Pycnogenol: Nutrition Facts, Benefits, Bioavailability

The antioxidant compounds in Pycnogenol and their benefits
Pycnogenol, a Pine Bark extract rich in Flavonoids and Phenolic acids with antioxidative benefits

Table Of Contents

1. Introduction

Does the word “Pycnogenol” sound all Greek to you? Well, that’s because it is Greek. It essentially means “condensed class”. Pycnogenol is named after its main constituents, a class of Flavonoids called “condensed tannins”. Isn’t that interesting? Or am I just being a condensed geek again? 

My hopes for a post that would require minimum research were crashed once again. Just check the References section to get an idea. However, I made an effort to make a condensed post. Really. To learn everything about the benefits of Pycnogenol, read on!

As always, read the most basic info in the text in bold. You’ll miss all the fun though: a detailed analysis of Oligomeric Procyanidins is the one thing that’s missing in your life right now!

2. What is Pycnogenol?

Pycnogenol is not a compound. It is the trade name of an extract from a maritime French Pine Bark. It is exclusively derived from trees from Landes De Gascogne, an area in coastal southwest France. It contains a mixture of Polyphenols, each with its own distinct properties.

So, Pycnogenol is not just one antioxidant, like Vitamin C. Think of it as a concentrated blend of different, natural antioxidants.

The Polyphenols in Pycnogenol have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and photoprotective benefits. And it is very likely that they act synergistically.

Interestingly, Pycnogenol even contains Ferulic Acid and Caffeic acid!

Pine bark has been used for medicinal purposes in various parts of the world since ancient times. Hippocrates even mentioned that it has anti-inflammatory properties. Pine Bark was even used to treat scurvy.

3. Pycnogenol Composition

Pycnogenol consists mainly of Flavonoids and Phenolic Acids, which are classes of Polyphenols

The main antioxidants in Pycnogenol are Procyanidins. The latter are a type of Proanthocyanidins which are in turn a subclass of Flavonoids. As a standardized extract, Pycnogenol is guaranteed to contain roughly 70% Procyanidins.

So, the bulk of its antioxidant power comes from these compounds. Some other Flavonoids in Pycnogenol are Catechin, Epicatechin and Taxifolin.

Pycnogenol also contains Phenolic acids, mainly Caffeic Acid and Ferulic Acid.

Recap

Are you confused with all these categories? Here’s a recap, from larger to smaller category: 

  1. Polyphenols ⇨ Flavonoids ⇨ Proanthocyanidins (or condensed tannins) ⇨ Procyanidins
  2. Polyphenols ⇨ Flavonoids ⇨ Catechin / Epicatechin / Taxifolin 
  3. Polyphenols ⇨ Phenolic Acids ⇨ Ferulic acid / Caffeic acid

If I ever bump into you, you’ll be tested. So, memorize all these categories. Τhere are actually more subcategories, but I am being nice.

Other food sources with the antioxidants of Pycnogenol

These antioxidants are not found on Pycnogenol only. They are present in many plants.

Procyanidins are common in the human diet and they are found in many foods derived from plants, such as grape skins and seeds, berries, apples and cocoa beans.

Ferulic Acid is found in most cereal grains and Caffeic acid is present in many fruits and vegetables. And coffee, obviously.

Procyanidins and Catechins

Procyanidins, Catechin and Epicatechin are related compounds. Procyanidins in Pycnogenol are oligomers that are built from Catechin and Epicatechin, which are monomers. 

Think of monomers as Lego bricks, and an oligomer as a small house built from those bricks. A polymer would be a mansion in Calabasas. That’s a simplified analogy, so don’t hate me if you’re a scientist.

4. Antioxidative Properties of Pycnogenol

The Polyphenols in Pycnogenol are potent free radical scavengers and they work in a multitude of ways against oxidative stress. They most likely act synergistically.

Research has shown that Pycnogenol fights oxidation indirectly too, by enhancing the activity of endogenous antioxidants. These are antioxidants produced by our own bodies, such as Superoxide Dismutase, Glutathione and Catalase.

Pycnogenol may also protect Vitamin E and regenerate oxidized Vitamin C in cells. There’s also some evidence that it protects DNA from oxidative damage.

