An Interview with Ronald Ross Watson, Ph.D.
Pycnogenol is one of the most important, useful and researched dietary supplements. I first reported on Pycnogenol in this column in 1991 and have gone on to write six books on Pycnogenol (1–7). Scientists continue to expand the pool of published scientific research about this unique blend of bioflavonoid-related nutrients extracted from a specific plant species (Pinus maritime, the Maritime Pine that grows exclusively along the coast of southwest France) by a patented process that concentrates specific antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients. Therefore, it is important to keep readers abreast of the extensive ongoing research on Pycnogenol.
My attention was drawn to Pycnogenol because of its powerful antioxidant properties, but it was already being used in Europe for its effectiveness against allergies and for capillary health. Now, Pycnogenol research focuses on cardiovascular health, diabetes, inflammation-related diseases and Pycnogenol’s ability to protect the skin proteins collagen and elastin. Of special interest is Pycnogenol’s ability to aid the production of nitric oxide in the lining of artery walls, which is important to maintain optimal blood flow. Much of what we have learned about Pycnogenol and cardiovascular health has come from the clinical research of Ron Watson, Ph.D., and he is kind enough to review these important findings with us.
Dr. Watson has edited 35 books and more than 350 research reports on alcohol, nutrition and their interactions with immunology and cancer. His research focuses on antioxidants, to prevent cancer and AIDS by immune enhancement, and the use of vitamin supplementation to treat immunosenescence. Dr. Watson was among the first U.S. researchers to investigate the health benefits of Pycnogenol. He discovered that Pycnogenol enhances immune functions and established its manifold circulatory benefits in clinical studies. His upcoming book, Nutrients, Dietary Supplements, and Nutriceuticals: Cost Analysis versus Clinical Benefits, will include two chapters on Pycnogenol for managing diabetes and heart health, and will be published this year. He previously authored Nutrition and AIDS (CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 1994). Dr. Watson is currently a professor of research in the department of family and community medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He has directed a National Institutes of Health-funded Alcohol Research Center focusing on alcohol–immunology–AIDS interactions. Dr. Watson received his Ph.D. from Michigan State University in 1971, and studied immunology as a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University.
Passwater: Dr. Watson, it is good to chat with you again. Please remind our readers what first brought your interest to antioxidant nutrients.
Watson: My mother was a professor of nutrition and my father was a professor of infectious disease, so I got interested in how dietary supplements might work for strengthening the immune system and helping to fight infections. I took up studies in immune-compromised people such as children and AIDS patients in whom antioxidants were found to be depleted. I investigated the influence of dietary intervention on the complex interplay of different immune cell types during infections.
Passwater: I mentioned earlier that what brought my interest to Pycnogenol in 1990 was that it was a powerful antioxidant and that it was one of the few dietary supplements that was being well researched at that time. What led to your interest in Pycnogenol?
Watson: More than 10 years ago or so, I was approached by a German scientist who was excited about his preliminary findings suggesting that Pycnogenol might have an effect on lowering hypertension and preventing blood platelets from getting too sticky. I was asked to confirm his observations on Pycnogenol, which led to a patent and the start of new ones. Over the years, this connection developed into a very fruitful collaboration and I began to share his excitement about the versatility of this pine bark extract. At the time, Pycnogenol was one of only a few herbal products with well-documented chemical composition and safety data. During the past decade, I published seven articles on Pycnogenol and I have more coming “in press” and preparation (8 –14).
Watson: Initially, I began to study the heart health benefits of Pycnogenol. The majority of the beneficial effects of Pycnogenol for heart health are likely related to the enhanced generation of nitric oxide in cells lining blood vessel walls. The nitric oxide relieves arterial constriction and this releases the pressure build-up in the vascular system. At the same time, nitric oxide renders blood platelets less sticky, somewhat like the body’s own aspirin, which helps prevent thrombotic events. We were the first researchers pointing to anti-inflammatory activities of Pycnogenol in humans. We showed this effect for the first time in students who took Pycnogenol tablets, which protected them from getting sunburn under controlled exposure to UV light in the lab.
