Genetics and Probiotics

Genetics and probiotics may seem totally unrelated at first glance, but read on to discover the connection. As a nutritionist, I often hear clients and other people I meet tell me, “Diabetes runs in my family, so I am destined to get it.” Or, “My whole family is overweight, so it is no surprise that I am.” Or, “Colon cancer is common in my family so I’ll probably get it.” People tend to blame their genetic inheritance for what happens with their health. While there is some truth to those statements, the belief that some disease-specific genes control your destiny is NOT true in most circumstances. 

People are not the victims of their genes that they may have been led to believe.

What I wish I had at my disposal every time someone blames their genetic inheritance (genome) for their health problems is a cheat sheet with statistics. Here are a few:

According to the American Diabetes Association, if a parent has Type 2 diabetes, the child's risk is 1 in 7 if the parent was diagnosed before age 50 and 1 in 13 if the parent was diagnosed after age 50, with no specific genes identified. As the ADA says, "The genetics of type 2 diabetes is complex. While type 2 diabetes may have a strong genetic basis in some patients (something less than a third of them), the development of diabetes in most patients is dependent upon the effects of environmental and behavioral factors (obesity and sedentary lifestyle) on an underlying susceptibility that is poorly understood." (emphasis mine)

If the parent has the rare form called "maturity-onset diabetes of the young" (MODY), which is identified with 6 genes that produce MODY in about one-third of families, the child has almost a 1-in-2 chance of getting it, too. "The diabetes in the rest of the families so far is unexplained," according to Dr. James H. Warram, Senior Investigator in the Epidemiology and Genetics Section at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, MA.

Approximately 5% of colon cancer sufferers have a hereditary form, although specific inherited kinds may have higher chances of developing colon cancer. According to the National Human Genome Research Institute,"The majority of colon cancer cases are sporadic, which means a genetic mutation may happen in that individual person."

Do you see that these examples show that genetics has less importance than most people believe?

Although, honestly, who would listen to someone spout off statistics anyway? Education and conversations lead to understanding, so this article is an attempt at both of those and I welcome your thoughts.

Truths About Genetics

So what is the truth about genetics? Genetics is a very complicated science, but let's start with some basics. The human genome is the complete assembly of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) which carries most of the genetic information that makes each individual unique. DNA holds the instructions for building the proteins that carry out a variety of functions in a cell. The human genome contains two copies of every gene, one copy inherited from the mother and one from the father.

The Human Genome Project (HGP) was an international research effort to sequence and map all of the genes - together known as the genome - of human beings. Scientists found that the DNA sequence of any two people is 99.5 percent identical and believed that the variations would greatly affect an individual's disease risk. When it was completed in April 2003, humans thought they knew everything they needed to know to decode which genes contributed to which conditions. They thought that knowing the DNA sequences in those genes would highlight who would get a disease and who would not, opening the door for genetic manipulation.

The HapMap Project took the information from the HGP one step further to look at the variations in DNA sequences and how they relate to environmental factors, to susceptibility to infection, and to the effectiveness of and adverse responses to drugs and vaccines. Information from both efforts have increased our understanding of human genetics and SNP's (single-nucleotide polymorphisms, sites in the DNA sequence where individuals differ at a single DNA base).

Knowing if you carry certain genes and which SNP's you have can certainly help you tailor your diet, lifestyle and supplement routines, but the truth about genetics is that just because you inherited some genetic material which is associated with certain conditions does NOT mean, with few exceptions, that you are destined to develop those conditions, as the examples listed above showed.

If Genes Don't Control Destiny, What Does?

There are certainly conditions in which the genes a person inherits determines his/her fate. For instance, children who inherit 2 copies of the Tay-Sach's Disease-causing gene mutation or of the Cystic Fibrosis (CF)-causing gene mutations will develop the disease. However, there are other mutations in CF possible, some of which may or may not cause the disease. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, more than 1,800 different mutations have been identified in the CF gene, and more continue to be found. Genetic mutations do not always equate to disease.

