Some people may get squeamish thinking about it, but there are billions of bacteria living in and on your body, and it has been that way from the day you were born. We work hard to eliminate some bacteria that are known to be harmful, but there are other kinds of microbes living inside you that have been providing health benefits for your entire life.
What are Probiotics?
Despite what some people may think, out of the incredible variety of bacteria living in your body, not all forms are bad. We spend a lot of time and energy developing medicines to kill off certain kinds of bacteria, but other kinds of microorganisms provide us with essential services we could not do ourselves.
There are literally trillions of bacteria living in your digestive tract, and the mix of species and strains you have in your large and small intestines can affect everything from your digestion to your mental state. The largest concentration of these organisms lies in the large intestine, but bacteria exist throughout the human digestive tract. These bacteria are collectively known as your gut microbiota, gut microbiome, or intestinal microflora. Whatever the name, the mixture of beneficial and harmful bacteria living inside you has a profound effect on your health.
Typically, we hear about bacteria, and gut flora in particular, when something goes comically or tragically wrong with your digestive tract. Some of the most notable maladies of the human gastrointestinal tract, from commonplace traveler’s diarrhea to the potentially embarrassing irritable bowel syndrome and even life-threatening C. difficile infections in the elderly, can be traced to bacteria in your gut.
Probiotics are bacteria that have a role in keeping you healthy. Though they are bacteria just like the diarrhea-causing microbes in undercooked meat, probiotics such as bifidobacterium bifidum and lactic acid bacteria like lactobacillus actually play a crucial role in digestion. Bifidobacterium, in particular, are responsible for helping to break down and digest fiber, which is an essential part of any healthy diet.
These beneficial bacteria can also help balance out the levels of other bacteria in your gut flora and even help prevent certain pathogens from reaching your bloodstream. This is only part of the beneficial effects probiotics have in strengthening your immune system.
As opposed to antibiotics, which are taken to kill certain bacteria, probiotics are taken in an attempt to increase levels of certain bacteria in your intestines. Over the last several years scientists have discovered that the balance of bacteria in your intestines, known as your gut microbiome plays a far more important part in your digestive and overall health than previously suspected.
From preventing diseases to helping you heal faster after illnesses, the unseen bacteria in your gut are more important than most people realize. As surprising as it may seem, research is showing probiotics may even affect your stress levels and other mental functions.
What is Bifidobacterium?
One of the main families of probiotics is a group of microbes known as bifidobacterium bifidum, also called simply bifidobacteria or B. bifidum. This is more than just one kind of bacterium, though. The list of variants in the bifidobacterium species is quite extensive, as is the list of potential benefits these microorganisms provide.
There are numerous strains of bifidobacteria in the genus bifidobacterium, and many of them can be found occurring naturally in the human gastrointestinal tract. A few of the most commonly used are:
- bifidobacterium breve
- bifidobacterium infantis
- bifidobacterium animalis
- bifidobacterium lactis
Like nearly anything in life, too much of a good thing can still hurt you. Bifidobacterium plays a very important role, but it must be balanced by other bacteria in your gut microbiome. For some people, it is possible to have too much B. bifidum growing in your intestines, which can cause problems rather than solving them. Knowing if you are in a group that may be at risk of complications is important before you consider increasing your intake of probiotics.
In healthy babies, bifidobacteria is there from the very beginning. Both vaginal birth and breastfeeding have been shown to increase the amount of bifidobacterium in a baby’s intestines. This transference of bacteria from mother to baby could be one of the reasons breast-fed babies sometimes score better on certain metrics in growth and development than their bottle-fed counterparts. One known benefit of B. bifidum in babies is helping digest the sugars in breast milk. Ensuring healthy gut flora are transferred from mother to child at and after birth is increasingly seen as an important part of infant health and development.
If you are pregnant, medical evidence suggests you should give serious consideration both to vaginal birth and breastfeeding if at all possible. Sometimes breastfeeding or vaginal birth are not possible, and ultimately having a safe and successful experience is the primary goal, but both of these have been shown to help increase the levels of B. bifidum in the infant gut, which can help your baby get started in life in the healthiest way possible.
