Does Pycnogenol® (Pine bark extract) Improve Health Outcomes?

Pycnogenol® refers to a trademarked product that uses an extract derived from the French maritime pine tree, Pinus pinaster. This product and others utilizing the bark extract have created a variety of supplements believed to be beneficial for treating inflammation, erectile dysfunction, and cardiovascular disease. They may help to improve fitness and muscle recovery. However, scientific research is preliminary, and its health benefits aren't conclusive.

Key takeaways:

What is Pycnogenol?

The active ingredient in Pycnogenol, pine bark extract, can be found naturally in some berries, apples, nuts, cinnamon, cocoa beans, grape seed, peanut skin, witch hazel bark, and red wine. This extract has been used in other supplements, such as Prelox®, Enzogenol®, ProVens®, and Flavangenol®.

Pine bark extracts contain bioflavonoids that act as antioxidants, helping protect the body from oxygen waste products and cell damage (free radicals). Research is ongoing into the possible benefits of supplementation with pine bark extract from chronic diseases to potential improvements in fitness and muscle recovery.

Pine bark extract, also known as French marine pine bark extract or procyanidin oligomers, was first commercially used in 1948 in France by Dr. Jacques Masquelier. Studies on the extract demonstrate that humans metabolize, absorb, and eliminate it efficiently, though to what degree will vary with individual formulations due to added ingredients and flavoring.

Is pine bark safe?

Through safety studies, pine bark has been determined to be generally recognized as safe as defined by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA). In studies completed today, though very early in the research, the doses used range from 50 to more than 800 mg daily.

Participants in studies investigating its use in reducing blood pressure and assisting in diabetic management suggest that side effects may include GI upset, dizziness, headache, constipation, sleepiness, urine retention, or urination frequency changes. However, these side effects are common in numerous supplement and medication studies. Pine bark extract seems to be generally well tolerated.

However, since various products are used with different kinds of pine bark extracts and other ingredients vary, it is impossible to establish a dose (or even range) or define adverse effects from existing research.

Though research involving drug interactions hasn't been a focus because of the extract's potential use in lowering blood pressure, some research has shown that using pine bark extract may affect one's ability to clot blood. Therefore, people taking blood thinners, drugs like Warfarin® or Xarelto®, should talk with their doctors before using this supplement.

Pine bark extract and chronic diseases

Studies of pine bark extract to aid in treating chronic disorders are ongoing and include possible applications for use as adjunct management for:

  • ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
  • Cardiovascular (heart) disease including possible blood pressure benefits
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Asthma
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Sexual dysfunction (males and females)
  • Osteopenia (decreased bone density)

Early research suggests benefits for some of these chronic ailments. However, the exact mechanisms explaining clinical improvement are not yet fully understood. In a 2019 Cochrane Library systematic review on Pycnogenol for chronic diseases, 27 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) were evaluated for the ailments mentioned above. Results are inconclusive to date as study sample sizes are small. However, preliminary data suggest that medical professionals may recommend pine bark extract in the future to aid in managing one or more of these diseases.

Pine bark extract for fitness and muscle recovery

In a 2013 Italian study, researchers tested 74 test subjects who took the pine bark extract and compared them to 73 controls. Statistics are not provided, but the conclusion notes that Pycnogenol may help improve performance and recovery. However, it stresses that the supplement is beneficial when combined with proper hydration, nutritional attention, and good training, not solely the extract. Thus, more research is needed.

In a 2020 study, healthy participants were evaluated for 14 days using pine bark extract associated with exercise and measured factors assessing for the presence of muscle damage, oxidative stress (free radical damage), and inflammation. Early research reveals that supplementing with the extract may help protect the muscle from the detrimental effects of oxygen-free radicals in 20 individuals. These positive results are preliminary, and more extensive study populations and participants with underlying diseases must also be evaluated.

NIH’s exercise supplement overview

The report “Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance” by the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements provides an overview of exercise-related supplements. The report’s discussion includes the ingredient of focus, the proposed mechanism of action, evidence of efficacy (for the individual components, not when combined with other ingredients or when found in proprietary mixtures), research findings (general terms), evidence of safety (particular ingredient) and reported adverse effects.

Pycnogenol vs. other sports supplementation

Ingredients commonly seen in the general media as supplements to support exercise health and recovery include but are not limited to antioxidants, branched-chain amino acids (BCAA), and creatine. Pycnogenol is not yet recommended by experts as more research is ongoing and needed.

Antioxidants

Antioxidants are substances that help protect cells from damage caused by the normal metabolism in our bodies, protecting us from free radicals. These byproducts can cause harm and, when not properly removed, may lead to adverse health outcomes. Examples include vitamins C and E and beta-carotene. Pycnogenol is thought to function in this manner, leading to various studies exploring pine bark extract’s possible uses in human medicine.

Branched-chained fatty acids (BCAAs)

BCAAs refer to three essential amino acids: valine, isoleucine, and leucine. They are commonly used as a supplement in powders that claim to improve muscle growth, lessen muscle soreness after exercise, and reduce fatigue. Amino acids are the building blocks our body needs to make protein. Studies are limited, and to date, no daily recommendations for specific amounts have been identified or are recommended by dieticians or other specialists. Experts stress that eating complete proteins or a mix of plant and complementary proteins should be the foundation of nutrition and should be the emphasis.

Creatine

Creatine, another amino acid, is a well-researched supplement naturally produced in our bodies. Additionally, our foods may provide us with creatine. Some studies demonstrate that creatine supplementation boosts one's power and strength with short sprinting-like bursts of activity and may help with long-term adaptations to increase overall workload. Creatine, a commonly recommended supplement for improving athletic performance, is proposed to help supply muscles (anaerobic activity) with short-term energy.

Many studies suggest a benefit for intermittent, high-intensity activity, which may increase power, strength, and muscle maximal contractions. Use over time may help athletes train better. However, regular supplementation does not benefit endurance activities, e.g., running, cycling, or cross-country skiing.

It also has potential side effects that may make it undesirable and cancel out the benefits, such as nausea, muscle cramps, water retention (weight gain), and even heat intolerance. Still, this is the most widely used and recommended supplement for exercise to date.

Pine bark supplements, yes or no?

To date, pine bark extract sounds promising, possibly aiding in managing asthma and ADHD. It may help improve muscle recovery and even help with menopause, potentially assisting in treating various other diseases. However, more research is needed. While studies suggest benefits and that it is considered safe, experts still recommend improving your overall nutrition, health, and well-being.

If you want to use a supplement to boost your health, choose ingredients and products recommended by your medical professional and base selections on sound research and facts.



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