In 1535, a French explorer by the name of Jacques Cartier found himself ice-bound on the St. Lawrence River. Along with the rest of the crew, he developed symptoms of vitamin-C deficiency.
Luckily, the Native Americans told them about a tea prepared from the bark of a certain tree, which miraculously led to complete recovery. So begins my look at the natural supplement, pycnogenol (French Maritime Pine Bark Extract) benefits.
Almost 400 years later, Dr. Jacques Masquelier from France came across Cartier’s account and started to look for the active ingredients from the bark of the tree. He later extracted proanthocyanidins from the European coastal pine tree, which he named “Pycnogenol.”
This key chemical, proanthocyanidin, is also found in high concentrations in apples, cranberries, coca, grapes, and red wine.
Here are the many health benefits believed to be possible with Pycnogenol:
- Reduces “leaky” blood vessels by making the wall proteins (collagen, elastin) more resistant to damage
- Helps maintain high vitamin C and E blood levels for their antioxidant effects
- Inhibits platelet aggregation like low-dose aspirin
- Reduces hardening in the arteries by increasing nitric oxide production in blood vessels, leading to greater dilatation
- Reduces muscle contractions
- Counteracts the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation
- Stimulates the immune system by boosting T and B cell functions
- Protects brain cells from toxic chemicals
- Exerts anti-inflammatory actions
Chronic Venous Insufficiency
Now let’s dive into the first condition it could help treat. It is “chronic venous insufficiency,” a common disease among people who are obese or elderly and those who lead a sedentary lifestyle. This condition is due to the pooling of blood in the veins of the lower legs. Symptoms include swelling in ankles and legs, discolored skin and, if the skin is broken, the development of leg ulcers.
- In one study, 10 patients were treated with placebo and 30 patients were treated with Pycnogenol (100 mg twice or three times daily for two months). Pycnogenol significantly improved the heavy feeling as well as the swelling.
- Forty patients were treated with either 600 mg chestnut seed extract a day or 360 mg Pycnogenol a day over a period of four weeks. Pycnogenol significantly reduced the swelling as well as the feeling of heaviness. Plus, it reduced total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Chestnut seed extract did not do as well.
- Eighty-six patients were treated either with Pycnogenol at 150 mg or 300 mg daily or the drugs diosmin and hesperidin (“Daflon”)at 1,000 mg daily for two months. The positive improvements in symptoms were greater among those taking Pycnogenol.
- Twenty-one patients were given Pycnogenol at 150 mg daily and 18 patients received no treatment for a period of eight weeks. Pycnogenol-treated patients had significant improvement in symptoms as well as a reduction in leg swelling as compared to those not receiving treatment.
Let’s begin with asthma. Two studies illustrate the possibilities:
One was a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study in which 26 asthmatic patients were given either a maximum of 200 mg a day of Pycnogenol or placebo for the first period of four weeks and then crossed over to the alternate treatment for the next four weeks. All Pycnogenol-treated patients responded favorably in contrast to placebo treatment. Moreover, Pycnogenol lowered the chemical, “leukotrienes” responsible for asthma attacks.
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 60 patients aged six to 18 years old, was conducted over three months during which patients were randomly assigned to receive either Pycnogenol or placebo. Pycnogenol treatment led to significantly better improvement in the lung function and asthma symptoms. Moreover, Pycnogenol group either reduced or discontinued the use of asthma drugs. Pycnogenol lowered leukotrienes as well.
Muscle Pain or Cramps
One study involved a four-week treatment period followed by one week of no treatment or observation period. The treatment was four 50 mg capsules of Pycnogenol. The first studied group included 66 healthy subjects in whom the number of muscle cramps was recorded two weeks before entering the study and during the fourth and fifth week.
Pycnogenol led to a reduction of muscle cramps from 4.8 a week to 1.3 at week four. In patients with chronic venous insufficiency, the number of muscle cramps decreased from 6.3 to 2.6; in athletes from 8.6 to 2.4. During week, five without, treatment, reduction of cramps was maintained in all three groups. The study concluded that Pycnogenol can prevent cramps, muscular pain at rest, and pain after/during exercise healthy people or those with diabetes or claudication.
A good-quality study was conducted in 77 diabetic patients who received their standard antidiabetic treatment along with 100 mg Pycnogenol a day or placebo for 12 weeks. In the Pycnogenol-treated group, blood sugar levels were significantly lowered as compared to those not on Pycnogenol. Pycnogenol also treatment improved blood vessel function.
In another good study, 48 patients with diabetes and high blood pressure on ACE inhibitors were randomized to receive either Pycnogenol 125 mg daily or placebo for 12 weeks. Pycnogenol treatment lowered the ACE-inhibitor dose required to control blood pressure, and lowered fasting glucose levels as well. Score one for diabetes control and fewer risk factors for the heart.
Diabetes-associated small blood vessel changes is the leading cause of diabetic ulcers. Can Pycnogenol help?
A study with four groups of 30 patients each were studied: (1) systemic Pycnogenol and local application; (2) local Pycnogenol only; (3) oral Pycnogenol and (4) medications only (control). The results showed that the combination of local and systemic applications of Pycnogenol were the best in terms of ulcer healing even though local application of Pycnogenol also speeded up ulcer healing.
Thirty patients with diabetic ulcers were treated with 150 mg Pycnogenol daily for four weeks and another group of 30 comparable patients received no treatment. after four weeks of treatment, Pycnogenol-treated patients showed definite evidence of improved in small blood vessel functions and circulation as compared to those not treated.
