Bio-musings

Is butyric acid a new vitamin for humans?

Butyric acid is an unlikely contender for a newly discovered vitamin in the human species. Yet that is what we contend – apparently for the first time – here at Exploring the Bio-edge.

Here we have a substance that stinks of vomit, rotten milk, rancid butter, and the fruits of durian and ginkgo. The bacteria synthesising it include clostridia – generally associated with botulism, tetanus, gas gangrene and colitis. If there’s anything good about clostridia, in most people’s minds, it’s that one of their toxins can be useful cosmetically as Botox.

Also making it hard to conceive of butyric acid as a vitamin – which we tentatively label ‘vitamin M’ – is its usual description as a fatty acid. After all, no other vitamin is a fatty acid. Furthermore, butyric acid is saturated, unlike those fatty acids that have held the nutritional limelight for decades. So how could a component of fat, let alone a saturated one, possibly amount to a newly discovered vitamin?
 
Well, this calls for lateral thinking – partly because this vitamin has produced no symptoms of extreme deficiency analogous with scurvy or rickets, and partly because pharmaceutical companies have done little research on a substance which can’t be patented anyway. Based on converging lines of indirect evidence, we’ve come to suspect that many seemingly well-fed people are subclinically deficient in butyric acid today, contributing to various degenerative diseases.
 
Experiments with the domestic rat and domestic pig have shown that{njaccess 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8} butyric acid reduces inflammation and boosts the immune system, induces apoptosis and controls cancer, helps stabilise blood sugar and regulate carbohydrate metabolism, helps satiation, helps heal nerve damage after stroke, acts as an antioxidant, and supplies energy to the colon while regulating the permeability of the intestinal wall and preventing constipation. How many other functions remain undiscovered?

Sufficiency in our ‘vitamin M’ may have come naturally for humans tens of thousands of years ago but poses a potential problem today.
 
Prior to the evolution of Homo and the advent of cooking, our primate ancestors would have acquired most of their butyric acid by way of microbial mutualism in the gut. In this process, various bacteria – including beneficial clostridia – in the colon and caecum ferment plant fibre anaerobically to produce butyric acid. As long as the colon retained a healthy fermentation based on periodic consumption of plenty of plant fibre, our requirements for butyric acid were met.
 
So, how could deficiency in ‘vitamin M’ have arisen? Our hypothesis goes as follows.

There are essentially only three sources of butyric acid in the nutrition of adult humans: fermentation of fibre in the human colon, external fermentation of various foods according to traditional culture, and the butterfat of ruminants. It’s important to realise that no fresh foods available to humans contain butyric acid except for butterfat and the specialised arillate fruit called durian.
 
Cooking, which may have been ubiquitous among humans from the start, converts the softest fibres into digestible starch. This conversion enhances the extraction of food energy at the expense of butyric acid, because it reduces the substrates for beneficial fermentation. Later, in the industrial age, eating too much sugar may have exacerbated this imbalance because insulin and blood-borne butyric acid act in antagonistic ways. Although the advent of antibiotics in the last century was particularly deleterious in razing the microbial community in the colon – allowing detrimental bacteria and unicellular fungi to prevail – it is the prevalence of lactose in the modern diet that may be even more pernicious as regards butyric acid. This is because milk sugar produces unhealthy, gassy colonic fermentations that yield negligible butyric acid and at the same time hypothetically disrupt the activities of the bacteria that do produce ’vitamin M’.
 
Our hunting and gathering ancestors evidently discovered, soon enough, that diverse external ferments, of both plant fibre and  animal matter, could be used to supplement the vital factor that we now identify as butyric acid, alias ‘vitamin M’. These traditions were modified with the domestication of plants, producing diverse products such as kimchi in Korea. However, all these ferments have lost favour in the industrial world, even as our reluctance to chew has minimised our intake of fibre.
 
Turning again to the dairy industry: it is only within the last few thousand years that various ruminants have been selectively bred to produce milk prolifically. Although overall a problematic food for adults, milk is – if simply processed – a potentially valuable source of our ‘vitamin M’. Butyric acid is hardly recorded in the milk of hoofed mammals other than true ruminants, but occurs in bovine milk at an ample concentration. The misfortune is that it is associated with the lipid component of dairy products, which tends nowadays to be shunned as part of a general – if largely misguided – fear of saturated fats. And the lactose in milk tends to be  indigestible even to beneficial bacteria such as lactobacilli, fouling the colonic fermentation system and diminishing the production of butyric acid that could otherwise be absorbed via the colon.
 
On the basis of this information, our rationale in proposing the existence of a ‘vitamin M’ in humans is as follows:
 
The concentrations of butyric acid in relevant foods and the human body are, as for other vitamins such as ascorbic acid, small.