What are Functional Foods?
Over thousands of years, various micro-organisms have been introduced into the human diet. Much of this has been through fermented dairy products. Today selective fermentation of bacteria like lactobacillus and certain bifidobacterium help make up the probiotic component of commercialized probiotic food products. Some of these specifically engineered foods are referred to as “prebiotics.” These foods are ones that have a very specific intended effect on the gut microflora of the individual taking them.
These components are not digestible by you as the host, but the interaction created as they are metabolized in the gut will hopefully modify the composition or activity of your gut microbiome. This extends beyond just the amount of one bacteria or another in your intestines. The fermentation of probiotics creates short-chain fatty acids that can alter the pH of your gut and make minerals like magnesium and calcium more available for your body to digest. These changes can also help inhibit the proliferation of potentially harmful pathogenic bacteria.
One of these harmful bacteria often found in the human gut is E. coli. Often in the news for causing outbreaks of food poisoning, this bacteria can occur in your gut biome without causing asymptomatic infection. Keeping the numbers of bacteria in check is the key factor. Here prebiotics such as fructo-oligosaccharides and galacto-oligosaccharides are the key players and have been proven effective through clinical trials.
What are the Benefits of Taking Probiotics?
There are some known benefits of taking probiotics, and a wide range of suspected benefits that have not yet been medically validated, but seem likely. At a base level, these benefits are centered around maintaining a healthy, balanced gut microbiome that can prevent bacterial overgrowth and improve digestion and your immune system.
Gastrointestinal conditions such as ulcerative colitis, constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can all be affected by increasing your intake of probiotics. Research has shown improved outcomes are linked to taking probiotics in cases where people are suffering from these conditions. B. bifidum is not a complete cure-all, but evidence has shown increasing the levels of probiotics in your intestinal tract can help with many different medical conditions.
There may be even more striking benefits of having a healthy amount of bifidobacteria in your gut. Some studies indicate there may be a link between taking probiotics and lower rates of colon cancer. In particular, there is evidence to suggest the B. longum and B. breve strains of bifidobacteria may help prevent the DNA damage caused by carcinogens.
The bifidobacterium infantis and bifidobacterium breve strains have been proven to help inhibit rotavirus, a major cause of diarrhea in infants. One study, in particular, focused on a commercial probiotic formula combining B. bifidum and Streptococcus thermophiles to see if there was a reduction in the overall number of instances of diarrhea in infants. That study concluded there was a significant reduction of symptoms for the infants fed a formula containing probiotics compared to the control group.
One serious condition potentially helped by probiotics is the frighteningly named necrotizing entercolitis. This disease primarily affects premature infants. In some children born premature, destructive bacteria can invade and colonize the intestinal wall, creating an infection that can destroy the intestinal wall itself. This can lead to the spilling of stool from the intestine into the abdomen, resulting in sepsis and death. Given the severity of this condition, anything that helps should be investigated. Sadly, there is no official proof that B. bifidum probiotics help prevent this lethal infection, but there is some data that suggests it may help in certain circumstances.
Bifidobacteria can help prevent diarrhea in infants, but at the other end of the spectrum, it can also help increase stool regularity in adults. For individuals having trouble maintaining a regular bowel habit despite a high fiber diet, increasing the amount of bifidobacteria in the intestines may be the answer. More research is needed, but the role B.bifidum bacteria play in helping to digest fiber could be the key to making the fiber in your diet available to your body.
Sometimes the benefit of taking probiotics is not about improving your gut biome, as much as it is about getting it back to normal. After taking some courses of antibiotics, you may experience diarrhea and lingering health problems not usually associated with your original illness. This can be caused by broad-spectrum antibiotics killing helpful bacteria in your large intestine, or by generally upsetting the stability of your gut flora.
In these cases, you need to repopulate both your large and small intestine with a full slate of bacteria, including the beneficial ones essential to human health that you have lost. This is particularly important, as surviving pathogens can sometimes proliferate out of control in the absence of beneficial microbes such as bifidobacteria. This can be the case in C. difficile infections that follow antibiotic treatment in the elderly. Though less severe, other forms of bacterial imbalance can cause diarrhea and other forms of gastric distress.
