The term “functional food” covers food or food components that provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition. For example, garlic contains sulfur compounds that may reduce the risk of heart disease. Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, a compound that may reduce the risk of stroke and prostate cancer.
Most functional foods get their health-promoting properties from naturally occurring compounds that are not defined as nutrients. These compounds are called phytochemicals, simply meaning plant chemical.
Lately, the list of phytochemicals has been rapidly growing. In fact, there may be as many as 4.000 phytochemicals with a potential to affect diseases such as cancer, heart disease and stroke.
Although evidence is lacking for the health benefits of most phytochemicals, studies have shown that some of these substances may positively affect biological mechanisms and could possibly be helpful in preventing and treating disease.
One such substance is Pycnogenol.
On one of his expeditions to North America almost 500 years ago, French explorer Jacques Cartier and his crew became acquainted with the St. Lawrence Iroquoians who lived along the shores of the St. Lawrence river. The river traverses the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, and is a part of the international boundary between Ontario in Canada and New York state in the US.
The area is known for its cold and harsh winters. From mid-November 1535, Cartier and his fleet lay frozen solid on the river for five months. When they ran out of fresh supplies, the crew became sick with scurvy, and many of the men died.
The native St Lawrence Iroquoians taught Cartier and his crew to make tea from the bark and needles of the pine tree. This supplied a small amount of vitamin C. While drinking the tea few times a day, most of the men recovered from their illness within a week or two.
Later it was found that apart from vitamin C, the pine bark contains bioflavonoids that have strong antioxidant activity.
In 1947, Professor Jacques Masquelier developed and patented a technique to extract oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPC) from pine bark and grape seeds. He named the extract from pine bark “Pycnogenol”.
OPC’s refer to a large class of polyphenols called flavanols or bioflavonoids. Examples of other classes of bioflavonoids are Quercetin, Citrus Bioflavonoids and Green Tea Polyphenols.
Bioflavonoids are found in many plants (1), most notably apples, maritime pine bark, cinnamon, Aronia fruit, cocoa beans, grape seed, grape skin and red wines. Bilberry, cranberry, black currant, green tea, black tea and many other plants also contain these bioflavonoids.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has provided a database for the OPC content of selected foods (2).
A number of studies have suggested that bioflavonoids may have positive effects on many different biologic functions. At the present time, there is a lot of ongoing research on the possible health benefits of individual bioflavonoids.
However, to-date, neither the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have approved any health claim for bioflavonoids or approved them as pharmaceutical drugs.
In fact, several companies have been cautioned by the FDA over misleading health claims for bioflavonoid supplements.
Possible Health Benefits of Pycnogenol
Lately, the interest in Pycnogenol has been growing among many medical researchers.
Studies have shown that Pycnogenol has powerful antioxidant activity and may reduce markers of inflammation (3).
However, although many studies have been performed, data from clinical trials is still limited. Therefore, most experts believe that more data is needed before conclusions can be drawn about the health benefits and safety of Pycnogenol.
Most of the human studies on Pycnogenol are small. However, their results suggest that the substance may have beneficial effects on health.
Pycnogenol and Endothelial Function
The endothelium is the innermost layer of the arteries. This thin cellular layer plays an important role in the regulation of blood flow to most organs of the body. Endothelial function can be measured with scientific methods.
Abnormal endothelial function is commonly found among individuals with high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Restoring normal endothelial function may be important for patients suffering from these disorders.
One double-blind placebo-controlled study of 58 patients with mildly elevated blood pressure found that 100 mg of Pycnogenol daily improved endothelial function (4).
Another double-blind randomized crossover study on 28 patients with coronary artery disease found that 200 mg of Pycnogenol daily for 8 weeks improved endothelial function (5).
It has been suggested that these effects may be mediated by reduction on oxidative stress and increased availability of nitric oxide (NO).
Pycnogenol and High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure (hypertension) is one of the most important risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Studies on many blood pressure lowering drugs have shown that such treatment reduces the risk of stroke and coronary artery disease.
One small double-blind placebo-controlled study showed that a treatment with 200 mg of Pycnogenol daily for 16 weeks reduced blood pressure (8).
Another randomized double-blind trial on 48 individuals with type 2 diabetes and mild to moderate hypertension showed that 125 mg of Pycnogenol daily positively affected blood pressure (9). Patients treated with Pycnogenol needed less blood pressure medication than patients in the placebo group.
