Pycnogenol offers impressive health benefits backed by a growing body of research showing that it can benefit cardiovascular health, skin care, inflammation reduction, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, asthma, allergies, menstrual disorders and menopause.
What it is: Pycnogenol is the patented trade name for a water extract of the bark of the maritime pine tree (Pinus pinaster), grown on France's southern coast and currently used in numerous health products. It contains a unique blend of oligomeric proanthocyanidins and other bioflavonoids including catechin, epicatechin, taxifolin, monomers and phenolic fruit acids. The proanthocyanidins found in Pycnogenol are found in many plants, but pine bark and grape seeds are the typical commercial sources.
Traditional use: Many pine species have been valued as traditional medicine throughout the world. Native American tribes, for instance, used most parts of the pine tree for food, medicine, ceremony and building material. The bark was particularly valued and widely used medicinally. The Iroquois used a bark decoction of the Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) to treat rheumatism, stiff limbs, head colds, skin eruptions and breathing difficulties.
Current use: Pycnogenol has potent antioxidant activity; it's shown to scavenge free radicals—highly reactive molecules involved in many inflammatory and degenerative illnesses. Pycnogenol may help maintain levels of antioxidant vitamins C and E, and it reduces inflammation, possibly by neutralizing free radicals.
Pycnogenol benefits cardiovascular health. It has successfully treated vascular disorders such as varicose veins, chronic venous insufficiency and erectile dysfunction. It also improves the blood-lipid profile by lowering low-density lipoproteins and raising high-density lipoproteins. Pycnogenol may also help people reduce ADHD symptoms.
Pain reduction: Osteoarthritis of the knee is a leading cause of disability among the elderly, although it can occur at any age. A double-blind study of 37 people with knee osteoarthritis found 150 milligrams of Pycnogenol daily for three months improved pain, stiffness and physical function by 52 percent. The need for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen or COX-2 inhibitors such as rofecoxib was also significantly reduced, while no changes were seen with placebo (Nutrition Research, 2007).
Cardiovascular health: Pycnogenol benefits cardiovascular health by strengthening capillary walls and increasing capillary permeability and nitric oxide levels. NO is a valuable part of cardiovascular health because it helps regulate blood flow and oxygen delivery. NO causes surrounding muscles to relax, leading to artery dilation (vasodilation), consequent normalization of blood pressure and inhibition of blood-platelet clumping. Recently, Pycnogenol was found to increase vasodilation and blood flow through an increase in NO production. A double-blind study of 16 healthy men who took 180 milligrams of Pycnogenol found that after two weeks of supplementation, their forearm blood flow increased by 42 percent, demonstrating Pycnogenol increases endothelium-dependent vasodilation. The endothelium is a thin layer of cells that line blood vessels, and allows for smoother blood flow. No significant changes were seen with placebo. Researchers commented, "Pycnogenol would be useful for treating various diseases whose pathogeneses involve endothelial dysfunction" (Hypertension Research, 2007).
ADHD symptom relief: The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that approximately 2 million U.S. children have ADHD, making it difficult for them to concentrate and control their behavior. A 2006 study showed Pycnogenol reduced hyperactivity and improved attention, visual and motor coordination and concentration of children with ADHD (European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry). Building on this research, a study to be published in an upcoming issue of Nutritional Neuroscience sampled 41 ADHD children with an average age of 9.5 years who took Pycnogenol (1 milligram per kilogram of body weight) daily for one month, while 16 took placebo. The stress hormone adrenaline and neurostimulant dopamine were measured in urine; high concentrations of these have been associated with ADHD symptoms. Pycnogenol lowered adrenaline by 26.2 percent and dopamine by 10.8 percent, leading to less hyperactivity and consequently reduced oxidative stress. After a one-month discontinuation of Pycnogenol, stress hormones increased and ADHD symptoms recurred, suggesting Pycnogenol's effect on stress hormones accounts for the improvement of ADHD symptoms.
How to use it
While recommended guidelines have not been established, adult dosages typically range from 25 to 200 milligrams daily.
Pycnogenol is generally well-tolerated and safe. Insufficient evidence exists to support its safe use during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Pycnogenol should be taken during or after meals due to its astringency.
Jill Hoppe is a Nederland, Colo.-based certified clinical herbalist and nutritionist, a natural health care researcher, writer, educator and consultant.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 110