The Pycnogenol Report

I’m not sure I trust medicine. I don’t mean the amber pill bottles lined up by the height of their childproof caps in my rusted medicine cabinet. I mean the practice of medicine. Specifically, the practice of it here in the old republic. I’m told we’re the best in world. The guidon bearers. I’m told that people swarm across the planet, like bees to a hive, for access to our doctors, or, more to the myth, our gleaming medical technology. I’m even told that they forgo socialized medicine in their particular god-forsaken hell-hole to come to ours to pay tens of thousands of dollars for treatments they cannot get elsewhere. Like any jagged little pill, be careful swallowing that whole.

In the hillbilly haven I hail from people say “the proof is in the pudding.” The truth is that our enormous per capita spending on health care doesn’t yield significantly better results than some other god-forsaken hell-holes. We’re still sickos. Worse, my prostate cancer was discovered by accident; my enlarged aorta was discovered by accident. And a recently discovered vestibular problem apparently has no fix. My wife’s first lumbar laminectomy was botched by our town’s best neurosurgeon. So she needed another. The combination of the two landed her in a world of chronic pain. The both of us now have pre-existing conditions, which, at any moment, could render us uninsured. That’s the pudding. And that’s why I am not sure I trust medicine.

If I mistrust the medical industry, I trust the supplement industry even less. After the billions we spend on medicine, with questionable results, we drop hundreds of millions more on, well, I’m not sure what to call it: the holistic, the homeopathic, the natural.

Don’t get me wrong. We would benefit greatly from a change as simple as going on a whole plant diet. The prognosticators claiming that this would stave off the coming obesity/diabetes/heart disease pandemic can’t be far wrong. I agree that it would start to empty our hospitals and waiting rooms. And I am absolutely for getting something in a natural form rather than a chemical compound. But if the supplements we take now were having any effect, we should see lots of healthy people running around. I see the opposite. It’s almost like you can draw a straight line between the amount of supplements a person takes and their tendency toward depression, neuroticism, and general affliction.

My skepticism began in the 70’s with Vitamin C. Vitamin C supplements were the cure for the common cold. No, even better, Vitamin C prevented the common cold. All you need do was take enough of it. So people were swallowing ascorbic acid in record quantities. Several grams a day in some cases. But the common cold remained common. That’s when the up-and-coming General Nutrition Center revised their newsletter. Sure you need Vitamin C, but, you need to get it from rose hips. Okay. So we switched to rose hips. For a moment it seemed like there could not be enough English gardeners in the world to meet demand. And that’s when we learned the truth. You can shove as much Vitamin C down your gullet as you want. Your body can absorb only so much of it. And without bioflavonoids along you may not absorb it readily. Oh, and in excessive amounts, it interferes with absorbing other essential vitamins and minerals.

In short, the human body is amazingly complex. Just because it benefits from something doesn’t mean you can concentrate that thing and simply take more of it. It doesn’t matter if it was compounded by a pharmacy; or if you scrounged it from a primeval forest a la Euell Gibbons, concentrated it, and pressed it into a capsule.

The common cold remained what it was: thousands of rhinoviruses waiting for an opportunity. And, yes, healthier, low stress folks provide less opportunity. But in and of itself, Vitamin C was not a preventative silver bullet. Well, for scruvy maybe; but not the cold.

So if I’ve resisted lining my medicine cabinet with plastic amber bottles from CVS, I’ve resisted even more lining it with brown glass bottles from GNC.

Then along came prostate cancer and heart disease.

As I’ve mentioned, I elected to treat my prostate cancer with the gold standard: a nerve-sparing, robotically-assisted, laparoscopic radical prostatectomy done by a highly experienced urologist. I’ve talked about the resulting impotence. And how much sex meant to me. And my curiosity about things that might reduce the effects of my impotence. Oh, sorry, ED.