What are the Dangers of Taking Probiotics?
Probiotics and bifidobacteria are getting a lot of press coverage these days, but that does not mean you should hop right in and start taking them without talking to your doctor first. There are people for whom taking more probiotics could cause more harm than good.
Individuals with autoimmune conditions or diseases such as HIV/AIDS should exercise caution when taking probiotic supplements. The same is true for people who are undergoing certain kinds of cancer treatment. Just as with harmful bacteria such as clostridium difficile, bacterial overgrowth is a concern with bifidobacterium. Though it has benefits for digestion and the immune system, having too much bifidobacteria in your gut can be a bad thing.
The elderly are another group who should exercise caution when taking probiotics. Though much evidence points to the importance of having a good balance of certain bifidobacterium strains in your gut, having too much of the bacteria can result in unintended side effects. Given that changes to your gut microbiome can sometimes create changes in your toilet habits, it is important to use caution when taking supplements or changing your diet. There is a possibility of diarrhea occurring when you make sudden changes in your gut flora, and diarrhea and the dehydration that comes with it can be very damaging, or even lethal, for the elderly. If you are an older individual who is considering taking bifidobacterial probiotics, be sure to talk to your doctor before you make changes to your diet.
Perhaps most important, women who are pregnant or nursing should take extreme caution with probiotics. While bifidobacteria is one of the first and most important bacteria to colonize a newborn baby’s intestines, adding a large amount of B. bifidum during pregnancy or while nursing could have detrimental effects on your baby. There is not enough scientific evidence yet to be certain of what the possible effects of high levels of bifidobacteria during pregnancy could be. More studies and clinical trials are needed to fully understand the effects on both mothers and infants. For now, it is wise to consult your doctor if you are or could be pregnant.
What Foods Contain Probiotics?
One of the great things about probiotics, and the reason there is a lot of news about the potential benefits is you can increase your probiotic intake just by changing your diet.
There are supplements for people who would have a hard time managing the dietary intake of probiotics, or who may need to take probiotics along with other bacteria. For people with lactose intolerance, for example, the side-effects of consuming dairy products would far outweigh the beneficial effects of probiotic fortification. For individuals such as these, a dietary supplement may be a good alternative.
In other cases, your doctor or dietitian may recommend a specific supplement tailored to a specific condition or disease. One such application of this is the combination of lactobacillus, acidophilus, and streptococcus (VSL#3). These are often taken alongside bifidobacteria to manage chronic pouchitis, which can be a complication resulting from surgery for ulcerative colitis.
For many people, simply changing their diet is enough to begin changing the levels of probiotics in their system. There are several classes of so-called “functional foods” that are fermented or cultured, including more than just yogurt. A few examples are:
- fermented foods like miso, kimchi, pickles, and tempeh
- yogurt with added cultures
- kefir (a fermented milk drink)
- some wines
- cured meats
- some vinegar
- sourdough bread
Depending on your dietary restrictions, some of these foods may not be an option for you. If this is the case, you may want to consider taking a probiotic dietary supplement to increase the number of healthy bacteria in your system.
It is important to exercise caution when taking B. bifidum supplements, though, as dosages between different products can vary widely. It is important to understand the dose you are taking, as there can be negative consequences of ingesting too much bifidobacteria. You should also be careful to check expiration dates, as the microbes must still be alive to do their job properly.
Talk to Your Doctor About Probiotics.
It is important to do your research before beginning any form of medical treatment and adding extra probiotics to your diet is no exception. There are some people who should not take increased amounts of bifidobacteria. This is particularly true if you are a pregnant or breastfeeding mother, have a compromised immune system or are elderly. If you have been wondering whether adding probiotics to your diet will help, set up an appointment with Sameer Islam first. We can help you work through the potential benefits and dangers of increasing your probiotic intake, as well as help you plan a diet or sort out medications that can get you the appropriate dosage for the results you are trying to achieve.