Pycnogenol the Supplement: Health Promise?and Hype

Hailed the “antioxidant miracle”, the popular dietary supplement, Pycnogenol? has been promoted for a plethora of benefits, from treating allergies and asthma to painful menstrual periods and erectile dysfunction. A U.S. trademarked extract from the bark of the French maritime pine (Pinus pinaster), Pycnogenol contains a number of bioactive compounds that appear to boost the immune system, and have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. These include oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs) and other bioflavonoids like catechin, epicatechin, phenolic fruit acids, and taxifolin. Many of these compounds are believed to be behind the health-protective benefits of many plant foods. For example, OPCs are found at high levels in red wine, grapes, cocoa, cranberries and apples. But is there enough science to back the health buzz over Pycnogenol? EN takes a look.

Asthma. One of the most intriguing areas of research is the treatment of asthma, a condition characterized by chronic inflammation that may be improved by Pycnogenol’s anti-inflammatory properties. MedlinePlus, the National Institutes of Health’s Web site, gave Pycnogenol a “B” rating (indicating good scientific evidence) for its use in treating asthma. However, a July 2010 systematic review of herbal interventions for asthma, published in Primary Care Respiratory Journal, did not find sufficient evidence to support strong recommendations for Pycnogenol (as well as other herbal supplements) for treatment of asthma.

Chronic venous insufficiency (CVI). Another promising area, CVI is a syndrome that includes leg swelling, varicose veins, pain, itching, skin changes, and skin ulcers. MedlinePlus gave Pycnogenol a “B” for its potential to reduce edema and pain in people with CVI. And a June 2010 study performed by Italian researchers in the journal Phytomedicine found improvement in CVI symptoms, such as ankle swelling, with Pycnogenol.

Possible Pluses. A small number of recent human studies have linked Pycnogenol beneficially with a range of conditions, including: alleviating allergic rhinitis symptoms, easing acute hemorrhoidal attacks, protecting vision in patients with early retinopathy, improving symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, lowering body weight and blood glucose, boosting male fertility, alleviating adverse effects of cancer treatment, and improving memory in the elderly. In addition, MedlinePlus gave Pycnogenol a “C” rating (unclear scientific evidence for use) for conditions such as muscle cramps, painful menstruation, gingival bleeding and plaque formation, high blood pressure, prevention of blood clots, high cholesterol, sunburn, and venous leg ulcers.

While all of these benefits appear promising, it’s important to note that there is not enough research available to support recommending Pycnogenol as a treatment for these conditions. While we?re waiting for the science to clear things up, at least there don’t seem to be safety concerns for Pycnogenol. No serious adverse side effects have been reported, although a systematic safety study has not been done. Remember, as with all dietary supplements, Pycnogenol is not strictly regulated; there is no guarantee of strength, purity or safety; and it may interact with other drugs. Perhaps the best way to get your bioactive compounds every day is the natural way, by upping your intake of a variety of whole plant foods, such as berries and apples.

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