Unlike the domestic pig, the human species cannot synthesise butyric acid in our own cells, depending for it on absorption from the gut.
 
With only four atoms of carbon, the molecule of butyric acid is far smaller than those of the essential fatty acids. Accordingly there is no evidence that butyric acid acts as a fatty acid in the human body, although it is known to do so in true ruminants.
 
Butyric acid is probably an essential catalyst for various metabolic functions, although it does not participate directly in either anabolic or catabolic reactions in the way other fatty acids do.
 
Studies of other omnivorous mammals suggest that deficiency – often subclinical – of butyric acid is partly responsible for a wide range of human ailments including cancers, immune dysfunction, depression, irritable bowel/leaky gut, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and maladies of carbohydrate metabolism including diabetes and obesity.
 
We go on to hypothesise that a deficiency of ‘vitamin M’ has frequently arisen in humans for the following reasons:
 
Most consumers of dairy products prefer de-fatted products from which most of the butyric acid has been removed.
 
Most consumers of dairy products (including yoghurt) suffer from maldigestion/intolerance of lactose, in which the microbial environment in the colon is disrupted and the endosymbiotic production of butyric acid diminished.
 
Most people in developed countries tend to avoid the raw fibre required for this production of butyric acid by various beneficial bacteria in the colon.
 
Abuse of antibiotics – taken directly by humans, or fed to livestock, or used to treat bovine mastitis – further compromises the microbial community in the human colon.
 
Most people have abandoned the traditional fermentations, e.g. kombucha, that formerly supplemented butyric acid. Even the cheese industry sets out to reduce concentrations of butyric acid except in certain types (e.g. parmesan).
 
Excessive consumption of linoleic acid and other unsaturated fats/oils, refined from the seeds of annual dicotyledonous crops, hypothetically antagonises butyric acid, increasing the requirement for ‘vitamin M’.
 
We hypothesise that the medical industry has overlooked the existence of ‘vitamin M’ because:
 
Butyric acid smells of vomit and body odour and is produced partly by clostridia, both of which misleadingly imply toxicity.
 
Butyric acid cannot be patented, which means that pharmaceutical companies have sponsored few investigations.
 
Butyric acid does not qualify as a vitamin for most species of livestock, which  produce  it in abundance in foregut fermentation or are capable of synthesising it in their own cells.
 
Certain functions of butyric acid may not have been clearly distinguished from those of vitamin D (which is really a photosynthesised steroid hormone), given the possibility that butyric acid catalyses the conversion of cholesterol to the active hormonal molecule, calcitriol.
 
Butyric acid functions in foregut-fermenting mammals as a saturated fatty acid rather than a vitamin, and the physiological distinction between ruminants and primates has not been fully realised.
 
Saturated fatty acids have suffered from a false association with cardiovascular and other diseases, and polyunsaturated fatty acids (particularly linolenic acid, alias omega-3) have instead dominated public and medical thinking.
 
So here’s a provocative thought from the Bio-edge: let’s adopt a working hypothesis that butyric acid is a vitamin. In the meantime, if readers suspect any deficiency, please remember that the only widely accepted food containing ‘vitamin M’ without fermentation is butterfat. So, regardless of biological nuances, the solution may be as simple as following the healthy example of the French - and using butter freely.{!njaccess}… See the hidden half of this blog-post by subscribing here{/njaccess}
 
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Comments   

0 #1 Julien Peter Benney 2014-06-09 14:23
This is interesting, and it asks many questions about how people all over the Enriched World (where foods are lower in fibre due to the richer soils) coped before milk was available.

Peoples of the Arctic like the Inuit and Southern South America like the Tehuelche are particularly interesting in this context since they lived or still live on a diet without butyric acid and the nutritional effects are not known. It's always possible that biological adaptations could occur to cope with such diets as these peoples had available, but this is an area of research that I would not know how to carry out.
0 #2 Johns 2014-06-10 10:20
I think vitamin M is a nice enough concept and deserves to be subjected to proper scientific scrutiny. In response to Julien Peter Benney: I think what Robin and the Honey Badger are saying is that Arctic peoples fermented animal food by burying or sealing it for months, to make e.g. igunaq, and that they got their butyric acid partly by those means. With regards to your other point: even on the richest soils, ancestral human diets would have contained plenty of fermentable fibre in foods like tubers. So various reliable food sources of butyric acid do seem plausible for our hunting and gathering ancestors wherever they lived.
0 #3 gena count 2014-06-11 15:19
If 'simply processed' bovine milk contains vitamin M, is it water soluble or fat soluble.This will determine how often one would need to consume butterfat.
If the lactose in milk tends to be indigestible even to beneficial bacteria i.e.lactobacill i, hence fouling the butyric acid that would otherwise absorb from the colon, is it so, only in lactose intolerant individuals?