No studies have been performed in order to test whether treatment of hypertension with Pycnogenol will lower the incidence of stroke or coronary heart disease. Therefore, there is no scientific evidence available suggesting that antihypertensive drugs can be replaced by Pycnogenol in the treatment of hypertension.
Pycnogenol and Diabetes
A double blind placebo-controlled study found that 100 mg of Pycnogenol daily improved blood sugar among 77 patients with type 2 diabetes (10). Pycnogenol was added to standard diabetic drug treatment.
Another, more recent study showed similar findings with lowering of glycated hemoglobin, suggesting better long-term control of blood sugar (9).
How Pycnogenol improves blood sugar in type 2 diabetes is not entirely clear. Insulin production does not seem to be increased.
One study found that inhibition of alpha-glucosidase by Pycnogenol delays the uptake of complex sugars from the intestine (11). This could be an interesting mechanism to explore further in order to understand the possible beneficial effects of Pycnogenol among patients with type 2 diabetes.
These small studies are not considered to confer enough evidence to suggest treatment of type II diabetes with Pycnogenol.
Pycnogenol and Blood Lipids
In a small study of healthy individuals LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) was lowered by Pycnogenol while HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) was elevated.In a randomized placebo controlled study of men with elevated cholesterol levels, Pycnogenol was found to lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, and elevate HDL cholesterol. Triglycerides were not affected (14)
In a study of 48 patients with type 2 diabetes, Pycnogenol appeared to lower LDL cholesterol compared with placebo.
Pycnogenol and Erectile Dysfunction
Erectile dysfunction (impotence) is a term used to describe the situation when a man can not get or keep an erection firm enough for sexual intercourse.
Erectile dysfunction affects 50 percent of men aged 40-70 years in the United States and is considered to be an important public health problem (15).
Interestingly there appears to be a link between endothelial dysfunction, erectile dysfunction and coronary artery disease (16). In fact, erectile dysfunction may be one of the first indirect signs of coronary artery disease.
Because Pycnogenol can improve endothelial function and increase the availability of NO, some experts have suggested that this substance may improve erectile dysfunction.
In a study of 21 men, 120 mg/day of Pycnogenol appeared to improve erectile dysfunction (14).
Another randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 50 patients showed improvement of erectile function with a combination of Pycnogenol and l-arginine aspartate (15).
Despite the positive results from these small studies, more data from clinical trials is needed before Pycnogenol can be recommended for the treatment of erectile dysfunction.
Pycnogenol and Sports
An Italian study of 147 athletes published 2013, found that 100 mg of Pycnogenol daily improved physical endurance and performance (17). Two mile run finish time, two-minute push-up endurance and two-minute sit-up endurance all improved significantly among those who received Pycnogenol compared to those who did not.
Another part of the study found that athletes training for triathlon improved their speed and strength and reduced muscular cramping on Pycnogenol 150 mg/day compared to a control group.
These findings are supported some older studies. The authors concluded that “Pycnogenol, along with good training and proper nutrition, may help to significantly improve physical fitness and reduce oxidative stress and muscular pain, both in those who exercise recreationally and in triathletes”.
Other Effects of Pycnogenol
There are some studies available suggesting that Pycnogenol may reduce inflammation and pain among patients with arthritis. Furthermore, some small studies suggest that symptoms of asthma and hay fever may be improved. Finally, a few studies suggest that Pycnogenol may improve skin health.
The Bottom Line
Pycnogenol has been widely studied for the past 40 years. More than 340 published studies and review articles have addressed the safety and efficacy of this substance.
The above summary confirms that a number of published studies suggest that Pycnogenol may have a number of effects that could positively affect cardiovascular health.
However, it is important to keep in mind that there may be unpublished research that hasn’t shown any health benefits. It’s been repeatedly shown that positive studies are more likely to be published than negative ones.
Furthermore, very limited scientific data is available on the long-term health effects of Pycnogenol.
In 2012 a systematic review from the Cochrane Collaboration concluded that “Current evidence is insufficient to support Pycnogenol use for the treatment of any chronic disorder. Well-designed, adequately powered trials are needed to establish the value of this treatment” (18).
Today, Pycnogenol is available in more than 700 dietary supplements, multivitamins, and health products worldwide.