Are you interested in improving your gut health? If so, you've probably heard of the mighty bifidobacteria. These tiny microorganisms play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy gut and overall well-being. We'll explore everything you need to know about how to increase bifidobacteria levels and reap the benefits they offer.
What are bifidobacteria?
Bifidobacteria comprise many species and strains of the Bifidobacterium genus of bacteria, and they reside naturally in the human gut (as well as in the vagina and mouth, in lower concentrations). Bifidobacteria are anaerobic, meaning they thrive in environments without oxygen. They have a unique shape, resembling a curved rod or a Y-shaped structure. These bacteria are non-motile, meaning they do not have the ability to move on their own.
Researchers have discovered nearly 50 species of these typically beneficial bacteria, each of which is thought to have different functions and health benefits. Some foods, particularly fermented dairy foods (such as yogurt and kefir), contain high concentrations of bifidobacteria and are considered healthy probiotics, with positive impacts on disease reduction and digestive health. Certain dietary supplements may also contain probiotic strains of Bifidobacterium.
The role of bifidobacteria in the gut
The human gut is home to trillions of microorganisms, collectively known as the gut microbiome. Among the various inhabitants, bifidobacteria are one of the key players, working their magic to maintain a healthy balance in your digestive system, with downstream benefits throughout your body:
These friendly bugs help break down dietary fiber, which is crucial for proper digestion. By fermenting fiber, bifidobacteria produce vitally important and health-promoting short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), such as acetate, propionate, and butyrate. These SCFAs provide an energy source for the cells lining the colon and play a vital role in maintaining gut health. With this gut health comes improved digestion generally and, more specifically, relief from certain unpleasant symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis (UC), and other disease symptoms.
In addition to their digestive duties, bifidobacteria also play an important role in supporting a strong immune system. By regulating the immune response and reducing inflammation, these beneficial bacteria contribute to overall health (i.e., not just digestive health, but health beyond the gut). In other words, bifidobacteria have the ability to reduce systemic pro-inflammatory biomarkers in both gastrointestinal and non-gastrointestinal conditions. Diseases including chronic fatigue syndrome and psoriasis appear to be better managed when bifidobacteria levels are higher. Learn more: Does gut health impact immunity?
It also appears that higher bifidobacteria levels are associated with heart health, although research into the mechanism of action for and use of probiotics in managing cholesterol levels is at an earlier stage. Collectively, findings from clinical trials, reviews, and meta-analyses suggest that probiotic intake results in an improvement in total cholesterol and LDL levels in unhealthy subjects. Learn more: Do probiotics lower cholesterol?
Higher bifidobacteria levels may also play an important role in reducing the risk for chronic, low-grade inflammation associated with the development of metabolic disorders such as insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity. (Although these are three different conditions, they are tightly linked and often discussed together. Obesity is typically the trigger for insulin resistance, which ultimately leads to type 2 diabetes.) Although more research is needed, scientists suspect the gut microbiome plays a role via the ability of certain microbes to interact with/promote the production of both pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines; however, the exact mechanisms behind microbial-associated inflammation remain to be elucidated, as most studies are in animal models. Learn more: Can probiotics help prevent glucose swings? and How to lower inflammation.
- Bifidobacteria also have been found to have a positive impact on mental health. Recent studies have shown a correlation between a healthy gut microbiome, including an abundance of bifidobacteria, and improved mood and cognitive function. Learn more: Can a healthier gut improve your energy levels?
When bifidobacteria numbers decline: Causes and effects
In today's modern world, several lifestyle and environmental factors can contribute to a decrease in bifidobacteria levels. Poor dietary choices, sedentary lifestyles, excessive stress, and the use of certain medications, such as antibiotics, can all disrupt the balance of these microbial superheroes.
Poor dietary choices, characterized by a high intake of processed foods, refined sugars, and saturated fats, create an unfavorable environment for bifidobacteria to thrive. These beneficial bacteria rely on fiber-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, to flourish. Unfortunately, the prevalence of fast food and convenience meals in today's society, and the meager fiber levels of the typical Western diet, often leads to a lack of essential nutrients that support the growth of bifidobacteria.
Certain medications, particularly antibiotics, can have a profound impact on bifidobacteria populations. While antibiotics are essential for fighting bacterial infections, they also indiscriminately eliminate beneficial bacteria, including bifidobacteria, along with the harmful ones. This disruption in the gut microbiota can take a toll on our overall health and well-being.
