Let’s all take a moment to be grateful that we’ve moved away from the low-fat phase of the 90s. Avocado lovers across the world have been rejoicing ever since we learned that healthy fats are, in fact, really good for you.
When it comes to the types of fats that boost brain health and fight inflammation, there are a key different kinds to keep in mind. Some fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, you have to consume from outside food sources (thank you, walnuts and fatty fish). There are other types of fats, though, that your body can actually make itself. Pretty wild, right? Short chain fatty acids fall into the latter category, and according to nutrition experts, they have huge potential benefits for everyone’s favorite wellness topic: gut health.
What are short chain fatty acids, exactly?
If you’re confused about what a fatty acid is, rest assured that the concept is pretty simple. Fatty acids are, in short, the building blocks of fats. When we eat a food that contains fat, the digestive process breaks it down into these fatty acids, which helps them get absorbed and used in the body. “Short chain fatty acids are unique, however, because we don’t directly get them from food,” says Jenn LaVardera, MS, RD, CDN, a dietitian for Daily Harvest. “Rather, they are produced by the bacteria in our gut.” This important process actually happens in the large intestine, and plays a large role in promoting our overall health.
LaVardera explains that the bacteria in your gut break down indigestible fibers and resistant starches through fermentation, and short chain fatty acids are the byproduct of this natural process. The three main short chain fatty acids (which are sometimes referred to as postbiotics) made in the gut are butyrate, acetate, and propionate. “After they are produced, these fatty acids are absorbed by cells that line the gut where they are either metabolized or sent into circulation to provide energy to liver cells,” says LaVardera. Once absorbed, these powerful compounds offer a bounty of health benefits.
How short chain fatty acids boost gut health
LaVardera breaks down the complex relationship between short chain fatty acids and gut health: “Prebiotics are the fibers that probiotics—aka ‘good’ gut bacteria—‘eat,’ and postbiotics are the byproducts of that,” she says. These postbiotics (aka short chain fatty acids) provide energy to the colon cells to help them function properly and also assist in the metabolization of important nutrients like carbs and other fats.
Because of their role in maintaining intestinal health, the benefits of adequate short chain fatty acids in your gut include everything from reducing inflammation in your intestines (which can help reduce risk of colorectal cancer and leaky gut, among other things) to regulating immune function. “Due to their strong anti-inflammatory abilities, these fatty acids are also helpful in alleviating inflammatory intestinal diseases like crohn’s disease or IBD,” adds LaVardera.
Thanks to the gut-brain connection, short chain fatty acids also help promote brain health and cognitive functioning. “While the exact mechanisms are not yet known, preliminary research suggests these fatty acids influence neurological and behavioral processes and may also play a role in neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders,” says LaVardera. The basic premise underlying this idea is that a shortage of short chain fatty acids leads to inflammation that could contribute toward the development of Alzheimer’s disease or mental health disorders such as depression. LaVardera notes that the potential benefits of short chain fatty acids are a new frontier of research, and while they show great promise, more research is needed to understand how exactly these metabolites aid both gut health and overall wellness.
How can we increase the amount of fatty acids in our bodies?
Since this form of fatty acid is a byproduct of the digestive of fiber-rich foods, the best way to increase the amount in your gut is to eat more plants, according to LaVerdera. She cites research that shows eating more plant foods like fruit, vegetables, and legumes is linked with higher short chain fatty acids levels. Berries, artichokes, asparagus, bananas, leeks, onions, carrots, potatoes, and apples in particular contain fibers like pectin, inulin, and resistant starch that can aid in short chain fatty acid production. LaVardera says that for most healthy individuals, eating a variety of plant-based foods is the surest way to get in all that gut-boosting fiber they need to fuel fatty acid production, and shouldn’t need to rely on supplements or synthetic fibers.
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