Unlocking the Health Benefits of Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs)

by | Jul 10, 2024 | health, Nutrition | 0 comments

Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are a type of fatty acid produced when dietary fiber is fermented by your gut microbes in the large intestine. Despite their small size, SCFAs play a significant role in maintaining overall health. Primarily composed of acetate, propionate, and butyrate, each contributes uniquely to bodily functions.

Understanding how these small but mighty compounds influence our well-being can provide valuable insights into the importance of a nutrient-dense, high-fiber diet and taking care of our gut health. SCFAs have been linked to improved gut barrier function, reduced inflammation, and better regulation of blood sugar levels. This article explores the various health benefits of SCFAs and highlights their importance in digestive health, immune function, and metabolic processes.

What are SCFAs?

SCFAs are saturated fatty acids containing fewer than six carbon atoms. The primary SCFAs found in the human gut are acetate (two carbons), propionate (three carbons), and butyrate (four carbons). 

SCFAs are predominantly produced by bacterial fermentation of dietary fiber in the colon (large intestine), making them essential components of the gut microbiota ecosystem. In particular, Bacteroides species are associated with the production of acetate and propionate, while Firmicutes species are associated with the production of butyrate.

Health Benefits of SCFAs

SCFAs have numerous health benefits, from improved digestive health to regulation of metabolism to regulation of the immune system.

Improved Digestive Health

SCFAs, especially butyrate, are an energy source for colonocytes (the cells lining your colon). Additionally, they promote the maintenance of gut barrier integrity. They also enhance mucin (the mucus layer of the gut barrier) production, which strengthens the gut barrier. By strengthening the gut barrier, they prevent the movement of harmful substances into the bloodstream. 

Many factors can negatively impact the gut barrier, such as excessive alcohol consumption, excessive sugar intake (this also increases inflammation) and a high-fat diet, which can lead to metabolic endotoxemia. Stress can also increase gut leakiness. Since so many things can negatively impact our gut lining, it’s important to take steps to protect it, such as increasing our fiber intake to help with the production of SCFAs.

Regulation of Metabolism

Animal research shows that SCFAs play a role in appetite regulation, glucose metabolism, and fat metabolism. For example, some studies show that SCFA can increase the absorption of glucose in muscle and fat tissue while also producing a sense of satiety (fullness) and reduced food intake. 

SCFAs may also increase leptin secretion. Leptin is a hormone released by fat cells that signals the body to stop eating. In addition, SCFAs have been found to decrease ghrelin (the “hunger” hormone) secretion. Thanks to their effects on leptin and ghrelin secretion, SCFAs may, therefore, aid in weight control.

Moreover, butyrate has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, offering potential benefits for people with type 2 diabetes.

Immune System Modulation

SCFAs have anti-inflammatory properties and can modulate immune cell function. They regulate the balance between pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory processes in the body, helping to balance the immune system and reduce the risk of inflammatory diseases.

For example, studies show that when patients with ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease, are given butyrate, their levels of fecal calprotectin decrease. Since high levels of fecal calprotectin are a marker of gut inflammation, reduced levels could indicate reduced gut inflammation.

Brain Health and Neuroprotection

Emerging research suggests that SCFAs play a role in the gut-brain axis, the two-way communication highway between the gut and the brain. SCFAs can cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB), and cells in the peripheral and central nervous systems have receptors for SCFAs. It’s even thought that SCFAs protect the structure and integrity of the BBB. For example, a study with germ-free mice (mice whose microbiome has been removed) had greater BBB integrity when they received a butyrate supplement.

Studies indicate that the microbiome-gut-brain axis plays a significant role in the relationship between stress and the brain. Animal studies have shown that chronic stress alters the gut microbiome and that interventions targeting the microbiota can reduce or even eliminate stress’ effects on the body, potentially through SCFAs.

Ways to Increase SCFA Production

Increasing the production of SCFAs in your gut can be achieved through diet and lifestyle changes that promote the growth and activity of beneficial gut microbes. Here are some effective strategies to try today.

Increase Your Dietary Fiber Intake

Foods rich in fiber are crucial for SCFA production, as gut bacteria ferment these fibers into SCFAs. Include a variety of different fiber-rich foods, including:

  • Vegetables: Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, artichokes.
  • Fruits: Apples, pears, bananas, berries.
  • Legumes: Beans, chickpeas, and lentils (canned is fine!).
  • Whole grains: Oats, barley, brown rice, quinoa, farro, bulgur.

Eat Resistant Starch

Resistant starch is a type of carbohydrate that resists digestion and reaches the colon intact, where it is fermented by the gut bacteria to produce SCFAs. Sources include:

  • Cooked and cooled potatoes and rice: The cooling process increases the resistant starch content.
  • Green bananas: Unripe bananas are rich in resistant starch.
  • Whole grains: Oats and barley are good sources of resistant starch.

Eat Foods High in Prebiotics

Prebiotics are non-digestible food components that beneficially affect the host by stimulating the growth of beneficial bacteria. Examples include:

  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Asparagus
  • Leeks
  • Chicory root

Eat Fermented Foods

Fermented foods can introduce beneficial bacteria to your gut and may increase SCFA production. While not all fermented foods contain probiotics, fermented foods can still be part of a gut-healthy diet. Here are some fermented foods to try:

  • Yogurt (look for a label that says “live active cultures.”)
  • Kefir (look for a label that says “live active cultures.”)
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Miso
  • Tempeh

Eat the Rainbow to Boost Your Polyphenol Intake

Polyphenols are plant compounds that can promote SCFA production. Sources include:

  • Blueberries
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Green tea
  • Black tea
  • Dark chocolate

Get Regular Physical Activity

Regular exercise can positively influence gut health and SCFA production. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days of the week. In addition, aim to get at least 2 days a week of strengthening exercises.


Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) have emerged as key contributors to overall human health, and have diverse effects on digestive health, metabolism, immune function, and brain health.

Understanding the connection between our diet, the gut microbiota, and SCFA production is key to harnessing their full potential in promoting health and preventing disease. By incorporating dietary fiber, fermented foods, and healthy lifestyle habits, you can support SCFA production and optimize your well-being.

Looking for support in your wellness journey? At Blue Tree Nutrition, we meet you where you’re at to provide individualized, science-backed recommendations for your best gut health. Click here to get in touch and book an appointment.

Meet Valerie

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist - CDN, RDN

My name is Valerie Polley. I am a Indianapolis-based registered dietitian and owner of Blue Tree Nutrition. I consult with clients both local and far away.
I have a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Purdue University and I have been practicing for 20 years.
I thoroughly enjoy helping clients through their gut health journey. I see a range of GI issues including, but not limited to celiac disease, IBS and SIBO. I also specialize in the FODMAP elimination diet.

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