What Does Pycnogenol Pine Bark Extract Really Do For You?
[toc]Even if you’re on a 100% plant-based diet, chances are this tree is not on your menu.
True, some people make pine needle tea and then there’s eating the occasional pesto with pine nuts, but do you know anyone who eats the bark?
Though many consume it in the form of this supplement.
What is Pycnogenol?
Pycnogenol, pronounced pic-noj-en-all, is the trademarked name for a dietary supplement derived from French maritime pine bark (Pinus pinaster). Also known as ocean and sea pine, it’s native to the Mediterranean region. This tree is used for timber, decorative landscaping, and medical research.
Bark extracts contain flavonoids, catechins, proanthocyanidins, and phenolic acids which may offer health benefits for skin, fitness/bodybuilding, hearing loss, blood sugar control, erectile dysfunction, ADHD, melasma, fertility, allergies, asthma, jet lag, endometriosis, and anti-aging by reducing inflammation and antioxidant activity.
While there are varying degrees of research and clinical data for many of the purported benefits, none have a large enough body of evidence to be confirmed. Therefore, it is a dietary supplement only. It should not be used for diseases.
The history of Pyconogenol dates back to 1965, when the scientist Charles Haimoff began researching derivatives of the Pinus pinaster plant in his German laboratory. A US-patent was issued in 1987. That is now expired so other names for Pycnogenol can be used to sell the active ingredients but so far, Horphag Research continues to be the only major manufacturer of pine bark extract supplements worldwide.
Today, there are nearly 100 human clinical trials and another 300 pieces of research which have made use of this extract. While each benefit remains unproven, here’s a look at the preliminary findings they’re seeing so far…
Health benefits of Pycnogenol pine bark extract
1. Melasma and dark spot skin lightening
Topical Pycnogenol for skin in concentrations ranging from 0.05% to 5% have been studied for acne and the healing of scars, both of which are conditions that can cause dark spots and hyperpigmentation.
Oral Pycnogenol supplements have been used in a human clinical trial involving 30 women with melasma, which is a common skin disorder of hyperpigmentation in sun-exposed areas of the body.
A 25 mg tablet was taken 3x per day with meals, for a daily dosage of 75 mg. After 30 days, the average melasma area of the patients decreased 25.86%. Overall, 80% of patients with melasma experienced lightening of their skin. (1)
2. Erectile dysfunction remedy
There’s around a dozen published papers on the use of French maritime pine bark for erectile dysfunction and sexual function, including several double-blinded and placebo-controlled clinical trials. Those used Pycnogenol in combination with L-arginine.
In one study out of Italy, 111 men with moderate ED took either placebo or a supplement containing 60 mg of Pycnogenol, 690 mg of L-arginine, and 552 mg of aspartic acid. These daily dosages were used for 6 months.
According to the International Index of Erectile Function (IIEF), which is a widely used test for gauging severity, there was statistically significant improvements for the group of men who were using the pine bark and L-arginine supplement, which were called Prelox. (2)
3. Male fertility support
On a related note to ED, perhaps there are other reproductive benefits.
Prelox, which is the supplement that combines pine bark with L-arginine and L-citrulline, has been reported to improve sperm quality in multiple clinical trials.
However even when used independently, those amino acids have been found to boost nitric oxide production, which plays a role in healthy blood flow. That has been found to benefit erectile dysfunction and male fertility. (7) (8) (9)
Only one clinical trial has been published which reviews Pycnogenol independently for sperm quality and function.
At a New Jersey endocrinology clinic, 19 men were given a daily dosage of 200 mg of Pcnogenol for fertility problems they were experiencing. Following 90 days of treatment, sperm morphology improved 38% according to Ham’s F-10 test. (10)
4. ADHD improvement
Treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) with French maritime pine bark extract was first proposed some 20 years.
In 1999, the theory was put forth in a psychiatric medical journal. Since then, there have been a dozen papers written on the topic, as well as a handful of clinical trials. (3)
In 2018, the rationale for dietary antioxidant treatment of ADHD was proposed by several doctors at the University of Antwerp in The Netherlands.
After reviewing the body of evidence proving that oxidative stress and immune system dysfunction play a role in neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD, they propose antioxidants which might help (4):
“One example is Pycnogenol, a herbal, polyphenol-rich extract with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which is considered to have therapeutic benefits in ADHD, as it increased antioxidant levels, reduced oxidative damage and improved neurochemical status.”
