In this piece we take a look at bifidobacteria, or bifidos. This is one of the most profuse species of non-pathogenic bacteria in the human digestive tract. It's also one of the most popular probiotics, which is why we're looking at it.
Scientists first identified bifidos in the feces of breast-fed infants. These are the “friendly” bacteria and essential for good health. They are also some of the first microorganisms to make a home in the gastrointestinal tract of newborn babies. In fact, bifidobacteria dominate the intestines of breast-fed infants.
To date, scientists have identified around 32 different species of these bacteria. Most of these species are quite similar in their genetic makeup. Aside from the human gastrointestinal tract, bifidos also live in the female vagina and urogenital tract. The highest concentration of this bacterium is in the large intestine (colon) .
There are different species and strains of bifidobacteria, all of which have different effects. Some of the species and strains you will come across on labels will include:
- lactis DN-173 010
- lactis DR10
- lactis HN019
- Bifidus DR10
- Bifidus Regularis
- HOWARU Bifido
The Primary Purpose of Bifidobacteria
The main use for bifidobacteria is to treat conditions which affect the intestines. This includes the prevention of diarrhea in infants and children, and also traveler’s diarrhea in adults. Sometimes a severe bout of diarrhea can deplete the “good bacteria” in the gut. Radiation therapy, chemotherapy and antibiotics among other causes can also have an impact. So people take bifidobacteria to restore the good bacteria in their gut that poor health has destroyed.
Bifidobacteria also treats a condition called ulcerative colitis (UC), which is a form of bowel disease. Another disorder it helps with is something called pouchitis. This is an inflammation of the ileal pouch that can develop after surgery for ulcerative colitis. Some people use bifidobacteria in newborns as an effective way to prevent a bowel infection known as necrotizing enterocolitis.
Let's look at the full list of health benefits for bifidobacteria. We can divide these into two groups based on the research data thus far:
- Possibly effective for
- Insufficient evidence for
Science has to always be cautious in what it reports. Even when scientists firmly believe in something, they cannot back it unless clinical studies have deemed the results conclusive. People who use probiotics and experience the real benefits of them don't care too much of the science.
OK, here is the full list of alleged health benefits for bifidobacteria at the time of writing.
Possibly Effective For:
- Diarrhea in infants (rotaviral diarrhea).
- Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection.
- Infection in the lining of the intestine caused by bacteria (necrotizing enterocolitis; NEC)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Lung infections.
- Prevent pouchitis after surgery for ulcerative colitis.
- Traveler's diarrhea.
- Ulcerative colitis
Insufficient Evidence For:
- Breast pain, possibly due to infection (mastitis)
- Common cold and flu (influenza).
- Diarrhea caused by antibiotics.
- High cholesterol
- Infant development
- Infections related to chemotherapy treatment
- Japanese cedar pollen allergy
- Lactose intolerance
- Liver problems
- Lyme disease
- Preventing infections after exposure to radiation
- Replacing beneficial bacteria removed by diarrhea
- Scaly, itchy skin (eczema)
- Stomach problems
- Weight loss and weight management
- Other conditions
Weight Loss and Weight Management
Because we're in the grip of a global obesity epidemic, that last point needs addressing. People the world over are desperate to lose excess body fat and maintain a healthier weight. There is some talk that bifidobacteria and other probiotics may help people lose weight. This is one area that needs a lot more study before any conclusions can be drawn. So far there have been some tests on lab rats, but we're not rats. Studies so far have not found any evidence that probiotics, or any particular strain, can by itself assist with weight loss  .
Scientists have studied bifidobacteria for their effectiveness. They have looked at its role in the prevention and treatment of a far-reaching spectrum of animal and/or human intestinal issues. This includes colonic adenomas and even cancer .
Although there's a lot still to learn and discover, what we do know is that science is taking probiotics very seriously indeed.
This last category “insufficient evidence for,” doesn't suggest bifidobacteria are not effective in those areas. Nor does it suggest that these potential health claims are mere hearsay. All it means is that more tests are needed before these claims can carry any weight in the scientific community.
Remember, this is an exciting new area of natural health treatment. Tests are ongoing; such is the growing interest in all things probiotic. Just because the science is not yet conclusive in many areas that doesn't mean the benefits of probiotics are not real. It just means the science hasn't had the time or the funding to keep up. Once it does, new clinical trials are sure to discover new uses and confirm older claims.
Concerns – Side Effects and Safety
Taken orally, bifidobacteria are safe for adults and children. A minority of people may experience some mild side effects like bloating and gas. There are two groups of people who should only take bifidobacteria after they have discussed it with their doctor or health care worker.
- Pregnant and breast-feeding women
- People with weakened immune systems
The reason why there's a caution for pregnant and breast-feeding women is because there is not enough reliable information out there to say one way or the other. It might be perfectly safe, but until there are tests to back this up, it's perhaps best to avoid using these probiotics.
The second group needs to be particularly cautious. The concern is that probiotics flourish too well in people with weak immune systems. This might sound healthy but it’s not, it can in fact lead to infections. There is no hard evidence to suggest this will happen with bifidobacteria, but there have been rare cases involving other probiotic species such as lactobacillus. If you have a weak immune system, but want to try bifidobacteria, talk with your doctor or healthcare worker first.
You need to be cautious about using lactobacillus with the following combination of drugs:
- Antibiotic drugs
Antibiotics can deplete friendly microorganisms in the body as well as the harmful bacteria. Bifidobacteria is a type of good or friendly bacteria, so it too is vulnerable to antibiotics. This means the probiotic supplements can lose their effect if you take them around the same time as the antibiotics. The simple way to reduce this risk is to take bifidobacteria at least two hours before or after you have taken your antibiotics .
The dosage will depend on your age, and the reason you're taking the probiotics. Always follow the recommendations as outlined by the product labelling or your health care worker.
We can't see it and we can't feel it, but it's there and it's active. The large human intestine is a densely populated microbial ecosystem that never shuts down. Hundreds of species of bacteria are present, all doing their bit to help maintain a healthy you from the inside out.
The total weight of microbiota living inside you can weigh in at several hundred grams. Your gut bacteria consist of both good (friendly) and bad (hostile) bacteria. When everything is in balance, we get to feel and function normally. Whenever that balance is upset, all kinds of negative health implications can materialize. Bifidobacteria in particular can prevent, or at least reduce the severity of infectious diarrhea. They can do this because of their effect on the immune system and resistance to colonization by pathogens 
Due to lifestyle changes and poor diet, more people than ever before are experiencing weaker immune systems. Even sadder is that this includes children. The reduction in the number of bifidobacteria inside the body is often part of the problem. Thanks to probiotic supplements we are able to redress any imbalances. Even better is that by taking good care of our gut flora, we also get to improve our health is so many other ways too.