In other diseases such as hemochromatosis, a child who inherits two copies of a mutated gene is highly likely to develop the disease. However, not all people who have two mutated copies develop signs and symptoms of hereditary hemochromatosis. Something must be triggering the genes in these cases.

In yet other diseases, such as familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), one copy of a mutated gene is sufficient to cause high cholesterol levels. More than one gene has been identified as possibly contributing to FH, so there is still much to learn. Note that diet, weight loss and exercise are the recommended therapies for FH, just as they are for 'ordinary' cholesterol/triglyceride problems.

Even with the recent discovery that a single genetic mutation may cause some forms of progressive multiple sclerosis, questions as to why everyone with the mutation does not develop the disease remain. As Dr. Carles Vilarino-Guell, an assistant professor of medical genetics and a member of the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health is quoted, "This mutation puts these people at the edge of a cliff, but something still has to give them the push to set the disease process in motion."

What intrigues me and are the takeaways of this article are:

  • There is still much to learn about genetics, and
  • That there are 'somethings', those other factors which play into disease generation besides genetics. Here is where epigenetics and the genetics and probiotics connection play roles.


Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. These changes result from chemical reactions that turn on or turn off genes at certain times and under certain circumstances. The epigenome, then, is a multitude of chemical compounds and proteins that can tell the genome what to do.

A fascinating article in the journal Nature summarizes epigenetics as this: "The behavior of a person's genes doesn't just depend on the genes' DNA sequence - it's also affected by so-called epigenetic factors. Changes in these factors can play a critical role in disease...The external environment's effects upon genes can influence disease, and some of these effects can be inherited in humans."

What this means is that outside influences can determine whether a gene is turned on or off and changes to the genetic code can be made by environmental factors which can then be passed on to offspring.

So the truth about genetics is that although scientists once thought that human diseases were caused mainly by changes in DNA sequence, infectious agents such as bacteria and viruses, or environmental agents, it is now known that changes in the epigenome also can cause, or result from, disease. In other words, the environment containing the cells which contain the genes can determine how the genes express themselves and whether that expression results in health or disease. Which brings us to the topic of genetics and probiotics.

What Is the Genetics and Probiotics Connection?

Disease states are associated with some sort of chronic inflammation. Inflammation can lead to disease and disease can lead to inflammation. If you have read any of my works, you probably learned that microbes can cause different types of inflammatory or anti-inflammatory reactions. You also learned that in general, pathogenic or opportunistic organisms elicit an inflammatory response at some level, and that in general, probiotics either invoke a localized, generally beneficial inflammatory reaction and/or an overall anti-inflammatory reaction to calm down the body’s aggressive response.

What you may not have pieced together is that microbes can in and of themselves produce substances which then cause our body’s reactions, or they can interact with our genes to cause certain chemicals to be expressed. Remember that the “genome” is all the genetic material of an organism. It is the approximately 35,000 genes, or special segments of DNA, that control every aspect of your body. These genes interact with your internal and external environments (including your microbiomes!) and create the person you are today. Your genes communicate with probiotics, and probiotics communicate with your genes. And the probiotics sense and communicate with each other and with other organisms on and inside you. Therefore, probiotics can affect your epigenome and how your genome works so there is definitely a genetics and probiotics connection.

The epigenome is more complicated than the genome alone and the roles probiotics play depends on the microbe involved and the situation it finds itself in. The gut epigenome, then, has a very influential effect on how some genes are expressed.

To get the most favorable gene expressions for health, you have to have the most favorable environments. As I explain in my book, probiotics affect many body systems. You need a favorable intestinal environment to help you have the most favorable gene expressions there and systemically.

Probiotics are crucial to a healthy intestinal environment and a healthy body. That is why you must embrace the facts that you are not always a victim to your genetic inheritance and that you DO have control over how some of them are expressed. There IS a genetics and probiotics connection. Take control starting now by using beneficial microbes like probiotics to enhance your intestinal environment and have a favorable epigenome for the best gene expressions!

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