Protect Your Body’s Lifeline with OPCs

What do hemorrhoids and varicose veins have in common with heart attack and stroke? More than you might think. From the annoying to the severe, these health conditions are all related to dysfunction in the vascular system. Think of the vascular system as your body’s lifeline—it is the vast system of arteries, veins, and capillaries that carries blood throughout the body, delivering life-giving oxygen and nutrients to tissues and organs, while removing waste. The health of every body system depends on a healthy vascular system—respiratory health, gut health, brain health, kidney and urinary health, and cardiovascular health. When blood vessels in any part of the body become weak or damaged, so do surrounding tissues and organs, leading to health issues from the embarrassing and annoying (hemorrhoids) to the potentially deadly (stroke). Enter oligomeric proanthocyanidin complexes, or OPCs.

The term oligomeric proanthocyanidin complexes are without question a tongue twister dreamed up by a chemist, but they could have just as easily been called optimal protectors of cells because that’s exactly what they do. Here’s what you really need to know, though: OPCs are a type of flavonoid that is found in high concentrations in certain types of pine bark and grape seeds. They have a special affinity for the blood vessels, helping to strengthen the arteries, veins, and capillaries, thus reducing the risk of a myriad of health problems that may arise from weak, damaged, or ruptured blood vessels. OPCs are also one of nature’s antioxidant powerhouses with antioxidant activity 20 times greater than that of vitamin E and 50 times greater than vitamin C.1

OPCs in Action

The idea behind OPCs dates back to 1534, when a French expedition lead by Jacques Cartier became trapped by winter weather along the U.S.-Canadian border and developed scurvy. Native Americans showed the explorers how to make a tea from pine bark and needles that saved them. In the 1940s, a French researcher began investigating OPCs extracted from pine bark, identifying their structure and effects on health; it was later, in 1970, that OPCs were extracted from grape seeds.2 Since then, the biological effects of OPCs have been extensively studied.

The leading types of OPC supplements—pine bark extract (Pycnogenol® is a trademarked name for French maritime pine bark extract) and grape seed extract—contain different complexes of flavonoids and related polyphenol compounds. Because pine bark extract and grape seed extract possess similar biochemical activity, with only slight variations, it is widely accepted that both offer similar benefits. For the average consumer, it’s often best to skip the technical details and to focus on the research and specific health benefits that OPCs provide.

Brain Health

OPCs are unique in their ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, where they protect brain tissue from oxidative stress, an underlying factor in a number of brain disorders, from Alzheimer’s disease to attention deficit disorder.3 They also protect and strengthen the blood vessels that nourish our brains.

Memory, Attention Apan, and Decision Making

One new and promising area of research has found that OPCs can improve memory and cognition. Italian doctors asked 55 students, ages 18 to 27 years, to take 100 mg of Pycnogenol daily for eight weeks. They used another 55 students as a control group. Pycnogenol led to significant improvements in sustained attention, memory, decision making, and mood when compared with the control group.4

In a follow-up study, the same researchers studied 44 middle-aged and elderly people who went through cardiovascular screening and were identified as having high oxidative stress. The subjects were asked to take 50 mg of Pycnogenol twice daily for one year. They were then compared with a control group that hadn’t taken the supplement. People in the Pycnogenol group had improvements in memory, while memory decreased in the control group. In addition, day-to-day decision making and attention span improved among people taking Pycnogenol, compared with a decline in the control group.5

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Another area in which OPCs may have a useful role is in cases of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). One doubleblind, placebo-controlled study found that supplementing with Pycnogenol for one month (1 mg/kg body weight daily) significantly reduced oxidative stress in children with ADHD, while significantly increasing glutathione levels (glutathione is one of the body’s most powerful endogenous antioxidants).6 A similar placebo-controlled trial of 61 children with ADHD found that 1 mg/kg of body weight of Pycnogenol for one month resulted in a significant reduction in hyperactivity, while attention, concentration, and visual-motor coordination improved.7

General Vascular Health

OPCs (from both grape seed and pine bark) have a long history of use in Europe for treating vascular disorders, including chronic venous insufficiency, in which blood pools in the leg veins, causing aching, swelling, and abnormally visible veins; deep vein thrombosis; edema (buildup of fluid, causing swelling); “traveler’s thrombosis” (blood clot related to long-haul flights); varicose veins; and hemorrhoids.8 9 10 OPCs improve circulation, protect the inner lining of blood vessels, the endothelium, from oxidative damage, and strengthen blood vessel walls by inhibiting the breakdown of collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid, major structural components that give blood vessels their strength and elasticity.11 12 13