At least in part, that conclusion was in reference to a placebo-controlled and double-blinded clinical trial involving 50 boys and 11 girls with ADHD. It took place at a children’s hospital in Slovakia. They reported:
“We have found significantly increased damage to DNA in ADHD children when compared to controls.”
For their ADHD, each child received a Pycnogenol dosage equal to 1 mg per kg of body weight daily. For a boy or girl who weighs 90 lbs (41 kg) that would mean taking 41 mg per day.
After 1 month of use, their levels of specific related free radicals were significantly lower. In addition to less DNA damage being detected, there was an improvement in attention compared to placebo. (5)
Registered with ClinicalTrials.gov, researchers are currently underway on a trial to evaluate the potential benefit of Pycnogenol for ADHD. Its estimated completion is 2020. (6)
5. Seasonal allergy relief
During birch pollen season in Ontario, Canada, a double-blinded and placebo-controlled trial took place involving people with allergic rhinitis.
When people began treatment with pine bark extract 3 weeks prior to the onset of allergy season, there was no benefit vs. placebo. However when they began 7-8 weeks prior, their allergic rhinitis symptoms were better. (11)
The reasons Pycnogenol may work for allergies are two-fold; an anti-inflammatory effect and inhibiting histamine release from mast cells in a dose-dependent manner. (12)
6. Reducing asthma inhaler usage
The first clinical trial took place at Loma Linda University in California nearly 15 years ago. A total of 60 kids (6-18 years old) with mild to moderate asthma participated. The French maritime pine bark dosage was in addition to their rescue inhaler (albuterol) which they could continue using as needed throughout the trial.
“Compared with subjects taking placebo, the group who took Pycnogenol had significantly more improvement in pulmonary functions and asthma symptoms. The Pycnogenol group was able to reduce or discontinue their use of rescue inhalers more often than the placebo group. There was also a significant reduction of urinary leukotrienes in the Pycnogenol group.”
A few years ago, another clinical was conducted by an Italian university. Pine bark extract supplements for asthma were prescribed at a dosage of 50 mg twice daily; one dose at 9 am in the morning and again at 9 pm, for a total of 100 mg per day.
All 76 asthmatics who participated continued to use their inhaled corticosteroid. In addition, a portion of them were given the herbal supplement too. For those taking it, they experienced notable improvements (14):
55% were able to step down to a lower inhaled corticosteroid dose, compared to only 6% in the other group.
No one taking the pine bark extract had to increases their inhaler usage, while 18.8% of those not using it did.
Wheezing, cough, and other chest symptoms were lower.
7. Less arthritis pain and cartilage degradation
Within the past decade, using pine bark extract for severe osteoarthritis and knee osteoarthritis have been clinically studied.
100 patients with stage I and II arthritis of the knee were treated for 3 months with a 150 mg dosage of Pycnogenol taken daily with food. Among these, some received placebo.
The Western Ontario and McMasters University (WOMAC) questionnaire for their arthritis was taken every 2 weeks during the trial.
Those taking the pine-derived supplement experiencing significant improvement per WOMAC index and had less knee pain, leading to lower usage of NSAIDs. (15)
In a more recent trial from 2017, there were 30 patients with severe knee arthritis who were about to undergo surgery for it (arthroplasty). Beginning 3 weeks prior to surgery, some took a 100 mg twice daily dosage of pine bark extract, while others took nothing.
It was found that the use of Pycnogenol downregulated various genes associated with cartilage degradation. Furthermore, there was a decrease in pro-inflammatory cytokines that was statistically significant. (16)
Other mechanisms of action related to joint pain include inhibiting COX-2 enzyme and the NF-kB inflammation “master switch” by approximately 15% each. (17)
8. High blood pressure support
At the cardiology center of a large Swiss hospital, 23 patients with coronary artery disease (CAD) took part in a double-blinded and placebo-controlled study. Each patient took 200 mg per day of Pycnogenol for 8 weeks. After a washout period, they took placebo for 8 weeks. Or the same but in reverse order.
