© Whole Foods Magazine

August 2003


The Science of Pycnogenol:


An interview with Dr. Frank Schoenlau


By Richard A. Passwater, Ph.D.

In May, we chatted with Dr. Ron Watson about the heart health benefits of Pycnogenol. This month, I have asked Frank Schoenlau, Ph.D., director of scientific communications for Horphag Research, to discuss new research concerning some of the other health benefits of Pycnogenol. After my chat with Dr. Watson, I was surprised to discover that I hadn’t discussed the broader range of research here since 1997. As the scientific literature continues to grow about the health benefits of Pycnogenol, you can see why this has been one of my favorite nutrients.


The first time I discussed Pycnogenol in this column was in May 1991 in my column “Pycnogenol: Powerful New Antioxidant.” Since that time I have asked several researchers around the world to discuss their research with us. These have included Dr. Peter Rohdewald of Germany on the “Safety and Efficacy of Pycnogenol” in July, 1994, Dr. Antti Arstila of Finland on “Sun Damage, Skin and Pycnogenol” in August, 1994, Dr. Miklos Gabor of Hungary on “Inflammation and Pycnogenol” in September 1994, Dr. Ron Watson of the University of Arizona on the “Immune Function and Pycnogenol” in October 1995, and Dr. Rohdewald again on the latest research in August 1997.


Passwater: Dr. Schoenlau, what stimulated your interest in studying Pycnogenol?


Schoenlau: My interest in chemistry and eventually biochemistry began in school. I was very interested in the phenonenon of chemical reactions and how chemical substances can readily react with each other to form completely different new substances. It all looked like a miracle. I soon realized that the real miracles were happening in living beings: hundreds of complex biochemical pathways interconnected with each other. I studied chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Munster in Germany. For many years I did basic research comprising immune responses, cancer, vascular disorders, and inflammatory processes.


Coincidentally, I met Dr. Rohdewald at the University and I learned that he was doing research on Pycnogenol. I was excited about the enormous potential of this substance, and Dr. Rohdewald suggested that we join our efforts to conduct research on Pycnogenol. To date I have published several scientific articles on Pycnogenol research and I am convinced that this unique substance continues to bear fruit. 


Passwater: What are some of the recent scientific publications on Pycnogenol research?


Schoenlau: A very recently completed clinical study, which has just been submitted for publication, demonstrates Pycnogenol’s profound anti-hypertensive action.


Dr. Ron Watson had previously shown that Pycnogenol significantly reduces high blood pressure in people who don’t yet take antihypertensive medication. The new study has been carried out with hypertensives who do take prescribed medication, containing nifedapine (a so-called “calcium blocker”) as the active principle. A group of patients receiving Pycnogenol was able to significantly reduce their prescribed medication without an increase in blood pressure. This was not the case in a control group receiving dummy tablets (placebo).


Passwater: What are the properties of Pycnogenol that are producing these health benefits?


Schoenlau: There is increasing evidence that Pycnogenol improves the balance between relaxation and constriction in blood vessels. As a consequence, blood can flow more easily which results in more normal blood pressure. There are quite a few hormones and vascular mediators involved in causing constriction and relaxation, respectively. Dr. Watson has shown that Pycnogenol reduces production of thromboxane, a hormone-like substance causing constriction of blood vessels. Furthermore, Pycnogenol stimulates production of nitric oxide. This substance is produced by cells making up the blood vessel wall. Nitric oxide (NO) instructs the muscles surrounding blood vessels to relax and stop constriction. Thus, Pycnogenol supports the body’s own mechanisms for better circulation.


Passwater: What is unique about Pycnogenol?


Schoenlau: The uniqueness of Pycnogenol is the fact that it has several basic biochemical actions in one nutritional supplement. Most people refer to Pycnogenol as being the super-antioxidant, which it surely is. Less well known are biochemical actions such as the ability to bind and protect collagen, to enhance production of the body’s own substance to normalize vascular functions (nitric oxide) and the fact that Pycnogenol is anti-inflammatory.


Many people who know a little more about Pycnogenol wonder how this nutritional supplement can have so many health benefits. If you take a look at the manifold basic actions, this is easily explained. The ability to bind collagen is the reason why Pycnogenol can strengthen and seal brittle vessels. Pycnogenol assists the body to more efficiently produce nitric oxide, which makes blood platelets less sticky and dilates constricted arteries. This results in improved blood flow, and high blood pressure is counteracted.


The anti-inflammatory action of Pycnogenol is responsible for helping asthmatics breathe more easily, as Dr. Watson has shown us. None of the benefits just mentioned are due to Pycnogenol’s antioxidant activity.


Passwater: What do we know about Pycnogenol’s antioxidant properties? What radicals does Pycnogenol inactivate?


Schoenlau: Pycnogenol is one of the very few antioxidants that is able to neutralize all varieties of radicals containing oxygen. The reactive oxygen species are the most energetic and most vicious free radicals. Left unchecked, these oxygen radicals can damage essentially all biologic material in our body, especially proteins, DNA, fats, and cell membranes.


Passwater: How does Pycnogenol compare with other antioxidant nutrients and foods? Does Pycnogenol conserve or recycle other antioxidants?


Schoenlau: Studies by Dr. Lester Packer, one of the most renowned researchers, if not the most renowned, on antioxidants, have shown that Pycnogenol is a dramatically more powerful antioxidant than vitamins C and E. He discovered that Pycnogenol is so powerful it can recycle spent vitamin C back to the bioactive form. Whenever vitamin C has neutralized a free radical it usually is used up. With Pycnogenol it can continue to neutralize one radical after the other. Similarly, Pycnogenol spares vitamin E, also prolonging its bioactivity.

Passwater: Didn’t Dr. Packer also show that Pycnogenol was a more powerful antioxidant than popular foods such as green tea, berries etc?


Schoenlau: Indeed, there probably is nobody else like Dr. Packer, who researched antioxidants contained in many natural sources. He investigated vegetable and fruit extracts and also researched vitamins, Gingko biloba and green tea extract. Dr. Packer showed in his studies that many antioxidants are specialized on extinguishing particular free radicals species, while they are rather weak limp with other free radical species. What makes Pycnogenol so special is the force to mop-up all kinds of radicals. As Dr. Packer expressed it in one of his books: “In fact, of all the natural compounds tested in my laboratory for antioxidant activity, Pycnogenol is the strongest.”


Passwater: What is the relationship between Pycnogenol and NO and other nitrogen radicals?


Schoenlau: Nitric oxide (NO) plays two very different roles in our body, a good role as well as a bad one. It is produced by cells of blood vessel walls in small quantities. As mentioned before, it is needed to cause muscles surrounding arteries to relax and keep blood platelets slippery. This is the body’s own mechanism for normalization of blood flow and blood pressure. In contrast, immune cells can produce several magnitudes of orders more NO than blood vessel walls. In this amounts NO is toxic. Immune cells produce excess amounts of NO during inflammation to extinguish invading microorganisms during infections. During inflammatory conditions in the absence of infections, the excess amounts of NO harm the body’s own cells. Pycnogenol was shown by Dr. Packer to inhibit excess production of NO by immune cells. This is part of the anti-inflammatory action of Pycnogenol.


Passwater: Why is this important to our health?

Schoenlau: It is important for a healthy circulation to have the continuous production of nitric oxide by the cells of blood vessel walls. However, many chronic inflammatory conditions cause much damage. Because immune cells produce so much NO they cause oxidative stress ultimately destroying the body’s own cells. Immune cells perceive the situation as if it were an infection. This calls for more immune cells, which at the same time get more aggressive. This vicious circle explains why many inflammatory disorders persist for so long. Pycnogenol can help to interrupt the sinister process; it is anti-inflammatory.


Passwater: What are some of the topics of your new patents?

Schoenlau: Pycnogenol has been awarded a patent for its benefits in cases of menstrual disorders. In Japanese studies, Pycnogenol proved to be helpful in cases were women suffered from severe menstrual pain. Pycnogenol was particularly effective against menstrual cramping pain. It is important to know that Pycnogenol itself is not a painkiller. Some of Pycnogenol’s constituents prevent the uterine muscle from causing cramps. Furthermore, Pycnogenol helps the blood vessels ruptured during menstruation to recover more easily. In the Japanese study some ladies were diagnosed having endometriosis. In endometriosis the cells lining the uterus, those cells that are shed during menstruation, are growing elsewhere in the abdominal cavity. During menstruation these cells are not shed like the ones in the uterus. Instead they get inflamed, and this is extremely painful. The Japanese researchers showed that the anti-inflammatory activity of Pycnogenol helps in cases of endometriosis. It is important to start taking Pycnogenol at least one week before the menstrual period starts.