Factors like age and geographical location can also influence the diversity and abundance of bifidobacteria populations in our guts. As we age, the composition of our gut microbiota naturally changes, with a decline in bifidobacteria being observed in older individuals. Geographical location also plays a role, as different regions have unique dietary patterns, lifestyles, and environmental factors that can impact the prevalence of bifidobacteria.
Excessive stress is another significant contributor to the decline of bifidobacteria. Stress triggers the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which can disrupt the delicate balance of our gut microbiota. Bifidobacteria levels may decrease as a result, leading to a compromised gut environment.
- Sedentary lifestyles have become increasingly common, with many individuals spending long hours sitting at desks or engaging in minimal physical activity. This lack of movement not only affects our overall health, but preliminary research suggests that this may also impact the diversity and abundance of bifidobacteria in our guts. While the studies aren’t large or entirely conclusive, some have indicated that regular exercise may positively influence the composition of our gut microbiota, including the levels of bifidobacteria.
Health implications of low bifidobacteria
When bifidobacteria levels are compromised, it can have a significant impact on your health:
Digestive issues, such as constipation, diarrhea, and bloating, may become more common. Bifidobacteria play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy gut environment by promoting regular bowel movements and preventing the overgrowth of harmful bacteria.
A weakened immune system and increased susceptibility to infections can occur when bifidobacteria populations are low. These beneficial bacteria help modulate your immune response and protect against pathogens, ensuring a robust defense against infections.
- Recent research has also linked low bifidobacteria levels to a higher risk of developing chronic conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The gut microbiota, including bifidobacteria, have been shown to influence metabolism, inflammation, and gut barrier function, all of which play a role in the development and progression of these conditions.
How to increase bifidobacteria
A multitude of scientific studies, such as this 2018 review, have determined that “diet is not only essential to maintain human growth, reproduction, and health, but it also modulates and supports the symbiotic microbial communities that colonize the digestive tract — the gut microbiota. Type, quality, and origin of our food shape our gut microbes and affect their composition and function, impacting host-microbe interactions.”
Prebiotic foods to support bifidobacteria growth
The most medically and scientifically established way to improve your concentrations of beneficial bifidobacteria is by upping your intake of high-fiber foods, particularly ones containing prebiotic fibers.
Prebiotics are dietary fibers that nourish the beneficial bacteria in your gut, including bifidobacteria. One particularly notable benefit of prebiotic fibers is their ability to increase the relative proportion of “good bacteria” (such as bifidobacteria) over “bad,” In turn, those good bacteria produce metabolites, including short chain fatty acids (SCFAs,) which play a vital role in the maintenance of gut, metabolic, cardiovascular, immune, and cognitive health.
As an aside, the health benefits of prebiotics go far beyond this report topic’s concern with their ability to promote an increase in bifidobacteria, which the fibers accomplish by improving the ratio of healthy to unhealthy gut bacteria. Prebiotics are also health-boosting because they:
- Support gastrointestinal (GI) health through maintenance of intestinal wall integrity, which protects particles from getting through the gut lining (“leaky gut”) and causing an inflammatory response.
- Promote cardiovascular health through a downregulating effect on cholesterol and triglycerides.
- Bolster brain health through an upregulating effect on general cognition, learning, and mood.
- Boost a healthy immune system by impacting antibody response, immune cell function, and resolving inflammatory response.
- Strengthen bone health by increasing calcium absorption.
- Encourage better insulin response and blood glucose control.
Prebiotic fibers are found in most fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and also in nuts and seeds. Examples are kale, collards, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, artichokes, asparagus, bananas, pears, apples, oranges, grapefruits, berries, beans, lentils, whole wheat bread, brown rice, chickpeas, almonds, chia seeds and literally hundreds of other plant-based, whole food sources.
Prebiotics are also available for consumption via dietary supplements: see the Dietary supplements section, below.
Polyphenols for better gut balance
There is increasing evidence that nutrients other than fermentable fiber affect the gut microbial composition. Micronutrients and other dietary components consumed in small quantities — such as vitamins, minerals, specific fatty acids and phytochemicals (or phytonutrients) — may also elicit changes in the microbiome.
Polyphenols, a subset of phytonutrients (natural chemicals found in plants, that help protect plants from germs, fungi, bugs, and other threats), are receiving considerable attention in the scientific community for reasons that include their ability to modulate gut microecology while also reducing oxidative stress and supporting the liver to promote efficient biotransformation and detoxification.
