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I have treated ADHD patients for over 30 years with great success by combining not only a medicinal approach, but also by first helping patients with their nutrition.

One of the less commonly known treatments involves a form of pine bark extract called oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs). It’s always a look of sheer surprise on parents’ faces when tests show their ADHD child can benefit from something so well-known but never eaten—pine tree bark!

OPCs are plant extracts that can actually affect brain waves. They’re a type of polyphenol, which are compounds that plants produce to protect themselves from environmental harm.

Oftentimes, the polyphenol is a plant pigment: the blue in blueberry; the red in grapes; the green in green tea; the dark brown in dark chocolate.

For us humans, the most helpful molecules in OPCs are flavanols, a type of antioxidant.

Flavanols easily enter human cells, including brain cells. And they work well once they get there, reducing oxidation, which can harm and kill cells. In fact, OPCs are stronger antioxidants then either vitamin C or vitamin E, two nutrients famous for fighting oxidation.

How do OPCs affect ADHD?

Over the decades, I have prescribed OPCs to hundreds of ADHD children, and have seen the supplement dramatically normalize brain waves—and behavior.

While no one yet knows exactly how OPCs work to change brain waves for the better, there are several theories, based on cellular and animal research:   

  • Regulate levels of norepinephrine and epinephrine, neurotransmitters that direct the flow of information within the brain; irregular levels can undermine focus.
  • Limit the production of glutamate, an excitatory (stimulating) neurotransmitter that is toxic in large quantities.
  • Slow the production and release of histamine, a neurotransmitter and inflammatory biochemical released during allergic reactions. Some ADHD children have a mutation in the gene that breaks down histamine, leading to stronger allergic reactions to food dyes and other artificial ingredients—reactions that can trigger the symptoms of ADHD.
  • Protect the fat-rich cells of the brain from lipid peroxidation, a kind of internal rust generated by renegade molecules called reactive oxygen species or free radicals. These molecules are formed by pollutants, diets high in fat and sugar, stress, smoking and other factors. Antioxidants like OPCs stabilize free radicals so that they do less damage.
  • Strengthen the delicate blood-brain barrier, keeping neurotoxins like pesticides and food additives out of the brain.
  • Improve blood flow to the brain, helping deliver crucial brain-supporting nutrients like zinc.
  • Absorb and disarm metals that can harm the brain, like lead.
  • Boost enzymes that decrease inflammation in the brain.

With those many mechanisms of action, OPCs seem like they could be powerful natural treatments for ADHD—and as it turns out, they are.

Of course, OPCs don’t work for every child. But for many inattentive, distractible children, they can make a huge difference—which is why they’re the 3rd item in my Plus-Minus Plan.

Let’s look at some of the scientific research supporting that statement.

What the research shows for OPCs, Pycnogenol and ADHD

Over the decades since their discovery, the best-studied OPC for ADHD is pine bark extract, which is mainly marketed as the supplement Pycnogenol.

Studies show that children with ADHD who took Pycnogenol had increased alertness and focus; decreased impulsivity, restlessness, aggression and disruptive behavior; and improved cooperation with parents and teachers.

Here are the results from several standout studies on ADHD and Pycnogenol:

  • Normalizing neurotransmitters. Taking Pycnogenol for one month balanced neurotransmitters in ADHD children, according to European researchers writing in Nutritional Neuroscience.2
  • Less oxidation, better attention. ADHD children who took Pycnogenol for one month had higher levels of antioxidants, lower levels of oxidation, and “improvement of attention,” reported scientists in Free Radical Research.3
  • Better focus and concentration in 30 days. Sixty-one ADHD children took Pycnogenol. After one month, researchers noted improvements in distractibility, focus and hyperactivity.4 Doctors and parents should consider the “use of Pycnogenol as a natural supplement to relieve ADHD symptoms,” concluded the researchers in European Child and Adolescent Psychology.
  • Clearer thinking, stronger memory, sharper focus, better mood in non-ADHD students on Pycnogenol. 53 high school, college and graduate students took Pycnogenol or a placebo.5 After two months, those taking Pycnogenol experienced all the mental and emotional benefits listed above—and had higher test scores, too.

While more studies are definitely needed to help further understand how OPCs are helping some patients with ADHD, many already point to their effectiveness.

It’s why I regularly include an assessment of my patients to determine if OPCs are right for them. I discuss the reasoning, studies, and approach for anyone suffering from ADHD in my in-depth popular guide, Finally Focused.

Yours in health,

James M. Greenblatt, MD
Founder, Medical Director, Psychiatry Redefined