Hemorrhoids And Varicose Veins

Numerous studies have confirmed the vascular benefits of OPCs. In one clinical trial, German researchers treated 84 patients with Pycnogenol within two days of a hemorrhoid flareup. The dose was relatively high—300 mg of Pycnogenol daily for four days, followed by 150 mg daily for the next three days. The supplements stopped bleeding and led to significant reductions in pain.14 Another recent study found that daily Pycnogenol supplements reduced the risk of developing spider veins and varicose veins after pregnancy.15 Finally, a month-long study of 50 patients with venous insufficiency of the legs found that 150 mg daily of grape seed extract had a “rapid and lasting effect” on alleviating symptoms. 16

Cardiovascular Health

OPCs’ affinity for the vascular system makes them a no-brainer for cardiovascular health. In addition to maintaining the blood vessels’ strength and integrity, OPCs have other effects on the cardiovascular system. In a recent study, researchers asked 287 people to take either 200 mg of grape seed extract or placebos daily for two years. All of the patients had signs of plaque in their carotid arteries—the arteries that carry blood and oxygen to the brain—and abnormal thickening of the carotid artery wall, a sign of atherosclerotic vascular disease. They had ultrasound measurements of this artery when the study began and again at six, 12, and 24 months. By the end of the study, people taking grape seed extract benefited from significant decreases in the development of cholesterol-containing plaque in their carotid arteries as well as significant decreases in carotid artery thickness. They also had fewer heart attacks, coronary bypass surgeries, episodes of unstable angina, and transient ischemic attacks.17

In other research, Italian doctors gave 199 people with either mild or pre-hypertension 150 mg or 300 mg of grape seed extract daily for four months. The study also encouraged the subjects to make lifestyle changes. The grape seed extract reduced blood pressure and, according to the researchers, the higher dose led to normal blood pressures in 93 percent of the subjects.18 Similar results have been found with Pycnogenol.19 OPCs increase nitric oxide (NO) production in the endothelium which increases oxygen and blood flow and regulates blood pressure.20 21

Everything Under the Sun

The research on OPCs is vast and continually growing. While much of the earlier research focused on OPCs’ effects on specific vascular issues, the newest research is expanding to investigate a wide variety of ways that OPCs can influence health, indicating that they truly are the optimal protectors of cells.

Menopause

A recent Japanese study investigated the effects of grape seed extract on menopausal symptoms in 91 middle-aged women (40-60). During the eight-week study, the participants were randomized to take either 100 mg of grape seed extract daily, 200 mg/daily, or placebo. The high dose led to a decrease in hot flashes and insomnia, while both the high and low dose led to reductions in anxiety and blood pressure. Interestingly, both groups saw an increase in muscle mass after eight weeks of treatment.22 An earlier study with Pycnogenol saw similar results. In that study, 38 women took 100 mg of Pycnogenol for eight weeks and were compared with a control group at the end of the eight-week period. The Pycnogenol group experienced a significant reduction in a range of menopausal symptoms, including hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, loss of libido, and digestive problems. Oxidative stress was also significantly lower in the Pycnogenol group, which the researchers attributed the improvement in symptoms to.23

Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

Are increasingly becoming a public health threat. OPCs may be able to help. Researchers measured the antibacterial activity of grape seed extract against 43 strains of antibiotic-resistant MRSA (Staphylococcus aureus) and found that all 43 strains were sensitive to grape seed extract. The researchers concluded, “The considerable antibacterial activity of commonly available grape seed extract could signify a major advancement in the treatment of MRSA diseases.”24

Other research has discovered that OPCs can help in erectile dysfunction (ED),25 prevent insulin resistance caused by a high-fructose diet, 26 ease pain associated with osteoarthritis, 27 28 maintain normal nighttime melatonin levels, 29 improve the condition of UV-damaged skin, including reducing age spots and increasing elasticity, 30 increase levels of healthy gut bacteria and reduce inflammation in the gut, 31 improve sperm quality and function,32 and the list goes on.

Their vascular-strengthening, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties have made OPCs among the most extensively studied flavonoids, with a large and growing body of research proving their viability in treating a wide variety of health conditions, from the annoying to the serious. OPCs are highly bioavailable, can cross the blood-brain barrier, and have no known toxicity or side effects. Doses used in studies range between 50-300 mg a day.33 OPCs are an easy way to get an edge on health!

Sitting is bad for you… OPCs can help with that too!

We know sitting for long periods is bad for our health (as bad as smoking cigarettes, according to some experts!), but a lot of us have jobs that require lots of sitting. Getting up and taking regular breaks can help, and new research shows that OPCs can help counteract at least some of the negative health effects of sitting. In a controlled experiment, Japanese researchers asked healthy women to sit for six hours after taking grape seed extract or placebos. Leg swelling and water retention were significantly lower among the women taking grape seed extract.34

References Available Upon Request