Taking pine bark extract for high blood pressure didn’t appear to help the tested patients directly, but it did improve related cardiovascular risk factors such as flow-mediated dilatation (FMD) of the brachial artery and signs of oxidative stress. That benefit wasn’t seen with the placebo treatment. (22)
In a study involving patients with hypertension and early signs of kidney disease, after 6 months where the pine bark extract was added to their medication regimen, there was a significant decrease in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. (23)
9. Supports diabetes in multiple ways
In a dose-dependent manner, pine bark extract for diabetic patients lowers their blood glucose in clinical trials.
Diabetes Care, which is the official journal of the American Diabetes Association, published the results seen in 18 men and 12 women with type 2 diabetes.
A Pycnogenol dosage of 100-300 mg lowered fasting blood glucose from 8.64 down to 7.54 mmol/l . A lower dosage of just 50 mg was enough to lower blood sugar after eating a meal, from 12.47 to 11.16 mmol/l.
HbA1C levels decreased significantly after 9 and 12 weeks of continuous use. (18)
Another study reported faster healing of diabetic ulcers with extracts of pine bark. (19)
Diabetic retinopathy, which can cause vision loss and blindness, was improved in 24 patients after they used the supplement for 3 months. (20)
10. Glaucoma and eye health
As with erectile dysfunction and fertility, the research for degenerative eye diseases mostly involves combination treatments.
For glaucoma, a study was done by an Italian university using Mirtogenol. That’s a combination of Pycnogenol and Mirtoselect, which is a branded bilberry extract made by the same company.
A total of 38 patients participated who had intraocular hypertension. That’s an early warning sign for glaucoma and a worsening factor for those who already have the disease.
For the 20 patients using the pine bark and bilberry extract, their intraocular pressure decreased from 25.2 to 22.2 mmHg. This benefit was seen after 2 months of use and the untreated control group didn’t experience the same improvement. (21)
Pycnogenol side effects
With over 80 human clinical trials taking place during the past 20 years, very few adverse reactions have been reported with French maritime pine bark extract. Minor side effects like irritability, headache, fatigue, and upset stomach have occasionally came up, but their rates of occurrence are too similar to placebo to be conclusively linked to Pycnogenol supplements.
Some user reviews report high dosages causing insomnia but they’re not substantiated by research. In fact, a number of studies have reported better sleep quality while using it.
Pycnogenol drug interactions appear to be the most likely danger while using it. Since it may lower blood sugar, blood pressure, and stimulate the immune system, it could have an adverse effect for people taking related medications.
Using Pycnogenol pine bark while pregnant or breastfeeding has not been clinically studied. While there is not evidence to suggest it’s dangerous, pregnancy safety remains unknown until adequate research takes place.
Should I take Pycnogenol?
The above are just some of the things it’s been used for in research. Even though there are many exciting findings for these and other uses, its efficacy has not been conclusively proven for any disease. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
As a dietary supplement to support general wellness and health, there is an overwhelming body of evidence to suggest that pine bark extract is good for you and safe to use within the manufacturer recommended dosage; 100mg tablets or capsules, taken up to 3x per day.
You can take Pycnogenol with or without food, however most clinical trials report it being taken with meals. This may be because not all of the compounds are water soluble, or they have better bioavailability when taken with fat versus an empty stomach.
The best time of day to take Pycnogenol is morning and night, in equally divided doses that are ideally 12 hours apart. Alternately, 3x per day with 8 hours between doses, if you are taking 3 tablets/capsules per 24 hour period.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to take this extract of pine bark is its exceedingly high antioxidant activity.
The Department of Ophthalmology at a Japanese university tested its free radical scavenging ability in bovine retinal tissue.
That’s a unique challenge because there must be both water and fat soluble antioxidants to effectively work in the different cells of the retina.
Pine bark extract demonstrates substantially higher antioxidant activity than CoQ10, vitamin C, alpha lipoic acid, vitamin E, and grapeseed extract in tested eye tissue.
If you take those supplements, adding this one to your daily regimen is a no-brainer. (24)
Reviews of the best brands
There is a difference between generic pine bark extract vs. Pycnogenol. However, if a given supplement brand lists the Pycnogenol ingredient on the label, then it doesn’t really matter who you’re buying it from. They all source this ingredient from the same company, Horphag Research.
Of course, you will still want to buy from reputable and trustworthy brands, but buying the most expensive won’t make sense.
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