Passwater: Over the last decade studying Pycnogenol, what would you say were some of your major findings on the extract?
Watson: Personally, I got convinced about the activity of Pycnogenol when I investigated its effect on borderline hypertensive patients. When we did the study here at the university in Tucson in the year 2000, patients with systolic blood pressures of 140 mmHg were considered borderline hypertensive and they didn’t take medication. This, of course, is different today. Anyway, after taking Pycnogenol for eight weeks, their blood pressures went down significantly, bringing it close to 130 mmHg.
We then investigated the effects of Pycnogenol on the blood platelets of cigarette smokers. Smoking causes platelets to get “stickier,” which is the reason why these people have a high risk for heart attacks. We found that Pycnogenol prevented platelets in smokers from getting sticky as effectively as aspirin. These results were truly amazing, also because Pycnogenol doesn’t cause the longer bleeding time that aspirin does.
Passwater: You have taken an interest in Pycnogenol for heart health both in your cardiac remodeling study and your most recent work on Pycnogenol reducing symptoms of cardiovascular risk factors in diabetics. Please elaborate on the findings.
Watson: Hypertension is a major side effect of diabetes, which can be considered a “heart disease” due to the frequency of such clinical consequences. As mentioned, we were the first to demonstrate the benefits of Pycnogenol for lowering blood pressure. Therefore, we tested diabetics whose hypertension was only partially controlled by pharmaceutical drugs. We found that Pycnogenol was so effective that their blood pressures were under good control and the need for pharmaceutical drugs for hypertension was dramatically lowered. Probably equally exciting is the point that adding Pycnogenol to their standard anti-diabetic regimens (which included the drugs glitazides and metformin) helped their blood glucose finally reach healthy levels. In the placebo group, none of these benefits were found.
In animal experiments, we indeed found that Pycnogenol is effective for counteracting heart failure in response to chronic hypertension. The pressure essentially develops from the heart, which needs more force to pump blood in hypertensive people. In turn, the heart chamber wall wears out and the heart gradually loses the ability to pump sufficient amounts of blood to meet the organ’s metabolic demand. This can turn into fatal problems. I am keen to show a protective effect for heart failure with Pycnogenol in humans.
Passwater: Your research on Pycnogenol and osteoarthritis last year was the first of its kind on the ingredient and really created a buzz in the industry and among consumers. Can you explain some of your findings here?
Watson: We knew that Pycnogenol has considerable anti-inflammatory potency from studies such as our aforementioned sunburn protection research and our asthma trial. People living with osteoarthritis usually only have the option of taking pain killers. Chronic use of pain killers eventually leads to stomach ulcers but people will continue to use them to control pain of the joints. In our study, osteoarthritis patients took Pycnogenol or a look-alike placebo tablet in addition to their standard pain medication. We found that Pycnogenol does lower the chronic pain and joint stiffness, however this effect takes time to set in. Pain is decreased after one month and then continues to get much better when Pycnogenol was taken continuously for two months and then three months. And, the key observation was that our patients required significantly less pain medication at the end of the trial. In addition, there were several more days during which they didn’t require any pain medication at all anymore. This does truly improve people’s quality of life!
Passwater: What are some recent projects you are working on?
Watson: I have written a book called Nutrients, Dietary Supplements, and Nutriceuticals: Cost Analysis versus Clinical Benefits that will be published this year. I included Pycnogenol in two chapters of the book. The first chapter focuses on Pycnogenol supplementation and cardiovascular health and is essentially a treatment and cost-benefit analysis. The second chapter analyzes the potential costs and health benefits of Pycnogenol supplementation for type-2 diabetes. My conclusion is that Pycnogenol represents a cost-effective, side-effect–free nutritional option for people at risk for cardiovascular disease as well as diabetes.
