An antioxidant with promising results

The Irish Times
Health Supplement, p. 13
14 October 2008

DOES IT WORK? Pycnogenol and blood circulation

ONE OF our readers asked whether pycnogenol is effective as a blood thinner. Pycnogenol is a registered trademark in the US for an extract made from the bark of the French Maritime Pine tree. This tree is native to the western Mediterranean region.

However, its healing powers are traced to a story about 16th-century French explorers who were trapped by ice on the Saint Lawrence river in North America. The ship was well stocked with food, but the men developed scurvy, a disease now known to be caused by vitamin C deficiency. Some of the crew began to die, but then the others encountered some Native Americans. They recommended they drink a tea made from the bark and needles of pine trees. The sailors recovered and most survived the winter.

Centuries later another Frenchman, Prof Jacques Masquelier, discovered the pine bark contained vitamin C. He then extracted a group of compounds he called “pycnogenols” and patented the extract as helpful for improving circulation. Pycnogenols are more generally known as procyanidins and are found in many plant products, especially apples, grape seeds and red wine.

Evidence from studies

Pycnogenols have been shown to be effective antioxidants. The body needs a variety of antioxidants to counteract the normal production of oxidation-promoting agents. These agents can react with healthy molecules unless they are neutralised.

“Free radicals” are one example of these reaction agents. They are either safely disposed of by the body’s natural antioxidant defences or they can react with other molecules and lead to health complications. Lower levels of antioxidants are believed to contribute to the development of some chronic diseases and play a part in ageing.

Much interest has developed in the use of herbs and dietary supplements to increase intake of antioxidants. A number of vitamins work in the body as antioxidants, including vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene (which is related to vitamin A).

However, controversy remains regarding whether any one antioxidant taken as a dietary supplement will provide the same protection as eating a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Quite a number of laboratory experiments show pycnogenol has antioxidant activity. It is also commonly recommended to improve circulation. However, only laboratory studies have been published in this area.

One study showed it had some of the same activity as aspirin in helping to prevent blood from clotting. Aspirin can be recommended to reduce the risk of blood clots and strokes.

In the experiment reported, pycnogenol alone had little effect on clotting but when combined with aspirin, less aspirin was needed to bring about the same anti-clotting effect. Such results are promising, but they are a long way from demonstrating that the two products will be effective and safe in humans, especially those with a higher risk of stroke.

Problematic aspects

The biggest problem with pycnogenol is that most of the research has been done in laboratories and little has involved human patients. In general, it appears to be safe with only a few reports of mild adverse effects like headaches or gastrointestinal problems.


Antioxidants appear to play an important role in preventing heart disease and other illnesses. Pycnogenols are a potentially useful product of this type and it appears to be very safe.

However, there is little evidence that taking antioxidants from one particular source has the same benefit as eating a diet rich in a variety of antioxidants. Until properly designed clinical trials show pycnogenol prevents the incidence of any particular disease, it should only be taken as part of a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

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