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The Colours of Health – The fall colours terms of human health

Marcia Zimmerman, M.Ed., CN

Ah, the beauty of Yosemite National Park in November. The leaf colors are incredible shades of golden, magenta and purple. Rising in stark contrast from the valley floor are the sheer granite walls of El Capitan, Glacier Point, Half Dome, Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls.

Visiting Yosemite now is just as amazing as it was a number of years ago when I made annual treks with groups of students to study the flora and fauna. Lately, my view of Yosemite has been from 35,000 feet while flying westward toward San Francisco. The sheer awesomeness of Yosemite is revealed every time I fly over it and its natural power truly boggles the mind and overwhelms the senses.

However, on my recent trip as I admired the leaf colors up close, I was thinking of what the fall colors mean in terms of human health. I learned from Dr. Jacques Masquelier, the distinguished professor emeritus now retired from the University of Bordeaux, that the fall colors come from antioxidants in the leaves and bark of trees. During spring and summer, the brilliant green of chlorophyll, which supports energy for growth, obscures these antioxidants. As the season winds down, chlorophyll bleaches out and the brilliant antioxidant pigments are revealed.

Magenta and purple come from anthocyanins while yellow and golden colors come from carotenoids and flavons, a relative of anthocyanins. Much of the year pro-anthocyanidins are colorless and only display their pigments in the absence of chlorophyll and as the leaf pH changes.(1) What Dr. Masquelier and other scientists have shown is that these antioxidant pigments not only protect leaves and bark, they perform similar functions in us. Dr. Masquelier had discovered this in the 1940’s when he was a doctoral student and his life’s work was dedicated to finding out how these pigments function in our bodies.


Anthocyanins belong to the polyphenol family that numbers over 4000 members with related but distinctive chemical structures. A generic name for this family of compounds is flavonoids. The flavonoids appear to be remarkably safe nutrients with a wide range of benefits, making them ideal dietary supplements for promoting health and preventing disease.(2)

The simplest polyphenols are the colorless catechins, which are found in green tea. Proanthcyanidins are complexes (oligomers) of catechins known as OPCs and are also colorless until a change in acidic environment turns them magenta and purple. At this point they are termed anthocyanins and they are visible primarily in grape and maple leaves. They are also found in the skin of grape seeds and pine bark. Pycnogenol and Enzogenol are names reserved for OPCs from pine bark. Additionally the skin of grapes and other red fruits contain Resveratrol a catechin-based polyphenolic complex that has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and phytoestrogen properties.(2),(3)

Pro-anthocyanidins have a protective effect on the vascular system and have been used as a supplement in France since 1950. Originally, OPCs were produced from the pine trees (Pinus maritima) in Bordeaux and were named Pycnogenols by Dr. Masquelier. It was later discovered that grape seeds were another excellent source and grape seed extract (GSE) became a popular supplement. More recently OPCs have been found in Pinus radiata bark and these OPCs are called Enzogenol.

Health Benefits of Anthocyanidins

All OPCs regardless of source strengthen capillary walls and prevent blood from leaking into tissues (bruising). They also prevent swelling of veins by improving micro circulation. OPCs prevent lymph vessels from retaining fluid (lymphadenopathy) a common side effect of surgery for breast cancer. According to Dr. Masquelier, OPCs appear to complement vitamin C in collagen production by forming bridges between the helical strands of collagen protein. They preserve skin elasticity by preventing the enzymes that breakdown collagen from acting. They also help block UV damage to skin. Richard Passwater, Ph.D. in reviewing the science over the past decades adds reducing diabetic retinopathy, effects of stress, vein problems, and restless leg syndrome. Dr. Passwater also lists improving visual acuity, sluggish memory, joint flexibility and fighting inflammation in arthritis and sports injuries.(4)

A recent pilot study has shown that Enzogenol supplemented at 480 mg per day along with 240 mg/day vitamin C, produced a 1.5% reduction in body mass index (BMI), [and a 5.2% drop] in mean systolic blood pressure and blood viscosity among 24 healthy subjects aged 55 - 75. Most importantly measures of DNA damage and protein oxidation were decreased significantly over a 12-week supplementation period.(5)

OPCs are vigorous scavengers of free radicals and reduce the oxidative burden of the body. The effects are noticeable in increased exercise capacity and resistance to fatigue. Dosages for OPCs vary according to the need. Most users take 50 to 100 mg per day, but those with more advanced circulatory problems may need 1,000 to 1500 mg per day to obtain optimum results. Dosages can be lessened as improvement in capillary strength is noted.


These bright red, orange and yellow pigments are ubiquitous in the plant kingdom and number over 500. However, only a few are of biologically significant for humans, the most important being alpha carotene, beta carotene, and beta cryptoxanthin, (all precursors of vitamin A). Lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene are equally important but are not converted into vitamin A in the body. Carotenoids are fat-soluble nutrients that imbed themselves between the double cell membrane layers. A difference in chemical structure among the various carotenoids determines which membranes they inhabit and accounts for their unique activity.(6)

Health Benefits of Carotenoids

Much of the human research on the protective effects of carotenoids has been gathered from large long-term epidemiological studies such as the Harvard Male Professionals and Brigham and Women’s Nurses studies.(7),(8) These studies have shown a remarkable reduction in risk of cataract from carotene intake. Another analysis of the Harvard study showed that frequent consumption of tomato products was associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer. This made headlines as guys hoped eating pizza might now be justified!(9)

A British epidemiological study of 25,000 people whose diets included fruits and vegetables rich in zeaxanthin and beta cryptoxanthin were 20% and 40% (respectively), less likely of developing inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis.(11) German scientists have shown that lycopene supplemented at 10 mg/day for 12 weeks afforded significant protection against UV damage to skin.(12)

The carotenoids are not just another group of natural pigments - or antioxidants. Each has a remarkable and special property that distinguishes it from the other carotenoids and other protective phytonutrients. It is important to take a mixture of all six natural carotenoids - not just beta-carotene.(13)


1) Masquelier, J; A Lifetime Devoted to OPC and Pycnogenols. Rome Italy, 1996 Alfa Omega Editrice (Italian).
2) Middleton, E; et al; The Effects of Plant Flavonoids on Mammalian Cells: Implications for Inflammation, Heart Disease, and Cancer Pharmacol Rev 2000;52:673-751.
3) Culpitt, SV; et al; Inhibition by Red Wine Extract, Resveratrol, of Cytokine Release by Alveolar Macrophages in COPD Thorax 2003;58:942-946.
4) Gehm, BD; et al; Resveratrol, a Polyphenolic Compound Found in Grapes and Wine, is an Agonist for the Estrogen Receptor Proc Natl Acad Sci 1997;94:14138-14143
5) Passwater, RA; The New Superantioxidant - Plus. New Canaan, CN Keats Pub 1992 p. 8-9.
6) Shand B; et al; