French pine bark is a substance obtained from the bark of the French marine pine tree. Supplement manufacturers use an extract of this bark to make a commercial product called Pycnogenol, which contains significant amounts of antioxidants. Antioxidants can potentially benefit your health because they fight the damaging effects of a process inside your body called oxidation. Left unchecked, high levels of oxidation can potentially contribute to the onset of a wide variety of serious or life-threatening ailments, including rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and cardiovascular disease.
French Pine Bark Basics
The French marine pine  is found in coastal environments throughout the western portion of the Mediterranean Sea, including locations in southern France, Morocco, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Because of its general distribution, the tree is also known as the European coastal pine. In the 1950s, a French scientist discovered a group of related chemicals—called proanthocyanidins—in the bark of the French marine pine. Proanthocyanidins are just one form of a much larger group of substances known collectively as antioxidants.
Understanding Oxidation and Antioxidants
Your body is regularly exposed to oxidation  when the food you consume gets broken down and used for short-term energy needs inside your cells, or when this energy gets stored in your cells for future use. Inevitably, oxidation produces chemically unstable substances commonly known as free radicals . When free radicals circulate inside your body, they “steal” particles called electrons from neighboring atoms and alter those atoms’ normal functions.
When it occurs on a sufficiently large scale, potential consequences of this electron theft include:
- Damaging changes in the membranes that guard the interiors of your cells
- An increased tendency for harmful LDL cholesterol to stick on the walls of your arteries
- And unwanted rewriting of the normal genetic code contained in your DNA
In addition to the chemical reaction triggered during food digestion, we’re all susceptible to oxidation and free radicals generated through exposure to direct sunlight. Additional common sources of oxidation and free radical generation include:
- Exposure to other forms of radiation
- Exposure to pollution or other types of airborne contaminants
- Smoking any type of tobacco product
The term “antioxidant” does not refer to one specific type of chemical or substance. Instead, it refers to any chemical or substance that fights or slows free radicals by stopping them from stealing vulnerable electrons.
Some antioxidants come from sources  in your diet such as:
- The mineral selenium
- The plant and vegetable pigment called lycopene
- The plant and vegetable pigment called beta-carotene
- The mineral manganese
- Substances in plants called flavonoids
- Foods that contain vitamins A, C and E
Your body can also make certain types of antioxidants internally, include the substances coenzyme Q10  (CoQ10) and glutathione. Other antioxidants, including French pine bark extract, are only available as manmade supplements.
Most of the proven benefits of antioxidants come when we consume them in their natural form inside foods such as whole grains, vegetables and fruits. In addition to antioxidants, these foods contain dietary fiber and a variety of nutrients, and it’s likely that these substances work together in complicated ways to support our overall health.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, there is relatively little evidence to support the benefits of taking individual antioxidant supplements. Potential reasons for the difference in effect between the natural antioxidants in food and supplemental antioxidants include:
- Loss of important chemical properties during extraction of supplemental antioxidants from natural food sources
- The use of synthetic laboratory processes to create manmade antioxidants
French Pine Bark Extract Effects and Uses
The antioxidant proanthocyanidins in French pine bark extract achieve their main effects  by stealing particles from various types of free radicals, and thereby deactivating these dangerous substances. In addition, proanthocyanidins help heighten your body’s production of its natural antioxidant glutathione stores, help block the production of certain proteins that trigger the onset of artery hardening and tissue inflammation, and help widen your arteries. They may also play a role in killing breast cancer cells, preventing Alzheimer’s-related brain cell damage, and protecting your body from the toxic effects of certain chemotherapy drugs.
Some of the studies on the effectiveness of French pine bark extract have been conducted on animals or in artificial laboratory conditions, while others have been conducted on people. Human studies on the extract have only produced preliminary results, and scientists still need to do further research. However, there is enough current information to give us a picture of French pine bark’s potential uses.
In America, an independent, nonprofit organization called the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database  helps assess the proven medical effectiveness of various types of herbal or natural substances.
According to standards set by this organization, the antioxidants and other chemicals in French marine pine bark extract are classified as “possibly effective”  for the treatment of:
- Cases of childhood asthma
- Damage to your retinas associated with conditions such as hardening of the arteries and diabetes
- Hypertension that occurs during the active or systolic phase of your heartbeat
- Allergy symptoms related to exposure to birch tree pollen
- Leg-related symptoms of poor blood flow
In addition, French pine bark extract is classified as possibly effective for increasing average athletic endurance in the years between young adulthood and middle age.
The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database also says that French pine bark extract has the potential to help in the treatment of a number of other ailments, although there is currently not enough available scientific evidence to support any direct health claims.
Ailments that fall into this category include pain related to menstrual cramps or endometriosis, muscle cramps in your legs, menopause-related discomfort, male sexual dysfunction, heart disease, high levels of LDL cholesterol, osteoarthritis, diabetes-related blood flow problems, and a form of dangerous blood clotting called deep vein thrombosis. There is also insufficient evidence to gauge French pine bark extract’s ability to slow the general effects of aging or help you prevent the onset of a stroke.
French Pine Bark Extract Risks
Most people can safely take 50 to 450 mg of French pine bark extract each day for as long as half a year. The specific amount you can take will vary according to your personal circumstances and your doctor’s recommendation. Potential side effects of using the extract include the formation of ulcers inside your mouth, stomach distress, headaches and dizziness or lightheadedness. You should avoid using French pine bark if you’re pregnant or nursing, have known allergies to pine or pine bark, or have rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or any other type of autoimmune disorder.
You will also need to get your doctor to review all of your medications, herbs, and supplements before you can safely begin taking French pine bark. Specific medications that will work differently (and potentially dangerously) in combination with the extract include immune system suppressants such as prednisone or cyclosporine, chemotherapy drugs such as alkylating agents or anthracyclines, and any drug designed to stop your blood from clotting or coagulating normally.
While French pine bark has antioxidant properties that can potentially improve or protect your health in a number of ways, doctors and scientists don’t really have enough information to fully verify any specific use for the extract, and no one can know in advance if you’ll gain any benefit from this supplement. Like other types of antioxidants that are isolated from a natural source, the extract may not have the same effects as antioxidants consumed as part of fruits, whole grains, or veggies. However, the jury is still out on French pine bark, and it may yet prove to play a significant role in safeguarding your short- and long-term health.
©2012 Off the Grid News