In 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence River in his search for the Northwest Passage. As winter approached, the river froze solid and Cartier and his crew spent several months near the Iroquoian village of Stadacona (today’s Quebec City).
During that long, cold winter, his men got sick. They became weak, their legs were swollen and discolored, they developed bleeding gums and sores all over their bodies, and many of them died. Cartier wrote in his journal, “…out of 110 souls that we had been, not 10 were free from it… Our condition was pitiable… we had given up all hope….”
Cartier finally asked the Iroquois for help and was told to boil the bark and needles from a certain pine tree in water and drink it. Following this advice, the men rapidly recovered, and 85 of them made it through the winter.
Fast Forward 400 Years
The “mysterious epidemic” Cartier’s crew suffered from was scurvy, and the “miraculous” pine tree brew that cured them contained not only vitamin C but also a family of potent flavonoids known as oligomeric proanthocyanidin complexes (OPCs), more commonly called proanthocyanidins or Pycnogenol.
These remarkable phytonutrients are not unique to pine trees. They’re also abundant in grapes, tea, berries, beans, cocoa, and other plants known for their health benefits. In addition, they’re available in supplements, most of them derived from either the bark of the French maritime pine (Pinus pinaster) or grape seeds (Vitis vinifera).
I first wrote about OPCs in Health & Healing in 1993 and was particularly impressed by their use in Europe as a treatment for diabetic retinopathy, varicose veins, and other vascular disorders. Since then, however, there’s been an explosion of additional research on their benefits.
Pycnogenol Boosts Antioxidants and NO
More recently, they were found to increase levels of nitric oxide (NO). NO is an important signaling molecule in cells throughout the body. Produced in the endothelial cells lining the blood vessels, NO dilates the smooth muscles of the small arteries that regulate blood flow and blood pressure. It also inhibits the aggregation of platelets and enhances the health of the endothelium. NO’s activity is not limited to the vascular system. It is synthesized in the brain, where it functions as a neurotransmitter and is involved in memory and learning, and in immune cells, which use NO to kill bacteria.
When you consider the essential functions of NO throughout the body, plus the integral role that oxidative stress plays in many diseases and in the aging process, it’s not surprising that these supplements would benefit a broad range of health conditions.
Seven Health Benefits of Pycnogenol
Here are seven reasons to add Pycnogenol or grape seed extract to your daily supplement regimen.
Health Benefit of Pycnogenol #1: Strengthens Blood Vessels
Pycnogenol strengthens the capillaries and blood vessels and has been shown in clinical trials to reduce edema and discomfort associated with chronic venous insufficiency. It is also therapeutic for varicose veins, and in one study, Pycnogenol was more effective than compression stockings for reducing swelling in the legs.
Health Benefit of Pycnogenol #2: Enhances Cardiovascular Health
The unique flavonoids in Pycnogenol and grape seed extracts have been shown to help control blood pressure and lower LDL cholesterol, as well as protect LDL against oxidation. They also reduce C-reactive protein (CRP, a marker of inflammation), thus minimizing risk of heart disease and stroke.
Health Benefit of Pycnogenol #3: Boosts Erectile Function
Erections require robust blood flow in the penis, and Viagra and related drugs work on NO pathways to increase this. Prelox, a product containing Pycnogenol and L-arginine—which both increase NO—was shown in a placebo-controlled trial to improve moderate erectile dysfunction.
Health Benefit of Pycnogenol #4: Eases Female Problems
Research suggests that Pycnogenol and grape seed extracts can improve painful menstrual periods, endometriosis, and symptoms of menopause.
Health Benefit of Pycnogenol #5: Improves Skin
Pycnogenol and grape seed extract supplements protect against collagen degradation and UV radiation damage to the skin. Studies have demonstrated improvements in skin elasticity and hydration in older women.
Health Benefit of Pycnogenol #6: Slows Retinopathy
Because they strengthen the blood vessels, improve microcirculation, and reduce swelling in the retina, these phytonutrients slow the progression of retinopathy. Three-fourths of the participants in a study of diabetic retinopathy had improvements in visual acuity after taking Pycnogenol.
Health Benefit of Pycnogenol #7: Many Additional Benefits
Additional research suggests that Pycnogenol and grape seed extracts are promising for osteoarthritis, muscle soreness, asthma and allergies, psoriasis, ADHD, immune challenges, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Bottom line, Pycnogenol and grape seed extracts are versatile phytonutrients backed by solid research and a valuable addition to almost everyone’s supplement program.
How to Reap the Benefits of Pycnogenol
The recommended dose of Pycnogenol or grape seed extract is 50 mg, taken in divided doses one to three times a day. Lower doses are suggested for health maintenance and higher amounts for the conditions discussed above. Look for products with standardized levels of proanthocyanidins. Good brands, which are sold individually and in combo products, include Pycnogenol (pine bark) and Leucoselect® (grape seed).