For thousands of years, practitioners of traditional medicine have prepared remedies from just about every conceivable natural substance including herbs, flowers, seaweed and mushrooms. Unlikely though it may seem, even the pine tree, varieties of which are currently standing in many homes bedecked with Christmas decorations, has been tapped for its healing potential. Certain species of pine tree have been found to be rich in a health-giving substance known as pycnogenol (pronounced pic-nodge-eh-nol). Pycnogenol has generally gone unnoticed in the UK, despite the fact that it is one of the best researched natural substances, having been the subject of over 50 scientific studies in just the last 10 years. More and more evidence is amassing to suggest that pycnogenol may be a useful agent in the treatment of a wide range of conditions including thrombosis (potentially dangerous internal blood clots), infertility and dementia. Here, we examine the properties of this diverse natural substance.
Extracts from the bark of the pine tree were first used by the native American Indians hundreds of years ago. Traditionally, pine bark was used as an emergency food, and to speed wound healing and dampen inflammation. It is only more recently that pine bark has been shown to have such far-reaching medicinal effects. Pycnogenol’s versatility may well be related to the fact that it is not a single entity, but actually a mixture of about 40 different substances including compounds known as procyanidins and bioflavonoids.
Pycnogenol is known to have what is called ‘antioxidant’ activity. Antioxidants combat molecules called ‘free radicals’ which have been implicated in the processes which trigger many chronic conditions including heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. By helping to quench free radical damage, pycnogenol might help reduce the risk of many serious illnesses. Interestingly, research has shown that pycnogenol offers many times the free radical dampening potential of better known antioxidants such as vitamins C and E. In theory at least, this powerful antioxidant action gives pycnogenol great potential as a disease fighter.
Another of pycnogenol’s actions in the body is to reduce the tendency of internal blood clots to form. Small blood clots called ‘thrombi’ can lodge in the body’s blood vessels, blocking them, and may trigger problems such as a heart attack or stroke as they do this. Larger clots can sometimes form in the veins of the legs. The danger here is that a fragment of this type of clot – known as a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) – can dislodge itself and block one or more vessels which supply blood to the lungs. This complication – known as ‘pulmonary embolism’ – can have potentially fatal consequences. All thrombi in the body are themselves formed from tiny blood components called platelets. Research published last year in the medical journal Integrative Medicine shows that pycnogenol reduces the tendency for platelets to stick together. This blood-thinning action gives pycnogenol the potential to help protect against heart attack, stroke and DVT.
Another specific condition for which pycnogenol is showing some promise is Alzheimer’s disease. In this condition, the brain is affected by a protein known as beta-amyloid. Beta-amyloid protein can interfere with the blood supply to the brain and may also cause death of brain cells in the long term. A study published this year from the Loma Linda University in California showed that pycnogenol helps to protect cells from the damaging effects of beta-amyloid protein. Other research published last year in the journal Anti-Aging medicine found that feeding mice with pycnogenol markedly improved their memory and learning ability compared to non-treated mice. While its effects on the human brain have yet to be tested, there is reason to believe that pycnogenol might offer benefits in the prevention and treatment of dementia.
Pycnogenol’s beneficial effects even extend to enhancing male fertility. Problems with sperm quality or concentration are factors in about 60 p.c. of cases of infertility. While pycnogenol does not increase the overall sperm number, it does improve the percentage of normally formed sperm. One study published last year in the European Bulletin of Drug Research showed that men taking 200 mg for pycnogenol for three months had a doubling of their number of normal sperm. Still other positive effects of pycnogenol have been found in the area of athletic performance and fitness. Research conducted at California State University in 1999 showed that athletes taking 200 mg of pycnogenol per day for one month enjoyed a 21 p.c. improvement in endurance over individuals taking inactive medication (placebo).
The normal recommended dose of pycnogenol is 1.5 – 3.0 mg per kg of body weight (1 kg = 2.2 lbs) per day for 7 to 10 days followed by a maintenance dose of 50 to 100 mg per day.