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Bifidobacterium, a species of “good bacteria,” is the first bacteria to colonize the intestinal tract in infants as they pass through the birth canal. These bacteria, also known as probiotics, are thought to help with digestion.
Within the past twenty years, research regarding the benefits of good bacteria such as Bifidobacterium has exploded. Currently, research has found Bifidobacterium to play a role in boosting overall immunity, reducing and treating gastrointestinal infections, as well as improving conditions such as diarrhea, constipation, and eczema.
- B. Bifidum
- B. Breve
- B. Infantis
- B. lactic
- B. Longum
- Bifidobacterium longum
Bifidobacterium offers a large range of health benefits. In fact, the presence and abundance of it have been indicated as a marker for health. Dr. Sarah Rahal, MD, board-certified pediatric neurologist and integrative medicine practitioner says, “Bifidobacterium confer a host of benefits to the health of the gut, brain, and metabolic and immune systems.”
A number of studies suggest that the health of the gut from as early as infancy can play a role in preventing health-related conditions and risk factors later in life. Research has linked an alteration of the gut bacteria (or microbiome) to a plethora of diseases, including autoimmune diseases such as celiac disease and type 1 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, allergies, asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Probiotics are often used in conjunction with antibiotics to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal infections and prevent the death of good bacteria. In addition, some studies suggest that treatment with a probiotic that contains Bifidobacterium may help to treat infections, like Clostridium difficile, by decreasing diarrhea.
Some animal studies have shown that, when taken with a prebiotic, certain strains of Bifidobacterium, such as B. animalis, B. longum, and B. breve, can decrease the risk of recurrent colon cancer.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is often characterized by abdominal pain or discomfort and is associated with changes in stool frequency and/or consistency. It can result in diarrhea and/or constipation. The Clinical Practice Guideline about IBS concluded that probiotics could improve the global symptoms of IBS patients based on some randomized clinical control trials.
Many studies have shown that using probiotics containing strains of Bifidobacterium given to both mother during gestation and lactation, as well as to infants, can prevent eczema in infants and children. When it comes to treating eczema, the beneficial use of probiotics is mixed, and more research is needed to determine the benefits. Before giving your child any supplement, you should always consult with your physician first.
Increases the Bioavailability of Certain Minerals
Consuming bifidobacterial foods products, otherwise referred to as functional foods, may improve the bioavailability of certain minerals, such as calcium, zinc, and iron.
Possible Side Effects
People who have underlying health conditions, particularly those that are immune-compromised or have digestive disorders, may be more sensitive to probiotics (increasing the risk of infection in some), and therefore should always discuss with their medical team before starting. Dr. Rahal says, “In general, for many healthy individuals, it is possible to experience transient GI symptoms like gas, constipation, or diarrhea, as one’s body adjusts to the change in bacterial flora.”
Dosage and Preparation
Probiotics are labeled based on the colony-forming units (CFUs). This indicates how dense or potent the live bacteria are. The higher number of CFUs in a probiotic can mean it has a higher impact on the growth of good bacteria within your gut flora.
Some companies will suggest that their probiotic is superior to others based on the number of CFUs, but Dr. Rahal says, “Specific dosages in terms of CFUs are less well-studied and probably less important. Instead, it’s more important to find a high-quality product that has been properly processed and stored, so that you have a product with a large proportion of viable, live bacteria.”
Products that have not been prepared and stored properly may leave you with dead bacteria which defeats the purpose of taking a probiotic and can be a waste of money. To prevent this from happening, some companies encapsulate their products.
Characteristics of an Effective Probiotic
In order for a probiotic to be effective, it must fulfill several conditions:
- It must not be toxic or pathogenic.
- It must retain characteristics that have been proven beneficial to the host (the person who is using it).
- It must contain a sufficiently large number of viable microorganisms per unit.
- It must be capable of growing and surviving the manufacturing process as well as transit through the stomach and small intestine.
- It must remain alive (viable) during storage and use.
If you do decide to start supplementing, make sure to start slowly and increase gradually. There is a wide range of dosages and starting too high may cause some stomach discomfort. Ask your physician or dietitian how to get started.
What to Look For
It’s always best to get a healthy dose of probiotics by consuming whole foods rich in good bacteria. “Fermented foods and beverages such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, yogurt, and cultured vegetables are an excellent source of live and active probiotics,” says Dr. Rahal. Aim to eat a variety of these foods daily.
Some physicians have relationships with laboratories so that they can provide reliable, high-quality supplements to their patients who need them. If you are not sure what type of probiotic to purchase and how much to take, discuss it with your medical team.
Take special care with freeze-dried probiotic supplements. They can be used, however, “the concern is that they degrade quickly upon moisture exposure and so may not be shelf-stable for very long, despite advertisement,” says Dr. Rahal.
When looking for whole foods that contain Bifidobacterium, choose organic, grass-fed yogurts when possible. You can also try kombucha (fermented tea) but watch your serving size as many varieties can contain a good amount of sugar. Kefir, a fermented dairy product, which a cross between yogurt and milk, can be a good breakfast option. Other whole foods include fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, as well as sour cream, buttermilk, miso, and apple cider vinegar.
Probiotics are sensitive to light, heat, and moisture. A good quality probiotic should be stored in a dark, glass bottle to prevent the bacteria from dying. Most types of probiotics need to be refrigerated. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for optimal storage.
When choosing a probiotic supplement, many people find they have questions, especially regarding probiotics versus prebiotics, and if probiotics are appropriate for children.
What Is the Difference Between Probiotic and a Prebiotic?
Prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber that serve as food for the probiotics. Dr. Rahal says, “Once the gut is colonized with healthy flora (probiotics), the prebiotics will keep those species healthy and reproducing.”
Some examples of foods that contain prebiotics include cereals, asparagus, berries, mushrooms, bananas, garlic, inulin (chicory root fiber), artichokes, watermelon, grapefruit, barley, oats, seaweed, legumes, and onions.
Some supplements are referred to as “symbiotic,” meaning that they supply both prebiotics and probiotics. Some experts would argue that taking a probiotic is not helpful unless you also consume prebiotics.
Should My Child Take a Probiotic?
Children can eat foods that contain probiotics, such as yogurt, sour cream, kefir, miso, and some cheeses. If you are thinking about supplementing, Dr. Rahal advises “against adding any supplement to a child’s regimen without thought and planning as to why it is being done, the health objective in mind, and the time course planned. And doing so in coordination with your medical practitioner.”