Some research on the antioxidative benefits of Pycnogenol was conducted in vitro, i.e. not on living organisms. However, various studies on humans also showed an increase in antioxidant activity that was proven with blood tests.

5. Pycnogenol bioavailability

Pycnogenol is considered to have very good bioavailability. Some of its components are metabolized by bacteria into other substancesmetabolites– that have antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties. 

The main metabolite is δ-(3,4-dihydroxy-phenyl)-γ-valerolactone. Fortunately for all of us, it is abbreviated as M1.

One or way the other, various beneficial compounds from Pycnogenol enter the bloodstream to some extent. However, the exact extent varies between different individuals.

Components of Pycnogenol have also been found in the synovial fluid of patients with Osteoarthritis. This might partly explain why Pycnogenol offers anti-inflammatory benefits for people with this condition.

An interesting fact is that the antioxidants in Pycnogenol don’t enter the bloodstream at the same pace. Catechin, Ferulic Acid and Taxifolin enter the bloodstream more rapidly.

Procyanidins, on the other hand, are slowly metabolized by intestinal bacteria. 

All studies regarding Pycnogenol’s bioavailability are associated with the company that manufactures it! They seem well-designed but inevitably there’s potential bias.

6. Ηealth Benefits of Pycnogenol

Pycnogenol may improve various aspects of our health, mainly thanks to its antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties. Some research has shown that Pycnogenol:

7. Reliability of studies on Pycnogenol

A review of Pycnogenol studies concluded that more research is needed to confirm the health benefits of Pycnogenol for chronic disorders. 

I agree, and there is definitely potential bias in various studies. But there are also studies with no obvious potential bias. 

Moreover, all studies I described above are about Pycnogenol as a whole. But there’s plenty more research on each of the antioxidants in Pycnogenol.

All Polyphenols in Pycnogenol exist in many other plant-based foods and they have been found beneficial as constituents of these foods. 

For example, Procyanidins from cocoa, apples and grapes have been proven effective against various health concerns. A 2021 study found that a diet high in Flavonoids clearly reduces the risk of age-related cognitive decline.

Pycnogenol is not a medication but I do think that it has the potential to improve health for some people. It is not a replacement for medications but it may enhance their effects.

8. Pycnogenol for photoprotection

Just like many antioxidants, Pycnogenol may have photoprotective benefits: it reduces the harmful effects of UV radiation, both as a supplement and a skin care ingredient. So, it has potential as a sunscreen booster but it doesn’t replace it, of course. 

The photoprotective properties of compounds such as Ferulic Acid and Astaxanthin are perhaps backed by more research. On the other hand, Pycnogenol actually contains Ferulic Acid as well as other antioxidants that have been studied individually for their photoprotective effects.

8.1 Pycnogenol supplements

In a trial, Pycnogenol reduced the Minimal Erythema Dose in fair-skinned volunteers. Usually abbreviated as MED, this is the lowest amount of UV light that can cause skin redness. 

In other words, if you take a Pycnogenol supplement, you may be able to sit longer in the sun without getting sunburnt. The volunteers took 1.10 to 1.66 mg per kg of body weight. 

However, you can’t just pop a Pycnogenol pill and expect instant results. It may take around 4-8 weeks for the photoprotective effect of Pycnogenol to develop.

Pine Bark Extract was also found effective against skin cancer from UV radiation in mice.

8.2 Topical Pycnogenol

In a study on mice, a lotion with 0.1% Pycnogenol reduced sunburn significantly. A lotion with 0.2% Pycnogenol dramatically reduced the risk of developing skin cancer. Concentrations as low as 0.05% had some positive effect too.

Humans and hairless mice are not exactly the same thing, even though the resemblance is uncanny sometimes. But I’m pretty sure that topical Pycnogenol will protect your skin from UV damage to some extent.

 And it will most likely act synergistically with other proven photoprotective compounds, such as Ascorbic Acid and Astaxanthin.

9. Pycnogenol for signs of aging

There’s not a great deal of research on the effects of Pycnogenol on wrinkles and loss of elasticity. 

Pycnogenol may inhibit the activity of various Matrix Metalloproteinases, enzymes that degrade collagen. It may also reduce elastin degradation. These observations are from in vitro studies. (not on living organisms)

However, there are trials on humans too. 

