Why are Bifidobacteria so important for gut microbiome health?

Here’s why the probiotic Bifidobacteria help create a healthy environment for your gut microbes, and how to increase Bifidobacteria in the gut with food.

Bifidobacteria are a household name in the probiotics department. Now that’s all well and good, but you’re not alone if you don’t know what they do or how they work. That’s what we’re going to discuss.

First a little background. You are not just a human, you are a host to trillions of bacterial cells in your colon (the large intestine) that perform important functions for your health.

In fact, they break down most of the dietary fibre in your diet and turn it into good things like vitamins and short-chain fatty acids that are important for health.

But if there isn’t enough diversity of bacteria types, too much of one, or not enough of some - it puts you at risk of dysbiosis. This word simply means that the composition of your gut microbiome is unbalanced.

It can cause digestive problems like gas, cramps, and diarrhoea. Moreover, an unbalanced ecosystem can contribute to chronic low-grade inflammation of the gut lining that is linked to many diseases outside the gut.

So while a healthy gut microbiome can help protect you from infections and chronic diseases like Crohn’s, diabetes type II, obesity, and heart disease - dysbiosis is linked to many problems like depression, Parkinson’s, autoimmune diseases, and allergies.

And this is why Bifidobacteria are so important: this genus of microbes perform a variety of functions that help stabilise the microbiome. They have special weapons to deter potential pathogens from setting up shop in your gut.

What’s more, they help break down important phytonutrients in your food to make them to your body. And, as if that wasn’t already enough, they even provide food for other bacteria, like the ones that produce butyrate.

How did they get there?

Bifidobacteria are traditionally the first bacteria to colonise your gut. It happened when you were just born, when you slid out of your mother’s vaginal canal.

Yeah, we know, you don’t want to think of that - but it’s important because that’s how these bacteria got inside you and started to build the foundations of a healthy gut ecosystem. And your momma’s lady parts were essential.

As her body prepared for you to make your big entrance into the world, the vaginal microbiome changed and acquired a lot of Bifidobacteria so that you would come out coated in a gooey coating of vital microbes for your future development. Researchers coined a picturesque term for this: bacterial baptism.

Then, while baby-you was lying around swaddled in soft blankets, your first gut microbes were hard at work, training your immune system, preventing pathogenic microbes from invading and breaking down your mother’s breast milk into beneficial substances for your health.

In fact, Bifidobacteria make up about 90% of an infant’s gut microbial ecosystem from birth until about 3 years old, after which levels decrease in a dramatic fashion to about 5% of the ecosystem.

Wait a second. Was this not your story? Were you a C-section baby, removed by surgical means and latex-gloved hands, and then fed a diet of milk formula? Perhaps you were sick and given a round of antibiotics too?

Don’t worry, these are not unusual stories. Many people were "modern" babies, delivered using modern techniques like the Caesarean, and raised on milk formula marketed as a totally adequate alternative to breast milk.

However, research does indicate that early factors have an impact on the development of your gut microbiome and, because they’re linked, your immune system. This has been linked to increased rates of asthma, allergies, autoimmune disorders, and obesity according to studies.

Things that impact early gut microbiome development

C-section delivery Breastmilk or milk formula
Absence of labour Antibiotics during childbirth
Maternal obesity Length of gestation in womb

But it’s important to remember that childbirth is a hectic, and often terrifying time for parents; that doctors and healthcare practitioners are held to deliver the highest standards of care within their means; that breastfeeding can be very painful, and that milk formula is sometimes the best option.

So if you didn’t have the “ideal” birth, don’t overthink it. There’s no point in mulling over the benefits of a time machine because you can still help your gut microbes today with some help from your little childhood friends: Bifidobacteria.

Probiotic bacteria need prebiotics

These bacteria are able to break down complex carbohydrates (including the dietary fibres and polyphenols contained in these foods).

Studies show that different types of Bifidobacteria are versatile and can thrive on a number of different compounds called prebiotics, mostly found in plant foods such as fructooligosaccharides, galactooligosaccharides, pectins, inulin and arabinoxylan.

If you’re wondering where they get all this food - that’s a good question. As it happens, the human body doesn’t produce a lot of enzymes, and our digestive tract is significantly smaller than our ape and gorilla relatives. This means that it’s not very good at making use of hard-to-digest compounds found in whole plant foods (like those ones mentioned above).

Instead, these prebiotics survive the acid bath of the stomach, navigate their way through the small intestine where the body absorbs nutrients it can extract from food, and eventually land in the large intestine where they become dinner.

