Pycnogenol (pic-NOJ-en-all) is the name of the well-researched extract of French maritime pine bark (Pinus pinaster). It's considered a super-antioxidant because it contains high amounts of oligomeric proanthocyanin compounds (OPCs). These are the same ingredients that are responsible for the antioxidant benefits of grapeseeds and witch hazel bark. The company that makes this top-selling pine bark supplement has funded hundreds of research studies and published many positive findings. Pycnogenol is marketed as a health supplement for the circulatory system and a variety of body functions associated with heart health and blood flow. Although most of the studies on pine bark have been small, many have been done by independent research and can confirm some of the health claims made by the manufacturer.
Studies suggest that pine bark helps promote blood flow by increasing levels of nitric oxide, and it is often recommended to support healthy blood pressure, promote a healthy inflammatory response, and promote overall heart health. Of its many benefits, it is most widely taken as a supplement to boost cardiovascular function, and studies suggested it is effective at promoting healthy blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. A 2013 study on obese people found that those who participated in a diet and exercise program while taking Pycnogenol experience more significant reduction in waist size, triglycerides, blood sugar, blood pressure, and an increase in HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Although the cardiovascular benefits of supplementing with Pycnogenol are well supported by research, one of the best-designed and largest studies on another extract of maritime pine, Flavangenol, did not show conclusive findings on heart health benefits.
Other studies suggest pine bark extract can have a positive effect on circulation and endothelium function, and several showed a reduction in swelling and discomfort for people with chronic venous insufficiency. These and other findings suggest that Pycnogenol might be a good supplement for aging adults who want to promote healthy vein function. The circulatory benefits of pine bark and its effects on blood flow and nitric oxide levels may also help support healthy erectile function in men, but these benefits are not yet well studied.
A few non-cardiovascular benefits of supplementing with pine bark extract have been researched with some positive results. Of these findings, one of the most promising is Pycnogenol’s ability to promote reproductive health in menopausal women. An Italian study found that Pycnogenol reduced hot flashes better than a placebo. These findings were confirmed later in a Japanese study.
Supplementing with pine bark may also promote cognitive health. In an older study from Australia, pine bark improved older adults' working memory to some extent compared to a placebo. No changes were found in other cognitive skills tests. A similar study in 2014 found that middle-aged adults who took Pycnogenol showed improvements in specific cognitive skills more so than the control group.
Pycnogenol is generally considered safe, but it can interfere with chemotherapy and radiation therapy drugs. Those with autoimmune diseases, those who are pregnant, or those taking prescription medications should consult their doctors before using pine bark. Research does not indicate any major side effects from pine bark, but it can cause fatigue and irritability when combined with certain drugs.