Our bodies are lined with billions of bacteria, from our mouths to our bottoms. While we often associate bacteria with causing disease, there are also beneficial types of bacteria, called microflora that play an important role in various aspects of health, from regulating digestion, improving nutrient absorption to supporting immune function and fighting off pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria.

Our microflora can be improved or diminished by a number of factors. A poor diet (processed/fast food), stress, travel to foreign countries and use of pharmaceutical drugs such as antibiotics, hormones and steroids can deplete our microflora and cause an imbalance in the good versus the bad bacteria.

Prebiotics and probiotics, which are present in a wide range of foods and supplements, can improve our gut microflora. They work in slightly different ways yet they share similar properties in that they both offer a wide range of health benefits.

Let’s take a closer look at what these substances are and how they can impact our health.

Prebiotics are non-digestible fiber components of food that nourish and stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in the gut such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. They are naturally present in many foods, such as guar (a type of legume), chicory (a source of inulin), oats, wheat, artichokes, asparagus, dandelions, onions, garlic and bananas. They are also available in various supplements, particularly fiber products.

Probiotics, as defined by the World Health Organization are “live micro-organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” There are numerous strains (types) of probiotics, and they differ in their properties and health benefits.

Probiotics can be found in various foods such as yogurt and kefir, fermented bean paste (tempeh), sauerkraut, kimchi and pickled vegetables. There are also many probiotic supplements available, which differ in the strains they contain, potency, source of microorganism and format (capsules, powder, chewables).

One key difference between pre- and probiotics is that prebiotics nourish all the good bacteria or microflora in the colon, while probiotics typically provide one or just a few strains of bacteria. These bacteria but may or may not match your particular microflora.

Should you take a prebiotic, probiotic or both?

That depends on your individual health needs.

Prebiotics can benefit a number of gastrointestinal disorders such as constipation, diarrhea, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (which causes gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea), and Functional Abdominal Pain. They can also be helpful in managing high cholesterol and triglycerides, diabetes (by improving glycemic response) and supporting weight management.

Probiotics have been shown to help: infant colic, diarrhea (caused by antibiotics or rotavirus), allergies, eczema, vaginal infections, intestinal infections such as C. difficile, inflammatory bowel disease, high cholesterol, and prevention of colds and flu. Be sure to look for a probiotic that has been specifically studied for the condition you are treating.

Here are some suggestions for improving gut health with pre- and probiotics:

• Eat a range of plant-based foods such as oats, beans and legumes, garlic, onions, dandelions and artichokes.

• Enjoy fermented dairy such as yogurt and kefir, tempeh as well as pickled vegetables.

• Boost your fiber intake and improve your gut microflora with a prebiotic supplement such as Sunfiber. This specific prebiotic fiber offers advantages over other fiber products in that it is better tolerated (less bloating and gas), it acts as a regulating fiber (benefits both constipation and occasional diarrhea) and it has been clinically researched.

• If you have to take an antibiotic, replenish your beneficial bacteria with a broad-spectrum probiotic supplement that contains Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.

• For prevention and management of serious health conditions such as IBS, IBD, and intestinal infections consult with your health care provide for advice and recommendations on which probiotic is best suited for you.