Barking Up the Right Tree

Antioxidants called OPCs can help you feel—and look—good.

By Lisa James

April 2006

It’s December 1535, and a French exploration party led by Jacques Cartier is trapped by ice along the coast of what would eventually be known as Canada. One by one, the men fall victim to a gruesome array of symptoms: bleeding gums, rotten jawbones, deep bruises. Of 110 crew members, 25 have already died. Will anyone make it back to France alive?

Then a Native American tells the desperate explorers about a tea brewed from the aneeda tree that will provide a sure cure. It works. The remaining men survive.

We now know that Cartier’s crew suffered from scurvy, or extreme vitamin C deficiency, and that needles from the aneeda, or French maritime pine, contain abundant C. What's more, the bark is chock-full of substances that aid vitamin C called oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs), which are also found in grape seeds (where they account for part of wine’s healthy reputation). OPCs have put both grape seed extract and Pycnog­enol® (French maritime pine bark extract) at the therapeutic forefront.

Free Radical Fighters

OPCs are powerful antioxidants, which fight cell-harming molecules called free radicals. Just as important, they support the antioxidant action of vitamins C and E, helping to recharge both nutrients when the vitamins themselves become oxidized. Free radicals have been linked with just about every form of chronic disease, including heart ailments and cancer, which explains OPCs’ wide-ranging health benefits.

OPCs also promote well-being by alleviating inflammation, another factor common to many disorders. In clinical trials Pycnogenol has helped children with mild to moderate asthma breathe easier, reduced inflammatory activity linked with lupus and diminished pain stemming from arthritic knees.

In addition to helping you feel good, OPCs may help you look good, too. They protect elastin and collagen, the main proteins in skin tissue; studies show that OPCs have forestalled sun damage and speeded wound healing.

Blood Vessel Bounty

Since blood vessels are also made of elastin and collagen, OPCs can help make the vascular system less leaky and more supple. This helps explain why these nutrients have shown so much promise in helping to ease circulatory disorders.

Poor circulation in the legs can cause venous congestion, marked by heaviness, pain and swelling. OPCs have been found to diminish those symptoms and to help heal skin ulcers caused by poorly functioning veins. And OPCs may prove to be the traveler’s best friend: Pycnogenol has reduced leg swelling on long-distance plane flights.

Leaky blood vessels in the eye (which are generally associated with diabetes) can cause a sight-robbing ailment called retinopathy. In one study, OPCs strengthened the tiny vessels in the back of the eye, helping to stabilize vision.

Relaxed blood vessels mean lower blood pressure, which drops the risk of cardiovascular disease, and researchers have found that both Pycnogenol and grape seed extract can help force pressure down. OPCs may also help fight high cholesterol buildup, another big heart risk factor: “Our studies on guinea pigs found that grape seed extract kept cholesterol from accumulating in arteries,” says C. Tissa Kappagoda, professor of cardiovascular medicine at UC Davis.

Today, most of us don’t have to worry about scurvy, but we do have to ensure good circulatory health. OPCs can help you thrive as you embark on your own adventures.

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