February is “Heart Month” and I am delighted to bring some “breaking news,” as they like to say on TV, about cardiovascular health. Actually, it is not yet news because it is still in scheduled for publication with a scientific journal.

Last month, we chatted with Ronald Watson, Ph.D., about many of the cardiovascular benefits of Pycnogenol. Now, we can add a new discovery to this litany of heart benefits. I have called upon Frank Schönlau, Ph.D., to discuss this new research with us. We have chatted with Dr. Schönlau twice before (1–2).

It is ironic that Big Pharma is trying to develop a single combination pill—composed of several drugs—to treat cardiovascular disease. They call this approach a “Poly-pill.” They try to combine such drugs as cholesterol-lowering compounds with blood pressure reducers and clot-preventing compounds, etc., but they have failed to produce a successful Poly-pill. Yet, nature has provided us with a cardiovascular Poly-pill in the patented extract from the bark of the French maritime pine tree which is trademarked as Pycnogenol. Last month, Dr. Watson described the many health benefits of Pycnogenol and it was obvious that Pycnogenol is an excellent cardiovascular Poly-pill. Now, we can add another important cardiovascular benefit to this list.

As I have often stated before in previous columns, Pycnogenol is well-supported by excellent peer-reviewed research, much of which I have described in my six books on Pycnogenol and in this column (3-8). It is the continuing dedication to research that leads to discoveries such as we are about to discuss. Let’s begin by discussing the research program that uncovers the many health benefits of Pycnogenol.

Dr. Schönlau studied chemistry and biochemistry at the University in Münster, Germany, graduating in 1992. He researched protein anti-cancer drugs in the framework of a European Community research program, “Europe against Cancer,” and achieved his Ph.D. in 1995. At the Institute of Experimental Dermatology, University Clinics of Münster Germany, Dr Schönlau investigated chronic inflammatory processes, wound healing, vascular disorders and angiogenesis. In 1999, Dr. Schönlau joined Horphag Research as Director for Scientific Communication. He has published scores of research articles in peer-reviewed international basic science and medical journals on the role and efficacy of Pycnogenol in various pathologies.

Passwater: Much of the early Pycnogenol research began in Europe with researchers including Dr. Miklos Gabor, Dr. Antti Arstila, M.D., and Peter Rohdewald, Ph.D. Dr. Rohdewald became so enthralled with Pycnogenol that he later became the director of research and development for Horphag Research. Dr. Schönlau, what attracted your interest in Pycnogenol that you, too, joined Horphag and got involved in Pycnogenol research?

Schönlau: As the director for research and development, Dr. Rohdewald began to dramatically expand the research projects on Pycnogenol. It was he who directed the research more toward clinical investigations to pinpoint individual health benefits. This was much closer to the consumer’s interest than any laboratory investigations.

In turn, these projects were getting increasingly demanding in terms of organization and communication. During those days, Dr. Rohdewald was a teaching professor at the University of Münster in Germany. I had a post-doc position, carrying out basic research on vascular dysfunctions and chronic inflammation. I had the pleasure to meet him and he introduced me to Pycnogenol. I was thrilled to learn about the potency of this natural ingredient which counteracted all the harmful processes threatening the health of blood vessels. I found it much more compelling and personally more fulfilling to investigate how Pycnogenol can help people to stay healthy and joined Horphag Research. This was a step I never regretted for a single moment.

In the meantime, the research group has been further expanded with Carolina Burki, Ph.D., a biologist with extensive experience in the pharmaceutical industry. Together, we publish four to six clinical studies each year!

Passwater: I’m aware there has been some recent cardiovascular research about Pycnogenol since we last talked. Can you highlight some of the latest research on this topic?

Schönlau: In general, cardiovascular health and vascular function represent the core health benefit of Pycnogenol. After 40 years of continuous research, there is no doubt that Pycnogenol significantly contributes to a healthier circulation, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Initially, we focused much of our research on the large arteries and veins. More recently, we began to focus in more detail on how exactly Pycnogenol supports the cardiovascular system. Moreover, we discovered that Pycnogenol extends its vascular benefits from large blood vessels to smaller blood capillaries. A great many ailments are related to insufficient blood microcirculation through the tiniest blood vessels.

Research in Japan carried out with healthy students as volunteers has demonstrated that Pycnogenol allows constricted arteries to relax better (9). With Pycnogenol, blood vessels are better able to “give way” when a pressure build-up occurs, by expanding the vessel diameter. It is interesting to note that this benefit also occurs in healthy people as this may, for example, allow better blood supply to muscles such as during sports.

Horphag Research has carried out the largest and longest placebo-controlled study to date with a pine bark extract for improving blood pressure (10). This study with 200 peri-menopausal women found that Pycnogenol during a six-month intake significantly lowered an already healthy blood pressure as compared with the group given an inactive placebo. Such studies are currently gaining increased importance as nutritional supplements shall be positioned for maintaining health rather than treating existing ailments. Such preventative studies are dramatically more demanding in terms of participating volunteers, time, personnel and most of all research budget. To date, there are few companies with the necessary commitment to disease prevention, which, to my opinion, will represent the future of nutritional supplements.

