight. The key is consistency and making a lifestyle shift that is going to be long lasting. If you want to learn a little more about the gut, then you can also listen to this recent podcast I did with Silk Fitness Therapy where we discussed all things gut related.
Happy Wellness Wednesday all.