The general mechanism of action for polyphenols is believed to involve the promotion of a healthy inflammatory response, neutralization of damaging free radicals, and a resultant positive impact upon the gut microbiome. In effect, the relationship of polyphenols to the gut microbiome appears to be bi-directional: polyphenols can impact composition of the gut microbiota and help balance good bacteria (e.g., bifidobacteria) and bad bacterial growth, while gut microbes help metabolize polyphenols into compounds that are more easily absorbed. (The bioavailability and effects of polyphenols greatly depend on their transformation by components of the gut microbiota — lending further support to the theory that a “synbiotic” blend of polyphenols, prebiotics, and probiotics holds the most promise as a way to optimize their efficacy in a supplement, as we’ll discuss further in the Dietary supplements section, below.)
While clinical research has focused most on the cardiovascular, neurological, and metabolic benefits of certain polyphenols, the role that some of them play in digestive health is an ongoing area of research.
Polyphenols of dozens of varying types are contained in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and in fact most all plant-derived food substances. While no single food source contains the full menu of healthy polyphenols, eating a plentiful array of different plant-based foods will generally ensure that you get enough of the best polyphenols.
One such food source that does appear to have a notably positive effect on the bifidobacteria balance is kiwifruit. Although most studies to date are in vitro (not in humans), results suggest kiwifruit acts as a prebiotic, feeding intestinal bacteria such as bifidobacteria. Kiwifruit are also ranked among the most nutrient-rich fruits because they are filled with vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals… as well as all the fiber. Kiwifruit extracts are also available in supplement form. (See Dietary supplements section, below.)
- Other foods containing polyphenols associated with an increase in bifidobacteria include cocoa and green tea.
Vitamins for microbial diversity
As described in a 2021 review paper, certain vitamins have been shown to beneficially modulate the gut microbiome by increasing the abundance of presumed commensals (vitamins A, B2, D, E, and beta-carotene), increasing or maintaining microbial diversity (vitamins A, B2, B3, C, K) and richness (vitamin D), increasing short chain fatty acid production (vitamin C), or increasing the abundance of short chain fatty acid producers (vitamins B2, E). Others, such as vitamins A and D, modulate the gut immune response or barrier function, and thus indirectly influencing gastrointestinal health or the microbiome. Future research is needed to explore these potential effects and to elucidate the underlying mechanisms and host health benefits.
Probiotic foods for increasing bifidobacteria
Another way to increase bifidobacteria levels is by incorporating probiotic-rich foods into your diet. These foods contain live beneficial bacteria, including bifidobacteria strains, that can colonize your gut and enhance gut health. Examples include yogurt and kefir (these two manifest the strongest efficacy studied to date), as well as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and pickles. In a 10-week study undertaken to determine the influence of dietary intervention on the microbiome and immune system, a fermented food diet (rich in probiotics) was found to increase microbiome diversity and decrease markers of inflammation. Probiotics are also effective for restoring microbiomes damaged by medications such as antibiotics, which in turn is associated with reduced inflammation and improved overall gut health.
While their most medically accepted indication is for relief of gastrointestinal distress (e.g., symptoms such as diarrhea), probiotics have demonstrated (in both animal models and human trials) several benefits to the heart, including reduced blood pressure; and also stimulation of the immune system, reduced visceral fat, and improved glucose metabolism.
Dietary supplements to increase bifidobacteria
It’s not always easy, convenient, or even economical to adopt and adhere to a diet that includes all the best prebiotics, polyphenols, vitamins, and probiotics. Therefore, a dietary supplement focused on overall gut health, including improved gut microbiota balance (and, as a consequence, increased bifidobacteria levels), may make good sense for you; ask your healthcare professional.
While there are supplements containing just a particular strain of bifidobacteria, the clinical efficacy of such supplements is still debatable. While the digestive benefits (aiding sufferers of IBS and UC) and immune-boosting properties are generally well-accepted, research is still evolving on the metabolic, cardiovascular, and neurological impacts. In addition, the quality of these products can vary considerably. Furthermore, due to lack of research and regulation, there isn’t an agreed-upon amount you should take. You should consult with the manufacturer of your specific supplement or talk with your doctor before taking it. See our helpful 3-Step guide to buying supplements.