There is an exciting study to be published in 2011 that reveals Pycnogenol significantly improves vasodilatation. The study group consisted of people taking various medications for cardiovascular conditions, and all had a heart attack in the past. This randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over study conducted at the prestigious University Clinic of Zurich, Switzerland shows that Pycnogenol helps blood vessels regain the ability to relax and increases artery diameter to allow for smoother blood flow. It is fascinating to learn that Pycnogenol can contribute to healthier blood vessel function in a fashion that a plethora of other medications these people took could not.

Passwater: Please explain the blood microcirculation studies you mentioned. I believe this is a new area of research on Pycnogenol.

Schönlau: When blood pressure steadily increases and cholesterol deposits build up, all blood vessels in the body are affected. By their nature, the smallest blood vessels are the most fragile and more rapidly harmed to an extent at which they cannot fulfill their task.

As an example, the tiny capillaries supporting the retina in the eye with blood may begin to break and to leak blood, causing gradual vision loss. Just recently, a study showed that Pycnogenol can restore healthy blood flow in the eyes and even restore vision (11).

Another example is the capillaries in the kidney, which suffer quickly from elevated blood pressure. They get damaged to a point that they can no longer filter the waste from the blood and other constituents like proteins are spilled into the urine. Two clinical studies have shown that Pycnogenol dramatically improves kidney function in hypertensive people as well as people with metabolic syndrome (12, 13).

 Especially for people with diabetes, the problem of badly healing wounds (ulcers) represents a serious threat. Here again, the tiny capillaries are damaged to a point that the perfusion of the skin with blood, delivering oxygen and nutrients, is insufficient for supporting the healing process. A clinical trial has demonstrated faster blood microcirculation in the skin of diabetics and their wounds healed much faster (14).

The most recent finding on better microcirculation was related to a phenomenon not many people know about; it involves a ringing or humming noise in the ear (15). This disease, known as tinnitus, commonly occurs in people with typical cardiovascular risk factors. The capillaries in the ear (the cochlear) inefficiently supply oxygen-rich blood, which affects the hearing sensation. A clinical study showed major improvements with Pycnogenol. We actually had numerous responses from consumers telling us that they were unsuccessfully searching for a treatment option for years, until Pycnogenol finally offered them a solution that really worked.

Passwater: Pycnogenol is often mentioned in discussions as a “gold-standard ingredient” due to its extensive research portfolio and safety data. What is some of the history surrounding your company that led to such a strong commitment to research?

Schönlau: Our company, Horphag Research (exclusive worldwide supplier of Pycnogenol), remains deeply rooted in a commitment to scientific research surrounding high-quality nutritional ingredients. Charles Haimoff, who you knew well, the original founder of Pycnogenol, had a vision of “healthy aging” years and years ago which is kept alive today by our tireless dedication to research and development. Over the last 40 years, we have invested heavily in scientific research. Today, our flagship ingredient, Pycnogenol, is one of the most evidence-based health ingredients in the industry, with over 280 scientific publications confirming its quality, safety, non-toxicity and clinical efficacy. This number includes approximately 7,000 patients studied in 98 clinical studies—making it one of the safest and most researched ingredients available today.

Consumers are looking for natural ingredients that are proven safe and effective that can help maintain and/or improve their health and quality of life. The research and statistics I mentioned previously are becoming increasingly important and appealing to educated consumers who demand high-quality products backed by technology, research and safety.

In recognition of the company’s strong commitment to research, we have been awarded two high-profile awards. We received the 2008 Frost & Sullivan Excellence in Research of the Year Award in the North American health ingredients market. The award recognizes the company’s pioneering efforts in conducting several research projects over the years in addition to numerous clinical tests, validating Pycnogenol’s health benefits.

And, we just received the 2010 SupplySide West Scientific Excellence Award for Pycnogenol. The award recognizes Pycnogenol as one of the most innovative and researched ingredients within the nutraceutical industries. The award also acknowledges Horphag Research’s significant investment of $1.5 million a year in Pycnogenol research over the last three years.

Passwater: Today, with the competition and choices of ingredients, what makes Pycnogenol stand out?

Schönlau: At first glance, Pycnogenol’s promising health benefits and intriguing science portfolio set it apart from other botanicals available in the marketplace today. Pycnogenol originates from just one source: the bark of pine trees growing only in France. The extract of the bark is prepared according to good manufacturing practices with official French government certification.

Pycnogenol is standardized to comply with criteria defined in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia (USP), such as for composition and standardization. Every batch of Pycnogenol manufactured strictly complies with all details of the USP including the absence of heavy metals, contaminations, pesticides and many further parameters.