In a good-quality study, 100 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee were treated for three months either with 150 mg of Pycnogenol a day or placebo. Pycnogenol-treated patients reported significant improvement with knee pain, as compared to the placebo group. Moreover, Pycnogenol treatment reduced the use of painkillers.
In a good-quality study, 77 patients with osteoarthritis were treated with 100 mg of Pycnogenol daily and 79 patients were treated with placebo for three months. Pain score in the Pycnogenol-treated group was reduced by 56%, as compared to 9.6% reduction in the placebo group. Pycnogenol treatment reduced the need for painkillers by 58% versus one percent in the placebo-treated group. Pycnogenol reduced foot swelling in 79% of the patients, versus one percent in the placebo group.
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized, crossover study, 50 patients with erectile dysfunction (ED) were treated with either L-arginine plus Pycnogenol or placebo for a month. Pycnogenol completely normalized function. Moreover, Pycnogenol treatment led to an increase in sperm count and testosterone levels with lowering of blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
In another study, 45 men with ED were given 1.7 grams of L-arginine a day during the first month, 40 mg Pycnogenol twice daily during the second month, and the dose increased to three 40-mg Pycnogenol doses daily during the third month. During the first month on L-arginine, only five percent of patients experienced normal erection. However, with the addition of twice-daily Pycnogenol, normal erection increased to 80%, which further increased to 92.5% during the third month on thrice-daily Pycnogenol.
In a third study, 19 men with fertility problems were given 200 mg Pycnogenol daily for 90 days. Pycnogenol treatment resulted in more normal-looking sperm.
Blood clots form as a result of “platelet aggregation,” which is the platelets in the blood clumping together. If a blood clot blocks the normal blood flow, it is known as “thrombosis.” Several studies show how Pycnogenol helps block platelet formation and thus helps prevent thrombosis.
Cigarette smoking increases platelet aggregation. In one study, 200 mg a day of Pycnogenol taken three hours prior to the first cigarette for the day for two months significantly reduced cigarette-induced platelet aggregation.
In 22 German heavy smokers, platelet aggregation was prevented by 500 mg of aspirin or 100 mg Pycnogenol. In 19 smokers, increased platelet aggregation was more significantly reduced by 200 mg than either 10 mg or 100 mg of Pycnogenol. The same study showed that a single, 200-mg Pycnogenol dose remained effective over six days in preventing cigarette-induced enhanced platelet aggregation.
The goal of this study was to evaluate if Pycnogenol could prevent deep venous thrombosis (DVT) and superficial vein thrombosis (SVT) in eight-hour flights in 196 subjects at risk of these conditions. Two doses of 100 mg of Pycnogenol were taken two to three hours before flights and two additional capsules taken six hours later — then one capsule the next day. Placebo capsules were given to control subjects at the same times. In the control group, there were five thrombotic events; whereas the Pycnogenol-treated subjects only experienced nonthrombotic, local flare-ups. In long-haul flights, Pycnogenol could be an effective prevention for blood clots.
Edema During Flights
The goal of one study was to evaluate whether or not Pycnogenol could prevent edema (fluid build-up) during long-haul flights in healthy people. There were 88 in the control group and 81 in the Pycnogenol group. In those treated with Pycnogenol, the edema score was increased by 17.9% versus an increase of 58.3% in the control group. Not bad.
A total of 40 patients with retinopathy (damage to the retina part of the eye) from diabetes and other vascular causes were enrolled in one study. Thirty patients were treated with 150 mg of Pycnogenol a day and the other 10 patients with placebo for a period of two months. In the placebo group, the retinopathy worsened; whereas, in the Pycnogenol-treated group, there was no deterioration.
In a good-quality study, 24 adults aged 24 to 53 years old with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were given Pycnogenol, placebo, or the standard drug for three weeks. Results failed to show any efficacy of Pycnogenol or methylphenidate when compared to placebo. The authors attributed the negative results to the short duration of treatment and the low dosages of drug or Pycnogenol.
In another study, 61 children with ADHD were given one mg per kg/day of Pycnogenol or placebo over four weeks. Results showed that one month of Pycnogenol led to a significant reduction of hyperactivity with improvement in attention and visual-motor coordination and concentration, as compared to no positive effects in the placebo group. After stopping Pycnogenol for one month, symptoms
Symptoms of menopausal syndrome, also known as climacteric syndrome, include: hot flashes; chills; headache; and depression. In this study, 155 peri-menopausal women were enrolled in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. They were treated with 200 mg of Pycnogenol daily or with placebo. Pycnogenol-treated subjects experienced an improvement in all menopausal symptoms.
Some Proven Health Benefits of Pycnogenol
- Pycnogenol alleviated adverse effects in cancer patients
- Pycnogenol improved working memory in older adults
- Pycnogenol lowered the use of analgesic drugs in dysmenorrhea (severe menstrual pain)
- Pycnogenol reduced symptoms in endometriosis comparable to leuprorelin, the standard drug for this condition
- Pycnogenol was found to be effective for sun-caused hyperpigmented skin
- Pycnogenol reduced the inflammation in lupus patients
- Pycnogenol lowered blood pressure
- Pycnogenol lowered LDL cholesterol
- Pycnogenol reduced gingival bleeding and plaque formation
My bottom line
Although the preliminary studies show many health benefits with the use of Pycnogenol, future larger and better studies are needed. While much of this is positive, it will be a while before doctors routinely recommend this dietary supplement for these conditions. Talk to your own doctor about Pycnogenol if you’re interested in using it for your own health.