Impaired metabolism of short-chain fatty acids, as well as a modified fecal ionogram, have been reported in ulcerative colitis. Fecal water samples from 62 patients with ulcerative colitis were analyzed in the present investigation to evaluate changes in SCFAs and lactic acid in relation to activity and severity of disease. Short-chain fatty acid levels were high in quiescent and mild disease (162.6 +/- 63.6 and 147.8 +/- 63.2 mM/L, respectively), but significantly decreased in the severe form (64.7 +/- 46.9 mM/L). Lactate showed a progressive increase from mild colitis (3.0 +/- 1.8 mM/L) to severe colitis (21.4 +/- 18.6 mM/L). It thus appears that mild colitis displayed a fecal pattern characterized by normal pH and bicarbonate, slightly impaired electrolyte handling, high short-chain fatty acid values, and only moderately increased lactate. Severe colitis, on the other hand, was characterized by low fecal pH, bicarbonate, and potassium, high sodium and chloride, low short-chain fatty acid levels, and very high lactate levels. A critical lowering of intraluminal pH, which shifts bacterial metabolism from short-chain fatty acid to lactate production, may be responsible for the intraluminal pooling of lactate.