From associations with our mental health to affecting our weight or risk of cancer and other conditions, the trillions of bacteria, fungi and viruses living on our skin and inside our bodies play a significant role in our overall health.
Most of these bacteria, fungi, and viruses, referred to as microbes, live in our intestines in a “pocket” called the cecum, and are collectively referred to as the gut microbiome.
But, out of the roughly 1,000 species of bacteria living in our bodies, one stands out for its role in helping with Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome, as well with bloating and general discomfort: a strain of bacteria called Akkermansia muciniphila.
This probiotic strain has been the subject of plenty of scientific research, with several studies finding that Akkermansia plays a role in lessening inflammation and helping with weight regulation.
Dr Colleen Cutcliffe, a microbiologist and the cofounder and CEO of Pendulum Therapeutics, tells Reader’s Digest that our gut contributes to a range of our bodily functions and issues.
Akkermansia, which is the first new genus to be used as a probiotic in 50 years, is also the only genus of bacteria that lives in the lining of our gut – giving it an incredibly important role in many facets of our health.
“What’s been discovered is that your gut plays a role in a lot more than just your gut issues – it also plays a role in how you metabolise foods; your gut is even linked to your brain and it can change what foods you crave,” Dr Cutcliffe explains.
“You can think about your gut like this big tube, and the tube has this fence on the outside of it. And I think about my fence in my backyard – when I first moved into my house, it was a brand new wooden fence and all the planks were really strong.
“But through weather and ageing and time, those planks can start to wear down and you might even lose the glue between the planks and a plank falls down, and that’s really bad because now your yard is exposed to the outside world.
“Well, your gut lining is sort of the same thing. And there’s literally a fence and there are these planks that are held up, and Akkermansia is a strain that literally lives right at that fence, and its job is to make sure that, as those planks wear out, that it’s replacing them with new planks.”
With the levels of Akkermansia in our gut and the diversity of different microbes in our gut declining as we age and as a result of stress, menopause or even changes to our circadian rhythm from travelling between time zones, effects can manifest in a variety of ways.
“Some people get allergies as they get older, their metabolism slows down, they experience more inflammatory responses, or their immune system feels like it’s not quite as strong,” Dr Cutcliffe says.
“Now people will start to look at ‘Is there something depleted in my gut microbiome that I could be taking to improve my health?’ That’s what this new science is all about.”
An anaerobic puzzle
While there is plenty of evidence for the benefits of Akkermansia, there have been some key issues in getting it into our bodies to help those who need a bacterial boost.
After more than 15 years, no one had figured out how to grow these tiny bacteria in commercial quantities – and the only effective way of increasing the amount of Akkermansia in people has been through a faecal transfer, where faecal matter from a healthy person is given to another via oral capsules or during a colonoscopy.
The issue stems from the difficulty in growing the bacteria, as it thrives in the lining of our gut, where there is a total absence of oxygen.
“In the gut, there’s no oxygen,” Dr Cutcliffe explains, adding that growing Akkermansia is similar to brewing beer or turning grape juice into wine.
“So what that means is you can’t have a single molecule of oxygen in this big vat, or the whole batch of bacteria dies.”
When they couldn’t find suppliers to manufacture Akkermansia without the bacteria arriving dead, Dr Cutcliffe and her team had to come up with their own process, working with leading technology and research institutions around the US to create a special oxygen-free lab where Akkermansia could be grown without exposure to any oxygen at all.
“We ended up having to create a plant that is an end-to-end closed system that doesn’t let oxygen into it,” she says.
“It’s like when you get a new recipe to cook a meal, and then all of a sudden you realise you also have to now make the pots.”
Fast forward to today, and Pendulum has created its very own patented strain of Akkermansia that you won’t find anywhere else – and you can take it in capsule form.
Unlike faecal transplants, which Dr Cutcliffe describes as “taking the whole kitchen sink and throwing it at you”, the capsules only contain Akkermansia, making them a more targeted, regulated and easily monitored treatment.
The story of Akkermansia starts with an infant’s microbiome
After earning a PhD in biochemistry and microbiology, Dr Cutcliffe was inspired to start Pendulum and work on Akkermansia after her eldest daughter, Anabella, was born prematurely and given antibiotics as a preventative measure to protect her from infections.
“My older daughter was born almost two months premature,” she recalls.
“And when you have a baby that’s born that early, you get to hold them for a couple of seconds and then they’re taken to intensive care. Anabella spent the first few months of her life in intensive care, hooked up to all these machines and also receiving multiple doses of antibiotics.
“And one of the things I noticed about her as she started elementary school was that she had food sensitivities that the rest of us did not have, and her metabolism was a little bit different from everybody else’s.”
At the same time, Dr Cutcliffe and her co-founders were considering starting Pendulum when she came across two papers that showed that children taking lots of antibiotics were more prone to conditions such as obesity, diabetes, ADHD, allergies, and coeliac disease.
“So reading these papers, really, for me, it all came together,” she says.
“I realised, ‘Oh my gosh, my daughter’s early start to life where she took these antibiotics, which completely kill your entire microbiome, have set her on a path where she’s depleted her microbiome and she’s potentially going to end up with all these chronic illnesses.
“This was my issue that made me really want to start the company; to help her get back those strains so that she wasn’t going to be facing this life of depletion and chronic illnesses.”
Now her whole family takes Akkermansia capsules – and even her dog has had a try!
“For me, personally, I think it’s so important that that fence stay strong that I want to make sure my family has it,” she says.
“And I do think that, fundamentally, all of us would benefit from making sure we have enough of this strain which is monitoring that fence, and especially as we age.”
How can it help me?
Even if you don’t experience noticeable issues with your gut, you can still benefit from taking Akkermansia.
Due to the important role our gut microbiome plays in digestive health, the levels of essential chemical messengers in our brains, and even our skin health, Dr Cutcliffe explains that those taking the probiotic have experienced some surprising results.
“People start taking it and they’re able to oftentimes eat foods that they weren’t able to eat before and their metabolism is stronger,” she says.
“They don’t get the post-lunch slump, they have more sustained energy throughout the day, so I think all these things are related to your body metabolising sugars better.”
Another surprising outcome has been related to cravings, with many Pendulum customers reporting reduced cravings for sugar, while a growing number of people have seen benefits for their skin, including treating acne and eczema.
“This is probably related to the inflammatory response,” Dr Cutcliffe explains.
“So even though the acne shows up on your face, it’s really the inflammatory system underneath your skin that’s causing acne in a lot of cases.
“So if you can strengthen your gut so that you don’t have these things going into your bloodstream, causing your inflammatory response to go up, people are actually seeing better skin outcomes.”
Pendulum’s Akkermansia is now available as a daily probiotic in Australasia and can be purchased as single bottles or at a discount as a monthly subscription through Pendulum’s website.