Life Extension Magazine June 2014
Wide-Ranging Longevity Benefits Of Pycnogenol
By Sarah Brighton
After 40 years of research and being the subject of over 300 publications, Pycnogenol (French Maritime pine extract) continues to astonish scientists with its longevity applications. First developed in a European laboratory, Pycnogenol is a patented mixture of plant flavonoids with abundant beneficial effects.1
New studies show Pycnogenol can prevent or reverse the oxidative damage that produces blood vessel disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and neurodegenerative disorders. This plant extract also shows promise in such far-flung conditions as traumatic brain injury, skin problems, pain syndromes, and even tinnitus.
In this article, you will learn the latest clinical research about this European discovery.
Pycnogenol And Cardiovascular Disease
Despite all the advances in cholesterol-lowering medications and surgical interventions, atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease, heart attack, heart failure, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease remain the leading causes of death and disability in the United States.2,3
Pycnogenol, long touted for its powerful antioxidant effects, has shown remarkable results in preventing and reversing cardiovascular disease.
For example, a recent study of patients with stable coronary artery disease (people with chest pain, or angina, or those who have survived a heart attack) demonstrated a 32% improvement in endothelial function after eight weeks of Pycnogenol supplementation.4 No change was seen in placebo recipients. At the same time, levels of isoprostane, an index of oxidative stress, were reduced by about 8.5% in the supplemented group, again with no change in placebo subjects.
Further demonstration of Pycnogenol’s ability to slow or prevent the progression of cardiovascular disease comes from a 2014 study of people with atherosclerosis of the femoral (leg) or carotid (neck) arteries.5 Although these patients had not yet developed symptoms, they all had atherosclerotic plaques visible on ultrasound examination of their vessels. The patients were divided into several groups that included low-dose Pycnogenol (50 mg/day), higher-dose Pycnogenol (100 mg/day), aspirin, or a combination of Pycnogenol ( 100 mg/day) and aspirin.
In the groups that received either no Pycnogenol or just 50 mg/day, ultrasound evidence of progression (larger or more frequent plaques) was visible. In all groups receiving 100 mg/day Pycnogenol, progression was almost completely halted. The percentage of individual plaques that progressed to the dangerous and irreversible stage called “fibroatheroma” was less than 6% in subjects taking 100 mg/day Pycnogenol, but rose to 16.6% in those receiving aspirin-only, and went up to 21.3% in controls (receiving neither aspirin or Pycnogenol).5
Another human study demonstrated similar effects in a group of patients with mild to moderate congestive heart failure (class II or III, which often follows a heart attack or a lifetime of high blood pressure). Researchers treated these patients with placebo or Pycnogenol plus coenzyme Q10.6 After 12 weeks, the results showed:
- 28% of Pycnogenol/CoQ10-supplemented patients improved by at least one heart failure class compared to 14% of placebo recipients. (Heart failure classes are based on patients’ ability to function, so improvement by one class represents substantial improvement in quality of life.)
- Blood pressures (systolic and diastolic) fell significantly in the supplemented group as compared to controls.
- A measure of blood pumped per heartbeat (ejection fraction) shot up by 22.4% in the supplemented group, while rising just 4% in controls.
- Supplemented patients increased their walking distance on a treadmill more than 3-fold, compared to only slightly in the placebo group.
- Leg swelling, a major heart failure symptom, decreased significantly in the supplemented group, but only slightly in placebo patients.6
Three Ways Pycnogenol Protects The Heart
Laboratory studies demonstrate at least three ways Pycnogenol produces such dramatic improvements to heart health:
- Studies show that whole segments of major arteries undergo relaxation when treated with Pycnogenol, in part by stimulation of eNOS, the enzyme system that produces nitric oxide, the artery-relaxation signal.12,13 Indeed, treatment of whole arteries with Pycnogenol not only produces immediate relaxation, but it also reduces arterial wall content of the stiffening protein collagen, which contributes to elevated blood pressure and endothelial damage.13
- Pycnogenol helps to minimize inflammatory changes that occur in response to oxidative stress in blood vessels. Studies show a sharp reduction in activation of NF-kappaB, a master inflammatory regulator largely responsible for the release of inflammatory cytokines.14,15
- Pycnogenol inhibits the expression of specialized “adhesion molecules” that make arterial walls “sticky,” causing platelets and white blood cells to clump along the walls in early stages of plaque formation.14
The Battle Against Metabolic Syndrome
As a result of excessive calorie consumption and inadequate physical activity, thousands of Americans are suffering from metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions consisting of abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, low HDL (good) cholesterol, elevated triglyceride levels, and insulin resistance. In general, the more components of metabolic syndrome you have, the higher your risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes, among many other “age-related” disorders.16,17
Because signs and symptoms of metabolic syndrome often relate to oxidative stress and subsequent inflammation,18,19 it’s natural that researchers in the field would be interested in the potent antioxidant flavonoids found in Pycnogenol. Two excellent human studies tell most of the story.