Construct a random survey identifying those with absent butyric acid identified diseases as listed in your article
.do they consume fermented foods (list them)
.are they lactose intolerant
.do they generally consume defatted foods.
Conversely, randomly ask those who suffer from any of the list of butyric deficient diseases to eat butterfat for a given time..to note any subsidence or resolution of their human ailment.
In the supermarket today I saw the oxymoron 'low fat butterfat' for sale (?)
0 #4 Taklamakan 2014-06-12 09:18
(part 1/2) @ Gena Count: According to the blog-post on the Maasai in this website, even some peoples that pride themselves on being dedicated ‘milk drinkers’, such as Nilotic pastoralists, are actually lactose-intoler ant. So if consuming dairy products does tend to be a bit self-defeating from the point of view of butyric acid for most people, then as you imply we should be asking ourselves why lactose tolerance evolved in a few regions such as northern Europe, North Africa, and Arabia. What’s the advantage?
0 #5 Taklamakan 2014-06-12 09:19
(part 2/2) As Robin & Honeybadger point out in their blog-post about the Maasai, there doesn’t seem much point in digesting lactose well, because this puts galactose into the bloodstream, a type of sugar the adult body can’t really use and has to get rid of (perhaps by viral colds as R & HB claim). But maybe one of the advantages of evolving tolerance of lactose is that there’s minimum disruption to the colonic fermentations and so the drinker of milk can get butyric acid from two sources. In a person tolerant of lactose, regardless of whether they actually need the milk sugars they digest with their own enzymes, the stomach or small intestine can absorb the butyric acid directly from milk, and meanwhile the large intestine is free of interruptions as it continues to absorb butyric acid generated by fermentative bacteria. So maybe lactose tolerance might be indirectly about vitamin M?
0 #6 gena count 2014-06-12 14:59
interesting observations Taklamakan... 7,500 years ago a switch flicked and stayed on for a handy mutation for lactose tolerance. It was in Europe amongst a population of cattle herders, and in 3 separate locations in Africa. www.abc.net.au/.../3850729.htm
A breakdown of current populations of lactose 'persistence' among people can be found on Wikipedia. Higher percentages closer to the sites of the original mutations.
0 #7 Taklamakan 2014-06-17 17:36
(part 1/1) @Gena Count: Your weblink is a fun read but contains an error. Karl Kruszelnicki repeats the usual ‘fact’ that adults can’t produce the enzyme lactase. Actually adults of dog, pig, rat etc. do continue to make small amounts of lactase in their small intestine, whether fed milk or not. The remarkable thing isn’t that they stop producing the lactase after weaning, it’s that they still produce small amounts of lactase as adults but do not increase this production in response to demand after being fed milk.
0 #8 Taklamakan 2014-06-17 17:37
(part 2/2) Lactose intolerant humans also presumably do produce a bit of lactase in our small intestine as adults. Research on the genetics of lactose intolerance makes it sound as if the gene is absent, but it’s more interesting than that. The gene is still there and technically switched on, the body’s just become reluctant to use it in adulthood. Lactose intolerance is not mainly about genetics, it’s more a question of physiology: mammals are reluctant to digest lactose in adulthood even though the genes for this do keep producing a bit of lactase. So it’s interesting that R & HB regard galactose (the sugar released from digested lactose) as useless in adult metabolism.
0 #9 M.Schumpeter 2014-06-19 09:42
It’s not quite true that foul-smelling fermented fish is no longer eaten in the post-industrial world. Swedish surstroemming is available in cans and sounds far more foul-smelling than any durian. Apparently this rotted Baltic herring truly smells putrid but is eaten appreciatively by supermarket shoppers in Scandinavia. It definitely contains butyric acid so that it does support what you say in your blog. I think it definitely deserves a mention? There are similar revolting-smell ing fish products in places like Japan (kusaya) and Korea (hongeohoe) but can you actually buy them in cans from supermarkets? Anyone out there know?

