Great for your Gut!
Bifidobacteria - A good bacteria
All being well, we start life with a healthy gut microbiome as the ‘good’ bacteria such as bifidobacteria naturally colonises our gut microbiome in infancy. A large number of studies support an association between bifidobacteria and health.
What are bifidobacteria?
The genus bifidobacteria are gram-positive, non-motile, non-spore forming, anaerobic bacteria from the phylum Actinobacteria. They inhabit many parts of our body including the digestive system. They were first discovered in 1899 when they were isolated in breast-fed infants. Bifidobacteria utilise a unique carbohydrate metabolism pathway called phosphoketolase pathway or bifid shunt, which does not involve producing any gas during the fermentation. This distinguishes bifidobacteria from other gut bacteria.
What is the role of bifidobacteria?
Bifidobacteria is thought to be beneficial to health through several mechanisms including:
- protection of the host against pathogens by competitive exclusion
- role in maturation and modulation of the immune system
- provision of nutrients and metabolites (such as vitamins, short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) through the breakdown of non-digestible dietary carbohydrates.
- cross-feeding other health-promoting bacteria and decreasing the gut pH, making it more difficult for pathogenic bacteria to grow in the GI tract.
- involvement in production of neurotransmitters important for brain function
- protection of the gut barrier
In addition, in infants, specific species of bifidobacteria are important for metabolising human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) in breast milk, which has a role in promoting their health and protecting them from pathogenic bacteria.
As with all bacteria, the functionality of each is strongly strain-dependent. There are over 50 identified species and the ones most studied in relation to human health include Bifidobacterium longum, B. bifidum (which are generally dominant in infants), whereas B. adolescentis as well as B. longum are more prevalent in adults.
How much bifidobacteria do we naturally have?
Several factors, starting from the mode of delivery, to breastfeeding, gender, age, geographic location, disease, antibiotic use and long-term dietary intake, influence the structure and activity of the trillions of microorganisms inhabiting the gastrointestinal tract, including bifidobacteria. Bifidobacteria represent the majority of the bacteria (~95%) in gut microbiome of breast-fed babies.
Infants fed human breast milk have higher numbers of bifidobacteria than formula-fed babies. This is due to the presence of the prebiotic oligosaccharides in human breast milk, which are preferentially selected by, and increase the numbers of bifidobacteria. As an infant develops, a more varied diet is introduced, which includes fats and protein which are not substrates for bifidobacteria. This contributes the age-related decline of bifidobacteria as their food source is depleted. Other environmental factors, including antibiotics, contribute to the drop in bifidobacteria. During adulthood, bifidobacteria levels decrease considerably but remain relatively stable, decreasing again in old age.
This revelation is driving scientists to look at the benefits of microbiome-altering ingredients such as prebiotics and probiotics, which have been researched to show they have positive effects on the health of the human body.
But what is the difference between the two? Probiotics are live organisms which promote our wellbeing, and prebiotics act as the fuel for probiotics and other beneficial members of the gut microbiome. Put simply, probiotics would not be half as effective without the equally powerful prebiotics.
While microbial communities exist in all areas of the human body, the highly complex intestinal microbiome has become a core area of research. Scientists have already established that the gut microbiome is heavily involved in the development of the human immune system. While helping the body digest certain foods, the gut microbiome also protects it from disease, can influence behaviour, and synthesises some vitamins including vitamins B and K.
Diverse gut microbiota is known to be a symptom of good health, since these bacteria produce essential substances that our own human cells cannot. Abnormalities in microbial diversity or altered microbiota composition correlate with several inflammatory diseases, as well as colon cancer, diabetes and obesity. This is known as dysbiosis and studies from the past decade alone support its connection with a variety of health issues.
Research has shown that lower bacterial diversity has been observed in people with conditions such as obesity, high cholesterol and type 1 diabetes, showing that the health of our gut may influence and contribute towards chronic disease.
The discovery of the gut microbiome’s effect on human health has changed how scientists understand disease, creating huge interest in finding ways to modulate our gut microbiome. Interest has particularly increased towards microbiota-altering therapeutics, using prebiotics, probiotics and synbiotics which present exciting avenues for forms of disease management and increasing overall health and wellbeing.
This understanding is allowing leading biotechnology companies to research and develop clinically proven solutions in the field of gut mediated wellness.
The examination of the gut microbiome is an illuminating and rapidly expanding field of research. It is becoming ever more evident that the balance of gastrointestinal microbiota is significant for the overall health of the entire body, and as consumers and the nutraceutical industry learn more about this, scientists will continue their research and manufacturers will carry on developing innovative, microbiome-based products to help with systemic wellbeing.
Can we increase the level of bifidobacteria in our gut microbiome?
One way to increase your levels of good gut bacteria, including bifidobacteria, is to optimise plant-based dietary intake, which will naturally include prebiotics. Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that beneficially affect the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon and improving host health.
However, not all prebiotics are good at growing bifidobacteria.
Bimuno® an advanced prebiotic, feeds good gut bacteria and has a higher selectivity towards bifidobacteria4 compared with other commercially available prebiotics. Bimuno may be particularly useful if an individual is unable to tolerate foods which contain prebiotics such as onions, Jerusalem artichokes and leeks and if they are following a low-FODMAP diet.
You could also increase levels of bifidobacteria by eating more fermented foods or consuming a supplement containing prebiotics.