What pycnogenol (pine bark extract) is: Pycnogenol, is a patented mixture of 40 or more plant chemicals, including flavonoids and antioxidants. It is extracted from the bark of Pinus maritima (also called Pinus pinaster), native to southern France. Other pine bark supplements are on the market, many also containing various flavonoids.
Claims, purported benefits: For centuries pine bark extracts have been used medicinally. Pycnogenol has been promoted as a treatment for nearly everything, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), menopausal symptoms, blood vessel disorders, diabetes and its complications, jet lag, erectile dysfunction and hypertension.
What the studies show: At least in the test tube and in animal studies, Pycnogenol appears to combat inflammation and to kill some cancer cells.
Most of the human studies on Pycnogenol have been done by the same team of researchers in Italy and Germany. Pycnogenol has been prescribed with some success in Europe to treat chronic venous insufficiency, a syndrome that includes swelling of the legs, leg ulcers and varicose veins. Several preliminary studies have found that the compound may have some potential as a treatment for diabetic retinopathy (damage to blood vessels in the eye). As a treatment for diabetes itself, it may lower blood sugar levels—but research results are only preliminary.
One study found that Pycnogenol reduced LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. A study by a Chinese and German team found that it was helpful in treating mild hypertension. A 2009 study suggested some benefit against jet lag. On the other hand, research on people with attention deficit disorder in adults failed to show effectiveness.
In 2010, the best study on pine bark extract (conducted at Stanford University, using a product made in Japan) found that the extract did not reduce blood pressure or have other benefits in people at high risk for cardiovascular disease. In 2012, an eight-week Italian study found that Pycnogenol reduced menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, compared to a placebo.
A 2012 Cochrane review of 15 trials on Pycnogenol for the treatment of asthma, ADHD, chronic venous insufficiency, diabetes, erectile dysfunction, hypertension and osteoarthritis concluded that the studies were too small, limited and potentially biased to draw any conclusions about the efficacy or safety of the supplement.
Side effects: Pycnogenol can have unpleasant side effects (such as irritability and fatigue) and can interact with a number of drugs.
Bottom line: More good clinical trials are needed. It’s not known how Pycnogenol compares to other pine bark extracts. Proper dosages are unknown, and longterm safety uncertain. Pycnogenol should not be given to children.