One thing that kept popping up was Pycnogenol. Humans have hit on a number of aphrodisiacs over the millenniums. Most are hogwash. Some, though, actually square up with how physiologists know our bodies work. One such thing was an extract from the bark of a Mediterranean pine tree. (Pinus pinaster) Of late, an extraction process for this has been licensed by a company called Horphag Research. Its founder, Charles Haimioff, has devoted his life to the idea of healthy aging. To that end, Horphag Research has funded or promoted any number of studies to show the benefits of Pycnoenol. Almost none of these are the epitome of research: a double-blind study of a large random population with a placebo and a control group. However some had a fair basis in science. A few others were suspect.

And what were the studies to prove? That Pycnogenol, like many bioflavonoids and antioxidants, promotes the health of human endothelial cells. That is to say, it should reduce blood pressure, increase oxygen uptake, and generally improve circulation. For sufferers of ED, it should act as a PDE5 inhibitor along the lines of sildenafil, improving the ability to get and hold an erection.

Does it really? Based on my Internet research, that was hard to determine. However, while I could not say it would help, I could also say it would not hurt. No one was getting worse on Pycnogenol.

So what I found was not enough to tip me in favor of trying it. I had my trusty pump. I had generic sildenafil from my urologist—which in the quantities I needed was cheap enough. Maybe what I need more than another pill was just acceptance, and the patience to wait for my body’s natural healing process. And that’s when I found out I had a bad heart.

Before you imagine a wrinkled, grey-haired old man dragging around an oxygen bottle, I should explain. I am just fine. I run, walk or hike some 90 miles a month. I can hike gradient that weeds out hikers younger and lighter than me. I still rock climb. I am still planning river trips. I built my own storage building, single-handedly. In 100 degree heat. True, I can’t run fast. Never have. Never will. I occasionally struggle at elevations above 10,000 feet. But I am not suffering from congestive heart failure. My heart muscles are not weak. I do not have arteriosclerosis or atherosclerosis. It is a simple mechanical deficiency. I have an enlarged thoracic aorta.

Eventually this could be a problem. To enlarge, the aortal wall must thin. Too thin a wall could result in a rupture. A rupture in the thoracic would almost certainly be instantly fatal. Picture blood pouring directly from your heart. So my cardiologist will monitor the enlargement. At a certain point (50 millimeters) he will replace my aorta with a Dacron sock. Meanwhile, he recommended what is apparently recommended to all patients with heart disease: statins.

That’s right. I have no have arteriosclerosis or atherosclerosis. My cholesterol and LDL are a bit high. But nothing in my lipid panel suggests anything a lifestyle change won’t fix. More to the point, no studies indicate that statins help in any way with an enlarged thoracic aorta. (They are helpful in the case of an enlarged femoral aorta.) Nope. You should take statins because statins are for people with heart disease and you have heart disease. To me it sounded like “this may not help, but it won’t hurt.”

You know, like Pycnogenol.

So now I had two reasons to take it. But I didn’t take it. Not right away. First I got a Siberian Husky puppy. A happy Husky is an exercised Husky. A happy Husky is a fabulous dog. I wanted a fabulous dog. So I started building my mileage up to the 90 miles a month I make today. And I went back to my gym. And I started the move toward a whole plant diet. Then to seal the deal, I bought enough Pycnogenol to give me 100 milligrams a day for four months.

In that time my weight dropped from 205 to 175 pounds. My resting pulse dropped from 88 to 63 BPM. I was clearly healthier and eating better. The Husky was relaxed and happy. In my stressed out, fat and happy days my blood pressure always bordered on hypertension—about 124/82. With everything else going on, it should have been an easy thing for the Pycnogenol to slip in and drop it those few points to normal. It did not. With better general health there should have been some improvement when my wife gave me the occasional come hither look. It didn’t happen.

Would it have worked in a bigger dose? Would it have worked if I had taken it longer? Was it doing things that were beneficial but not measurable by me? It’s hard to say. I am only one data point. But in this case I am the only data point that matters.

Holistic. Homeopathic. Natural. Those are great sounding words. They seem so much better than the chemicals and machines the billion-dollar medical industry throws at us with questionable results. But you can still count me among those who question the results. The proof is in the pudding.

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