Vegan salad bowl
Photo by Anna Pelzer / Unsplash

Prebiotics, a fancy word for vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, and good stuff

Here, your gut bacteria (who are a lot quicker at evolving) have developed the tools to cleave and cut their way through the chemical chains and bonds that make up prebiotics. They use these substrates as food, nourishing and stimulating the abundance of their species.

In addition, gut microbes,including Bifidobacteria,are responsible for breaking down most of the polyphenols in our foods. So polyphenols are also considered to be prebiotics. These phytochemicals are antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents that reduce oxidative stress in the cells, combat cancer, support brain health, and much more.

Much like dietary fibres, only about 5-10% of the polyphenols in your diet are absorbed in the small intestine. Most of them undergo the action of bacteria that makes them available for absorption in the colon.

There are a number of prebiotics that are turned into beneficial compounds by the bacteria too. Think of it like this: as humans, we eat and we poop. Bifidobacteria (and other beneficial microbes) eat our leftovers and then they poop rainbows (sometimes, not always).

These metaphorical rainbows are chemical compounds that do good stuff. Either they benefit the community, the gut, or the immune system.

Bifidobacteria do magical things

Bifidobacteria are able to produce a number of magical rainbow compounds including vitamins, short-chain fatty acids, and organic acids while combating invaders that can make you sick. Exciting, right?! Because that’s what we’re going to explore here.

These probiotic microbes make vitamins directly in your gut. These include several B vitamins and vitamin K. We’ve summarised the functions of these vitamins below.

B1, thiamine Helps convert nutrients into energy
B3, niacin Cell signalling & metabolism, DNA production & repair
B5, pantothenic acid Helps convert nutrients into energy, supports hormone production
B6, pyridoxine Production of amino acids, neurotransmitters, red blood cells
B7, biotin Helps with fats and carb metabolism, regulates gene expression
B9, folate Cell growth & division, amino acid metabolism, formation of red/white blood cells
K Helps regulate blood clotting, bone metabolism, blood calcium levels
They also synthesise (a fancy word for saying “produce”) lactate and acetate that balance the gut pH, making the environment sufficiently stable for a healthful gut microbiome, but acidic enough to deter invaders. These compounds can also benefit the community.

Acetate, a short-chain fatty acid produced by Bifidobacteria, nourishes other bacteria that produce butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) that prevents inflammation and fuels the gut lining.

It is considered to be essential in maintaining a healthy digestive tract. Scientists call this behaviour cross-feeding, because the activities of Bifidobacteria make it possible for other species to exist and thrive.

Not to mention that they are not very neighbourly when it comes to unwanted microbes. In fact, Bifidobacteria actually produce antimicrobial chemicals targeting pathogenic bacteria specifically.

This also prevents the invaders from settling down and doing things that make you sick. At the same time, just by adhering to your gut lining, Bifidobacteria are also able to deter undesirable bacteria in your gut.

☝️FACT☝️ Some strains of Bifidobacteria can even help alleviate depression and reduce inflammation.

Foods that increase Bifidobacteria levels

Bifidobacteria help modulate the gut microbiota, prevent inflammation and protect from many diseases, including colorectal cancer, enteric infections (of the intestines) and diarrhoea, inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis), and even depression.

In addition to broad-ranging health benefits, these bacteria are omnivores that enjoy a number of foods you can include in your diet. And they’re also instrumental in creating delicious fermented dairy products like yoghurt and kefir, so they’re also present in these foods.

We’ve organised this list into probiotics and prebiotics. Remember, probiotic Bifidobacteria food sources already contain these microbes and can help supplement levels in your gut (though these effects can stop when you stop taking the probiotic). Prebiotic foods contain compounds that nourish the Bifidobacteria that are already in your gut, encouraging their levels to increase and thus, stimulating their beneficial activities.

Food Function
Whole grains Prebiotic
Chicory Prebiotic
Onion Prebiotic
Berries Prebiotic
Apples Prebiotic
Yoghurt Probiotic
Milk kefir Probiotic

The only current way to reliably track how your Bifidobacteria are responding to prebiotics and probiotics (supplements and foods) is to do a microbiome test like we do at Atlas Biomed. Using DNA sequencing technology, we can assess with 99.8% accuracy who is in your gut, and help you understand what they are doing.

We also offer a microbiome subscription so you can track changes to your gut microbiome over the long-term and see how your microbes respond to changes in your diet and lifestyle with fresh recommendations to help keep this ecosystem balanced.

Leigh Stewart Medical journalist

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