Plants are, in a way, nature’s medicine chests, chock-full of interesting and potentially beneficial chemicals. That’s true not just of the leaves, roots, and fruits, but also the bark. Notable examples include willow bark, the original source of aspirin, and yew bark, from which the cancer drug paclitaxel (Taxol) was originally derived.
Then there’s the bark of various pine trees, extracts of which have been used for centuries as folk remedies for all kinds of ailments and are today sold as dietary supplements. One particular pine bark extract, called Pycnogenol (pronounced pic-NOJ-en-all), has been the focus of much research in recent years. It was apparently first extracted from a type of maritime pine (Pinus pinaster) in southwest France in the 1950s, and rights to it were subsequently acquired by a Swiss company, which patented the formula.
Pycnogenol has become a best-selling supplement (marketed under many brand names, with more than $500 million in annual sales worldwide), at least in part because its manufacturer has supported hundreds of studies on it and publicized the positive findings. On the basis of this research, Pycnogenol is promoted as a treatment for everything from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), diabetes, erectile dysfunction, hypertension, heart disease, and blood vessel disorders to menopausal symptoms, tinnitus, arthritis, colds, skin health, cognitive function, diabetes-related eye problems, and allergies. Anytime it’s claimed that a product is a virtual cure-all, you should be skeptical.
Pycnogenol facts and safety
Of all pine bark supplements, we focus on Pycnogenol here because that’s where the research (and money) is. It’s not known how other pine extracts compare in terms of biochemical effects.
Many of the compounds in Pycnogenol (like other pine bark extracts) are flavonoids, which are common in plants and have been linked to numerous health benefits. Its key flavonoids are proanthocyanidins, and Pycnogenol is “standardized” to contain certain levels of a particular group of them (procyanidins). Various proanthocyanidins are also found in grapes, wine, cocoa, apples, tea, nuts, and some berries and may be partly responsible for these foods’ proposed benefits.
Like many plant compounds, some in Pycnogenol are potent antioxidants. Lab studies show that Pycnogenol also combats inflammation and has other positive effects.
Most of the human studies on Pycnogenol have been done by a group of researchers in Italy or, in part, by employees of the manufacturer, which has often funded the research. The great majority of the studies find at least some benefit from Pycnogenol (see The Science on Pycnogenol). The problems: Most of the studies were small and short-term; many had methodological problems, such as the lack of a control group; and few were done by independent researchers.
Pycnogenol appears to be safe. But since it may stimulate the immune system, people with autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, should probably avoid it. Similarly, because it may, in theory at least, lower blood sugar too much and increase the risk of bleeding, people with diabetes or bleeding disorders should check with their doctors before trying Pycnogenol.
Bottom line: More independent, well-designed studies on Pycnogenol are needed. Proper dosages are unknown (the studies have used varying doses), and long-term safety is uncertain. If you have any of the disorders for which Pycnogenol is promoted, you should be under professional care and shouldn’t simply prescribe Pycnogenol for yourself. The compounds in Pycnogenol may turn out to be beneficial for certain medical conditions, but for now no one really knows. Meanwhile, you can get these or similar beneficial compounds from many healthful plant foods.