Watson: It is not surprising that a complex plant extract has many activities. Some of the biomolecules in Pycnogenol are modified in the gut before absorption, leading to further diversity. While they all share the common feature of having antioxidant activity, they do apparently have additional functionality. And, they likely synergize and complement each other’s effects. Some constituents obviously facilitate better nitric oxide availability, which explains the cardiovascular health benefits. Other components appear to be potently anti-inflammatory. In the case of the anti-diabetic, it is has been shown by other researchers that the large procyanidin molecules in Pycnogenol slow down absorption of complex carbohydrates such as starch. In turn, they reach the bloodstream more slowly and steadily and the blood glucose doesn’t get too high.
Passwater: What are your comments on the recent studies claiming that antioxidants C & E have no effect on cardiovascular disease?
Watson: It is important to note that the bioflavonoid species in Pycnogenol lower hypertension and cholesterol without doubt and they are antioxidants. However, they have many other actions such as affecting production of nitric oxide, so their biomedical effects may be due to many effects with only a modest input from antioxidant activity. It is important to recognize that complex molecules can have many physiologic effects and interact with various receptors which are beyond our understanding today. The key concept for the general public is “Do they change biological systems for health promotion in hypertensive or diabetic patients?” Fortunately, a person taking Pycnogenol can, in the end, judge himself/herself whether it helped his/her joint pain, or brought his/her blood pressure and blood glucose to healthier values.
Passwater: What is the recommended amount of Pycnogenol and what types of formula options are available?
Watson: In the most recent studies, patients took on average 50 mg of Pycnogenol twice a day, once in the morning after breakfast and during the evening after dinner. Pycnogenol is available in capsules and tablets in various dosage forms (30–100 mg), which allow people to choose a product for their individual needs. In fact, there are over 700 products available worldwide including dietary supplements, cosmetic creams and lotions and functional foods and beverages. For more information, visit www.pycnogenol.com.
Passwater: Thank you, Dr. Watson, for chatting with us about some of the many health benefits of Pycnogenol, and for your research and writings about nutrients and the prevention of diseases.WF
Pycnogenol® is a registered trademark of Horphag Research Ltd and protected by U.S. Patents #5,720,956 /#6,372,266 and other international patents.
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8. M. Araghi-Niknam, et al., “Pine Bark Extract Reduces Platelet Aggregation,” Integr. Med. 2 (2), 73–77 (2000).
9. J.E. Cheshier, et al., “Immunomodulation by Pycnogenol in Retrovirus-Infected or Ethanol-Fed Mice,” Life Sci. 58 (5), PL 87–96 (1996).
10. S. Hosseini, et al., “Pycnogenol (R) in the Management of Asthma,” J. Med. Food 4 (4), 201–209 (2001).
11. M. Putter, “Inhibition of Smoking-Induced Platelet Aggregation by Aspirin and Pycnogenol,” Thromb. Res. 95 (4), 155-161 (1999).
12. C. Saliou, et al., “Solar Ultraviolet-Induced Erythema in Human Skin and Nuclear Factor-kappa-B-Dependent Gene Expression in Keratinocytes Are Modulated by a French Maritime Pine Bark Extract,” Free Radic. Biol. Med. 30 (2), 154–160 (2001).
13. S. Zibadi, et al., “Reduction of Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Subjects with Type-2 Diabetes by Pycnogenol Supplementation,” Nutr. Res. 28 (5), 315–320 (2008).
14. S. Zibadi, et al., “Impact of Pycnogenol on Cardiac Extracellular Matrix Remodeling Induced by L-NAME Administration to Old Mice,” Cardiovasc. Toxicol. 7 (1), 10–18 (2007).
Dr. Richard Passwater is the author of more than 40 books and 500 articles on nutrition. He is the vice president of research and development for Solgar Vitamin and Herb. Dr. Passwater has been WholeFoods Magazine’s science editor and author of this column since 1984. More information is available on his Web site, www.drpasswater.com.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, January 2011