With a total of 7,000 people investigated in clinical trials, we have a pretty good understanding of its safety. The patents, credentials and safety data make Pycnogenol hard to miss! As a branded ingredient, the consumer can be sure that when they choose Pycnogenol they know the product contains exactly the same active ingredient; therefore, it will be safe and effective. Horphag Research routinely inspects products on the shelves bearing the Pycnogenol brand name on the label to have it analyzed by third-party laboratories, in order to police any possible product adulteration. With Pycnogenol, you can really be sure about what you get.

Passwater: Pycnogenol is extracted by a specific process from a specific species of plant, the French maritime pine, grown in a specific forest in the southwest of France. This species of tree has unique oligomeric procyanidins as well as smaller flavonoids common to many plants. What about other pine barks, since they may not have the same oligomeric procyanidins specific to the French maritime pine? Would they have the same health benefits?

Schönlau: In principal, other pine bark extracts may surely deliver some bioactive flavonoids as well, such as for antioxidant activity. It will require skills and extensive work to generate an efficacious and safe product. This is a major investment of time and resources. But, of course, if you utilize bark from a different botanical source—and there are a great many pine tree varieties in the world—the composition will surely be different from Pycnogenol. We do see a variety of Asian pine bark extracts on the market. One aspect that is often neglected in this regard is the extraction process. Bark from the same source extracted by different methods will yield quite different products.

In 2010, a study at the University of Stanford showed that a Japanese pine bark extract completely failed to improve any of the investigated parameters, among them blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. It is admirable from a research standpoint that the sponsoring company chose to publish the disappointing results. Fortunately, the study found that the investigated pine bark extract did not cause any harm. The conclusion here is that not all pine bark extracts are created equal.

Passwater: Dr. Schönlau, the news you shared with us about an additional cardiovascular health benefit of Pycnogenol is of great practical use. Thanks for chatting with us once again about the research behind Pycnogenol. WF

Pycnogenol® is a registered trademark of Horphag Research Ltd and protected by U.S. Patents #5,720,956 /#6,372,266 and other international patents.

Dr. Richard Passwater is the author of more than 40 books and 500 articles on nutrition. He is the vice president of research and development for Solgar Vitamin and Herb. Dr. Passwater has been WholeFoods Magazine’s science editor and author of this column since 1984. More information is available on his Web site, www.drpasswater.com.

1. R.A. Passwater, “The Science of Pycnogenol,” WholeFoods Magazine 26 (8), (2003).
2. R.A. Passwater, “Pycnogenol: A New, Natural Solution for Joint Health,” WholeFoods Magazine 31 (11), 28–31 (2008).
3. R.A. Passwater, Live Better Longer: The Science Behind the Amazing Health Benefits of OPC (Basic Health Publications, Laguna Beach, CA, 2008).
4. R.A. Passwater, User’s Guide to Pycnogenol: Nature’s Most Versatile Supplement (Basic Health Publications, Laguna Beach, CA, 2005).
5. R.A. Passwater, Pycnogenol for Superior Health (McCleery & Sons, Fargo, ND, 2001).
6. R.A. Passwater, All About Pycnogenol (Avery, New York, NY, 1998).
7. R.A. Passwater, Pycnogenol: The Super “Protector” Nutrient (Keats, New Canaan, CT, 1994).
8. R.A. Passwater, The New Superantioxidant—Plus (Keats, New Canaan, CT, 1992).
9. K.  Nishioka et al., “Pycnogenol, French Maritime Pine Bark Extract, Augments Endothelium-Dependent Vasodilation in Humans,” Hypertens. Res. 30 (9), 775–780 (2007).
10. H-M Yang et al., “A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial on the Effect of Pycnogenol on the Climacteric Syndrome in Peri-Menopausal Women,” Acta Obstet. Gynecol. Scand. 86 (8), 978–985 (2007).
11. R. Steigerwalt  et al., “Pycnogenol Improves Microcirculation, Retinal Edema, and Visual Acuity in Early Diabetic Retinopathy,” J. Ocul. Pharmacol. Ther. 25 (6), 537–540 (2009).
12. M.R. Cesarone et al., “Kidney Flow and Function in Hypertension: Protective Effects of Pycnogenol in Hypertensive Participants—A Controlled Study,” J. Cardiovasc. Pharmacol. Ther. 15 (1), 41–46 (2010).
13. S. Stuard, et al., “Kidney Function in Metabolic Syndrome may be Improved with Pycnogenol,” Panminerva Med. 52 (Suppl. 1–2), 27–32 (2010).
14. G. Belcaro  et al., “Diabetic Ulcers: Microcirculatory Improvement and Faster Healing with Pycnogenol,” Clinical and Applied Thromb. Hemost. 12 (3), 318–323 (2006). 
15. M.G. Grossi et al., “Improvement in Cochlear Flow with Pycnogenol in Patients with Tinnitus: A Pilot Evaluation,” Panminerva Med. 52(1–2), 63–67 (2010).

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, February 2011