In a trial, a supplement with Pycnogenol (75 mg) increased skin hydration and elasticity in postmenopausal women. It also enhanced synthesis of Hyaluronic Acid in their skin.

In another trial, Pycnogenol supplementation (100 mg) protected the skin of outdoor workers in China from environmental stress. It prevented a decrease in skin hydration and it improved skin elasticity.

So, in both trials, the participants took a supplement. They didn’t use skin care products.

Do you need Pycnogenol in your skin care routine?

I couldn’t find any study on the benefits of topical Pycnogenol for aging skin. That was kind of a surprise, given its relevant popularity as a skin care ingredient. However, an in vitro study found that Pycnogenol gets absorbed by human skin.

As a potent blend of antioxidants with photoprotective properties, I think that Pycnogenol is great for prevention. Even if it doesn’t do a lot for existing signs of aging, I think it’s a great investment for the future of your skin. 

I personally use a skin care product with Pycnogenol daily and after the research for this post, I’ll definitely keep using it.

10. Pycnogenol for hyperpigmentation

There’s some limited evidence that oral ingestion of Pycnogenol reduces hyperpigmentation

Pycnogenol may inhibit Tyrosinase activity, an enzyme that plays a key role in the production of Melanin. It may reduce Melanin production in other ways too. These conclusions are from in vitro studies.

A couple of studies on humans showed that oral Pycnogenol may benefit people with melasma. In one trial, most volunteers saw an improvement after taking 100 mg for 90 days. 

In another trial, the participants saw an improvement after taking 75 mg of Pycnogenol.

So what about topical Pycnogenol? No studies, surprisingly. Since Pycnogenol appears to be absorbed by human skin, I feel that it’s worth giving it a shot. Just don’t rely on Pycnogenol alone.

11. Pycnogenol for Psoriasis and Eczema

Pycnogenol is often recommended for Atopic Dermatitis and Psoriasis. However, there’s barely any research on its benefits for these conditions specifically.

In a study, oral Pycnogenol plus standard medications improved Psoriasis more than medications alone. It reduced redness and skin peeling and it improved skin moisture. It also decreased oxidative stress in the patients.

Oxidative stress is typically elevated in inflammatory disorders, including Atopic Dermatitis and Psoriasis. Pycnogenol does have antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties.

So, it is very likely to offer some benefits for inflammatory skin conditions. Perhaps it can enhance the results of prescription medications.

Interestingly, some Reddit users have reported excellent results from topical Pycnogenol on dyshidrotic eczema, a type of eczema that develops in the hands and feet.

12. Pycnogenol Vs other Pine Bark extracts

Pycnogenol is not the only Pine Bark Extract on the market. There are plenty of Pine Bark extracts. However, we don’t really know how they compare to each other, quality-wise. 

Pycnogenol is backed by more research than other Pine Bark extracts. On the other hand, Pycnogenol supplements tend to be pricier than other extracts.

Some Pine Bark extracts have very inventive trade names, such as Flavangenol, which was found effective against photoaging in a study. But my favourite is Oligopin. That’s almost an anagram for Pycnogenol!  But I think that “oligo” stands for the Oligomeric Procyanidins in Pine Bark Extracts.

Oligopin may actually be one of the best Pycnogenol alternatives: It is sourced from the same forest as Pycnogenol and it seems to have very similar composition to Pycnogenol. 

If you can’t afford Pycnogenol supplements, I definitely think it’s worth trying other Pine Bark extracts. But I don’t recommend buying them from dubious Amazon sellers with a suspiciously large amount of positive reviews.

13. Pycnogenol dosage and side-effects

In the vast majority of clinical trials, the volunteers took at least 100 mg of Pycnogenol daily. There are supplements with doses as low as 30 mg but that dosa may not be enough to see benefits to your health. However, if you regularly eat foods rich in Flavonoids, 30 mg might still be a good addition to your diet.

The risk of side-effects is very low. The most common side-effect is gastrointestinal discomfort, which is why it is recommended to take Pycnogenol with a meal.

There is no indication that it is unsafe during pregnancy or breast-feeding, but it is recommended to avoid it or use it cautiously, especially in the first months of pregnancy.

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What’s your experience with Pycnogenol? Leave a comment below!

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