Passwater: Specifically, what are the newest findings on Pycnogenol and fertility?


Schoenlau: In a recent study carried out at the West Essex Center of Advanced Endocrinology (West Orange, NJ), Dr. Scott Roseff was able to improve the sperm quality of sub-fertile men. Sperms are extremely vulnerable to oxidative stress because they contain large quantities of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). The high amounts of PUFA make membranes of sperms very soft and flexible. The development of sperms takes 90 days. If during that time a man lives unhealthfully, is exposed to pollution, or just lives under heavy stress, the resulting oxidative stress destructs the membranes of the developing sperms. Because Pycnogenol is such a powerful antioxidant, it helps prevent destruction of sperm membranes. It is important to take Pycnogenol continuously over long periods of time, at least 90 days, the time necessary for sperms to get mature. In a study in Europe, 40% of couples having difficulties in conceiving because of sperm quality were successful after using Pycnogenol for a year.


Passwater: How about Pycnogenol and asthma?

Schoenlau: With asthma, you have a typical case where the immune system mistakenly perceives a harmless foreign substance like pollen or animal hair as potentially dangerous. As a result, the bronchi begin to swell causing severe breathing problems. Often the vicious circle occurring in inflammation causes asthmatic attacks to persist over long periods of time. The anti-inflammatory activity of Pycnogenol was shown by Dr. Ron Watson to be very helpful for people suffering from asthma. They were able to breathe more easily. Also, inflammatory mediators in the bloodstream were shown to be lower after supplementation with Pycnogenol.


Passwater: Could you also describe the connection between Pycnogenol and “economy-class syndrome?”


Schoenlau: Remaining in a sitting position for long periods of time during long-haul flights increases the risk of blood platelets forming a clot. When the blood clot travels to an artery in the lung, it may get stuck there and block blood flow. This “pulmonary embolism” often has a fatal outcome. Pycnogenol was shown in several studies to keep blood platelets in the bloodstream slippery. This helps to prevent the much-feared "pulmonary embolism".


A much more common problem, though surely not life-threatening, is the phenomenon that lower legs and feet become swollen because the increased venous blood pressure in the lower limbs causes small capillaries to leak plasma into the surrounding tissue. Pycnogenol strengthens and seals brittle blood capillaries and has been shown in several clinical studies to counteract swellings in feet and lower legs. However, the phenomenon most people experience when they take Pycnogenol on long-haul flights is that their shoes fit when they arrive!


Passwater: What is the current overview of Pycnogenol and skin health?

Schoenlau: Pycnogenol’s biochemical actions are a dream for people formulating products for skin care. Pycnogenol has a high and specific affinity for collagen and elastin. Like a “magic bullet,” it finds its way to collagen and elastin, binds to them and acts there locally as a powerful antioxidant! Studies show that Pycnogenol bound to collagen and elastin prevents their degradation by free radicals and destructive enzymes.


Studies have also shown that Pycnogenol helps produce new collagen fibers. This helps make skin smoother and more elastic. Pycnogenol supports a better microcirculation, thus supporting better water, oxygen and nutrient supply and also better waste removal. Pycnogenol gives the skin a more vibrant glow.


Passwater: Are there any new safety studies or other safety data?


Schoenlau: Very recently, Pycnogenol was affirmed as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe). A panel of independent toxicology experts reviewed the toxicology data on Pycnogenol for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to a leading safety expert, Dr. George Burdock (a member of the American Board of Toxicology), the available safety data on Pycnogenol are so numerous and compelling that the GRAS status of Pycnogenol was achieved with ease. Particularly because Pycnogenol has not only been well-tested for safety in animal studies, but the tolerance in humans is also well documented. Pycnogenol can safely be taken continuously.


Passwater: Thank you, Dr. Schoenlau, for bringing us up to date on the research with this powerful and unique antioxidant. WF


© 2003 Whole Foods Magazine and Richard A. Passwater, Ph.D.

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