3-in-1 Synbiotic Superblend
Eden’s 3:1 Synbiotic Superblend includes scientifically-backed prebiotics (resistant potato starch, locust bean and guar gums, oat bran, and barley beta glucan), probiotics (B. coagulans, yeast, LGG, and LPC-37), and polyphenols (from gold and green kiwifruit, lychee, green tea, and turmeric) that complement one another and combine to support your gut functioning and comfort while also improving your heart, immune, metabolic and even cognitive health. Learn more: What is a synbiotic?
- One of the prebiotics selected by Eden’s — resistant potato starch (RPS) — is not only a non-viscous, soluble fiber source that provides a wide range of health benefits, but it has also shown notable efficacy in increasing bifidobacteria levels. The Solnul™ brand of RPS selected by Eden’s has a unique size and shape that makes it exceptionally resistant to digestive enzymes so it reaches the colon intact. Once there, it feeds beneficial microbes, helping to balance the microbiome ecosystem. In a 75-person clinical study (unpublished), Solnul™ demonstrated a 350% increase in bifidobacteria levels.
The green and gold kiwifruit extracts contained in Eden’s are polyphenols that also act like prebiotics, in that they are associated with the growth and diversification of gut microbiota, which leads to a more balanced and healthy gut microbiome.
- While Eden’s contains four probiotics, bifidobacteria is not one of them. Why? In testing, Eden’s found that several other bacteria strains have advantageous properties for inclusion in a supplement. For example, Eden’s Saccharomyces boulardii (or S. boulardii) yeast is a species that is resistant to gastrointestinal enzymes, bile salts and variations in pH and temperature, which ensures that this yeast probiotic can reach the colon almost intact. It is also able to function during antibiotic use, as yeast is naturally resistant to antibiotics. Much like bifidobacteria, S. boulardii demonstrates an ability to modulate your gut’s metabolism, increasing the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) while strengthening the gut’s lining. Similarly, the B coagulans probiotic in Eden’s also consistently supports enhanced metabolic activity through modulation of the gut microbiome, and has the added benefit of a unique protective spore microencapsulation system — rendering it more resistant to gastric acid and antibiotics than other strains and allowing extensive proliferation in intestinal mucosa. Because of its spore barrier, B coagulans do not need to be refrigerated and are not susceptible to “die-off” as many probiotic species are. Another Eden’s probiotic, Lactobacillus paracasei (LPC-37®), has been correlated positively with total Bifidobacterium counts in fecal samples in children in developing countries who experienced diarrhea. Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG), the fourth probiotic in Eden’s, is one of the most common naturally-occurring beneficial gut bacteria and is also resistant to bile and acid, which allows it to proliferate in the gut microbiome.
Lifestyle changes to increase bifidobacteria
Managing stress levels may help in the maintenance of a balanced gut microbiome, including healthy bifidobacteria populations. Chronic stress can disrupt the delicate ecosystem in your gut and negatively affect overall digestive health. Therefore, consider engaging in stress-reducing activities such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, or spending time in nature to help promote a healthy gut environment and support the growth of bifidobacteria.
Some scientists theorize that exercise habits can also influence the population of bifidobacteria in your gut, but further research will be required to confirm this theory, as most studies today are only on animal models. Whether or not exercise directly causes bifidobacteria levels to rise or not, what’s clear is that exercise is important for gut health, and overall health, for reasons that include the positive impact upon lipid profiles (increased high-density lipoprotein, the “good cholesterol”); improved glucose regulation; and improved mental health. Furthermore, just standing up and moving can aid with “keeping things regular” (digestively), which can reduce risks of intestinal permeability and its related gut discomfort.
Of the trillions of bacteria residing in your GI tract, bifidobacteria are one of the most important types for gut and overall health. They carry out a number of important functions, including breaking down fibers to produce beneficial metabolites (such as SCFAs), supporting a strong immune system, and helping to mitigate the symptoms of certain disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Dietary interventions are the primary way you can increase bifidobacteria levels and optimize your gut health. Upping your consumption of foods rich in prebiotic fibers is probably the best strategy, followed by a healthy intake of polyphenol-rich foods and fermented (probiotic) foods. To ensure that your diet is consistently healthy, consider taking a metabolic supplement that has been scientifically vetted, with a demonstrated ability to increase bifidobacteria levels specifically and overall gut health generally. But first consult with your healthcare provider to see if a supplement, and which kind, is best for you.