0 #10 Selenius 2014-06-19 12:08
You’d think that the Pritikin diet, which is based partly on reducing dietary fat to a minimum, would be thoroughly discredited by now 30 years after its heyday...But I see it’s still there in Wikipedia, ostensibly a reasonable approach. Although we can see now that cutting out saturated fats was a bad mistake I guess that the Pritikin diet did help some people because it got a few other things right e.g. avoiding processed food and excesses of both fruit and protein. I wonder how successful the Pritikin approach would have been if they had just avoided their two main mistakes of banning fat and encouraging frequent small meals of carbohydrate (which has the opposite effects via insulin from the ones Pritikin sought)
0 #11 Julien Peter Benney 2014-06-20 01:11
Quoting Selenius:
You’d think that the Pritikin diet, which is based partly on reducing dietary fat to a minimum, would be thoroughly discredited by now 30 years after its heyday...But I see it’s still there in Wikipedia, ostensibly a reasonable approach. Although we can see now that cutting out saturated fats was a bad mistake I guess that the Pritikin diet did help some people because it got a few other things right e.g. avoiding processed food and excesses of both fruit and protein.
I’ve always logically been puzzled by Pritikin’s approach since I read it in a book of my late father’s. Whilst I understood his research, I was never sure in practice because of the poor nutrition of those with pure vegetarian diets, even with much more fibre than peoples originating from the Enriched World eat today, and the relatively good health (stature and size) of those with abundant animal protein. I often imagine racial differences may be a factor without being sure.
0 #12 Jeremy Jones 2014-07-07 09:35
Acetic acid is related to butyric acid, and produced in similar ways. Interesting that acetic acid, while not smelling that bad, also acts ambivalently. Eg it’s discounted as spoilage when wine turns to vinegar, yet is prized in the form of apple cider vinegar, which is credited with various halth benefits. People claim it fights diabetes, reduces the glycaemic index of sweet foods, reduces appetite and cravings, lowers bad cholesterol levels, aids digestion, cures acid reflux, helps with allergies and skin conditions, & fights infections. Acetic acid certainly doesn’t fit the bill as a vitamin but it’s hard to describe because it’s got a funny combination of common-as-dirt and special effects.
0 #13 Jeremy Jones 2014-07-08 08:35
People keep buying omega-3 supplements despite the fact that they’ve been proven not to work against cancer. Already almost a decade ago, it was found (Journal of the American Medical Association 295, 403-415, 2006) that omega-3 give no protection against any of 11 forms of cancer. This was a review of 38 published studies covering 7 countries, >700,000 patients, and food as well as supplementary sources, some of the studies lasting up to 30 years. 85% of studies showed no effect of omega-3 at all, and in the rest it wasn’t clear whether the effect was to increase or decrease cancer risk. No benefit in outcomes of tumour surgery either. So if people are skeptical that there might be a new vitamin lurking among the fatty acids, why do so many people keep faith with the increasingly baseless claims made on behalf of the fatty acid called omega-3?
0 #14 Naturapper 2014-08-08 09:19
Llamas ‘spit’ when harassed by a potential predator, with the foul smell of the substance being part of the deterrent. The anti-predator defensive ‘spit’ is regurgitated from the rumen, and I don’t know how it differs from what the llama normally brings up when chewing the cud, apart from probably being more fluid - but it’s fair to assume that butyric acid is part of the stink. The llama gestures (pins back its ears, cranes its neck, points its muzzle upwards) as a warning, the regurgitant meanwhile slowly pooling in its mouth. Then up to 0.5 litre of the stuff can be expelled over a distance of up to 4.5 metres! Llamas also spit in more strict sense in their intraspecific interactions but using just (non-stinky) saliva. So when Greenpeace activists hurl butyric acid onto the deck of a whaling ship they’re actually emulating a tactic previously invented by camelids.
0 #15 Freerad 2014-08-18 17:16
If you take butyric acid and just add two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of selenium, you get butyl seleno-mercapta n (C4H9SeH). The Guinness Book of Records (1988, page 73) cites this as possibly the smelliest substance known – of all the 17,000 substances investigated. Described as like a combination of rotting cabbage, garlic, onions and sewer gas. I wonder if durian fruit contains this as well as butyric acid?
0 #16 Julien Peter Benney 2014-08-20 15:07
I would doubt that durian fruit would contain butyl seleno-mercapta n – selenium is very rare and scarce and would not be incorporated in that sort of compound, and compounds with selenium-hydrog en bonds are highly toxic.
0 #17 Freerad 2014-08-21 14:21
Thanks Julien Peter Benney, I see that the Se in brazil nuts is in the form of selenomethionin e. I guess there could be selenomethionin e in durians too, as a reward to seed-dispersers even if the Se hardly contributes to the smell of ripe durian that attracts the fruit-eating animals.
0 #18 Freerad 2014-10-28 08:38
Hey, hydrogen sulphide, another stinky substance also found in flatulence, is also good for you: dailymail.co.uk/.../...
Understandably the media spin is ‘smelling farts is healthy’. But wait, the body may already be absorbing some of this hydrogen sulphide from the colon into the bloodstream, in a sort of automatic self-fumigation ensuring that all the body’s cells get a medicinal dose of this potentially toxic gas. Then could we argue that the smell of rotten eggs is also a bit like a vitamin? Our cells do make it for themselves (maybe to kill cancers etc.) but in practise they rely on the ‘dietary source’ made by gut bacteria? So hydrogen sulphide is a bit like butyric acid, a ‘vitamin pretending to be a fart’?

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