Written by: Kari Raman, PharmD, RPh
Published March 4, 2023

One of the most important probiotics in the human gut

Bifidobacterium is a genus of probiotic bacteria that is frequently found in the human gut and in fermented foods. It plays a crucial role in maintaining the balance of the gut flora and in supporting the overall health of the human body –  you should have some of this bacteria in your gut, naturally, if you are healthy and eat a good diet. 

Bifidobacterium are beneficial bacteria that help to ferment fiber and other complex carbohydrates. You get fiber and complex carbohydrates from eating a lot of ‘whole’ or obviously healthy goods like whole wheat bread, oatmeal, broccoli, sweet potatoes, bananas, beans, lentils, nuts… the stuff you mom probably tried to get you to eat when you were a kid. Fiber and complex carbs help you feel full, regulate your digestion, and provide you with sustained energy (vs. simple sugar, which is delicious but only provides quick energy). Bifidobacterium helps break that fiber and carbs into what are called short-chain fatty acids – that helps the rest of your gut in a lot of good ways. We’ll get into the details on how that happens later.

Of course, my quick caveat: Like pretty much all the probiotics I write about, not every species/genus will help every specific individual. Even though some people may experience health benefits from taking this probiotic, not all health issues that improve for some individuals will necessarily improve for everyone. 

In addition to breaking down a lot of the healthy things you eat, this genus of bacteria has been shown to have a lot of other beneficial health impacts. For example, Bifidobacteria have been shown to have a positive impact on the immune system, to reduce inflammation, and to support the gut barrier function. Let’s take a look at other, positive, impacts of this genus. Image source: Wikipedia – cool side note on the image, it’s bacteria from a yogurt.

What is the Bifidobacterium probiotic used for?

Some possible benefits of Bifidobacterium are:

-Bifidobacterium may help improve gut health by stabilizing the gut microbiome, decreasing inflammation, and enhancing bowel regularity.

-May assist in stimulating the immune system, which may help decrease the risk of infections.

-Bifidobacterium may possibly help prevent and treat diarrhea.

-Some research suggests that Bifidobacterium may be beneficial in reducing symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

-Studies have shown that Bifidobacterium may improve the symptoms of atopic eczema.

-Bifidobacterium may help with weight management by reducing body fat and improving glucose metabolism.

-Bifidobacterium may help decrease allergy symptoms by reducing inflammation in the gut.

Some commonly found types of Bifidobacterium include:

There are several species of bifidobacteria, including Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium lactis, and Bifidobacterium longum. These bacteria can be found in various probiotic products, such as yogurts, fermented dairy products, and dietary supplements.

Bifidobacterium bifidum: This species is commonly found in the human gut and is often used as a probiotic supplement.

Bifidobacterium lactis: This species is found in the human gut and is often used in probiotic supplements to help with digestive issues and boost the immune system.

Bifidobacterium infantis, adolescentis, longum: This species is commonly found in the human gut and is used in probiotic supplements to improve gut health and boost the immune system. 

Bifidobacterium animalis, breve: This species is found in fermented foods and used in probiotic supplements and can improve gut health and boost the immune system.

Where is Bifidobacterium found naturally?

Bifidobacteria are found in the human gut, specifically in the large intestine – and in some foods and other obviously natural/normal places like breast milk and in the soil.

  1. The human gut: As mentioned earlier, bifidobacteria are a common resident of the human gut microbiome, and play an important role in maintaining the balance of gut bacteria and overall health.
  2. Fermented foods: Bifidobacteria are commonly used as a probiotic in fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, and some types of cheeses. These fermented foods can help to support the growth of bifidobacteria in the gut. Like I’ve said before, yeah yogurt!
  3. Breast milk: Bifidobacteria are naturally present in breast milk and can play a role in establishing a healthy gut microbiome in infants. It doesn’t get any more natural than that!
  4. Soil: Bifidobacteria can also be found in soil, where they play a role in breaking down organic matter and cycling nutrients in the ecosystem. But don’t eat dirt.

In addition to these natural sources, bifidobacteria can also be obtained through dietary supplements and probiotic products. These products are designed to support the growth of bifidobacteria in the gut and promote overall gut health.

Foods with Bifidobacteria

As we already mentioned, Bifidobacteria are commonly found in fermented foods (fermented foods are those that have been exposed to beneficial bacteria or yeasts and undergone a fermentation process). Some examples of fermented foods that may contain bifidobacteria include:

  • Yogurt: Yogurt is made by fermenting milk with bacteria, including bifidobacteria, which can help to improve gut health. One yogurt that actively advertises having bifidobacteria is Activia, which Danon says “contains the probiotic culture Bifidobacterium animalis lactis DN-173 010/CNCM I-2494.”
  • Some types of cheeses: in particular, some swiss, cheddar and gouda MAY contain this bacteria – but the levels of bifidobacteria in cheese can vary widely depending on the specific product and manufacturing process (or should we say recipe?).
  • Kefir: Kefir is a fermented drink made with kefir grains, which contain a mixture of bacteria and yeast, including bifidobacteria.
  • Sauerkraut: Sauerkraut is made by fermenting cabbage with lactic acid bacteria, which can include bifidobacteria.
  • Kimchi: Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish made by fermenting vegetables with a mix of spices and bacteria, which may include bifidobacteria.
  • Miso: Miso is a traditional Japanese seasoning made by fermenting soybeans with koji (a type of fungus) and other bacteria, including bifidobacteria.