A group of 64 adults with all five components of metabolic syndrome received 150 mg of Pycnogenol a day for six months; a comparable group of 66 people served as unsupplemented controls.20 At the end of the study, the supplemented patients had significantly lower triglycerides and blood pressure, and significantly higher HDL cholesterol compared to controls. In addition, fasting glucose fell significantly by 14.4%, waist circumference dropped 3.11 inches (7.4%) in men and 2.9 inches ( 8%) in women, and plasma free radicals fell by 34.6% in the supplemented group.
The second important study involved patients with metabolic syndrome who were showing early signs of kidney damage (protein in urine) from high blood pressure.21 All patients were treated with ramipril (Altace®), an angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor drug used in hypertension, while a subgroup was supplemented with Pycnogenol as well. After six months, the Pycnogenol group experienced a number of improvements over the Ramipril-only group:
- Urinary protein fell 52.7% in supplemented subjects compared to 22.4% in the drug-only group.
- Blood flow in the kidneys (an essential measure of kidney damage) in the Pycnogenol group improved by 139% compared to less than 100% with Ramipril alone (measured by diastolic flow).
- C-reactive protein (an important measure of inflammation) dropped by 25.3% in Pycnogenol subjects, but decreased only slightly in the drug-only group.
- Body mass index (BMI) was lowered in Pycnogenol subjects (5.7%), while the drug-only group did not show any significant changes after treatment.
These two studies showed convincingly that Pycnogenol is capable of remedying all five of the classic risk factors for metabolic syndrome, and demonstrated the underlying impact on oxidative stress and inflammation.
Not surprisingly, similarly compelling results are now being seen in human and laboratory studies of diabetes, one of the unfortunate potential outcomes of metabolic syndrome.
In one study, patients with type II diabetes took either a placebo or 100 mg of Pycnogenol for 12 weeks while continuing their standard anti-diabetic treatment.22 The fasting plasma glucose levels fell significantly in the Pycnogenol group compared with placebo recipients. The Pycnogenol group also experienced lower hemoglobin A1c levels (a measure of long-term glucose control) in the first month. Importantly, the Pycnogenol group also had a significant reduction in endothelin-1, a protein that promotes blood vessel constriction and hence, higher blood pressure.
In a second human study of diabetics with early microangiopathy (small vessel disease that precedes development of skin ulcers as well as kidney and eye complications), patients took either no additional medication, or 50 mg of Pycnogenol three times daily for four weeks.23 After that time, no significant changes were seen in control subjects, but in the supplemented group there was a progressive decrease in measures of microangiopathy and of capillary leakiness, with a significant improvement in blood perfusion (delivery of blood to a tissue).23 Together, these results mean a reduced risk for developing the kind of diabetic ulcers that can lead to amputation.23
Diabetics often suffer from microvascular damage to their nerves, which may produce excruciating and dangerous diabetic neuropathy. Lab studies now show that blood sugar reductions in Pycnogenol-supplemented animals are accompanied by improvements in the impaired nerve conduction velocity seen in diabetic neuropathy.24
Pycnogenol can directly oppose the excessive oxidative stress produced by diabetes, which is responsible for so much of that disease’s age-accelerating damage. Multiple animal studies demonstrate that Pycnogenol restores to normal the elevated markers of oxidation seen in tissues and organs of diabetic animals, while also restoring normal levels of protective intracellular antioxidant systems.25-27 This has now been shown to lead directly to reductions in inflammatory molecules, including thromboxane, a protein that triggers platelets to clump together with the potential for a dangerous clot to form.28
Finally, Pycnogenol has been shown to inhibit alpha-glucosidase, a key intestinal enzyme that breaks down simple starch into sugars.29 Blocking alpha-glucosidase is an effective way of slowing absorption of glucose into the bloodstream.30