Remember, not all fermented foods will contain bifidobacteria, and the levels of bifidobacteria in fermented foods can vary. 

Bifidobacteria FAQ

How is Bifidobacteria made?

Bifidobacteria are not “made” in the traditional sense, as they are living microorganisms that occur naturally in the environment, including the human gut. In your gut, you can cultivate them by eating a healthy diet rich in fiber, and by eating fermented foods like yogurt. Today, bifidobacteria can be cultured and grown in a laboratory setting, either for research purposes or to produce probiotic supplements, or for use in making fermented foods.

To culture bifidobacteria in a laboratory setting, a sample of bifidobacteria is first obtained from a natural source, like from a fermented food. This sample is then placed in a growth medium that contains the nutrients and conditions needed to support the growth of bifidobacteria. The growth medium may include ingredients like carbohydrates, amino acids, and vitamins, which are needed to support the growth of the bacteria. The growth conditions may include factors like temperature, pH, and oxygen levels, which can impact the growth of the bacteria.

Before modern science and modern, factory-processing food production, cheese makers likely didn’t have the same level of understanding of bacteria.They would have observed that certain foods, such as fermented milk and yogurt, could be preserved for longer periods of time (and that they were tasty!). 

To make Swiss cheese in particular, traditional cheese makers may have relied on natural fermentation processes to introduce the necessary bacteria into the milk. For example, they may have allowed raw milk to naturally sour and ferment, which would introduce a variety of lactic acid bacteria, including bifidobacteria, to the milk.

Additionally, cheese makers may have used “back-slopping” techniques, in which a small amount of the previous batch of cheese or whey is added to the new batch of milk. Kind of like how home bakers keep a bit of their sourdough bread dough around for the next batch. This can introduce beneficial bacteria and help to promote the growth of specific strains, such as bifidobacteria. And over time, these bacteria may have evolved into the specific strains that give cheeses specific flavors.

What does Bifidobacteria eat?

The most important thing that Bifidobacteria consumes is fiber. They are particularly good at breaking down and fermenting dietary fiber, including soluble fibers like inulin and fructooligosaccharides (FOS), as well as insoluble fibers like cellulose and hemicellulose.

They can also digest complex carbohydrates, such as starches and glycogen. And research is showing that some strains can actually eat some proteins like some kinds of gluten. 

Bifidobacteria are some of the first bacteria to grow in babies’ intestines, and they are important in digesting the sugars in breast milk. The main sugar in milk is lactose, and some research suggests that it is not only good at digesting lactose, but that it may be able to help with some lactose intolerance. 

What it actually does is that Bifidobacteria produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), such as acetate, propionate, and butyrate, through a process called fermentation. During fermentation, bifidobacteria break down complex carbohydrates, such as dietary fiber, into simpler compounds, such as glucose and other sugars. These sugars are then further metabolized by bifidobacteria into SCFAs.

How is the fermentation by Bifidobacteria good for your gut?

Bifidobacteria breaks down fiber, lactose and other foods in your gut into Short-chain fatty acids, (SCFAs), such as acetate, propionate, and butyrate. This is through a process called fermentation. And these SCFAs have numerous benefits for gut health, including:

  • Providing energy: SCFAs are a major source of energy for the cells that line the colon. They are rapidly absorbed and used by these cells, helping to maintain gut health and function.
  • Regulating inflammation: short-chain fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and can help to reduce inflammation in the gut. Chronic gut inflammation is associated with many gut disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
  • Improving gut motility: SCFAs can help to improve gut motility by stimulating the muscles in the colon to contract. This can help to prevent constipation and promote regular bowel movements.
  • Enhancing gut barrier function: SCFAs help to strengthen the gut barrier, which is the layer of cells that separates the gut lumen from the rest of the body. A strong gut barrier is essential for preventing the entry of harmful bacteria and toxins into the body.
  • Supporting the growth of beneficial bacteria: SCFAs can help to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. These bacteria play an important role in maintaining gut health and preventing the overgrowth of harmful bacteria.

Pharmacist Kari Raman

I’m Kari Raman PharmD, RPh, and I am a licensed, practicing pharmacist. I hold a Doctorate in Pharmacy from The University of the Pacific, and I’ve served patients in retail, compounding and hospital pharmacies.

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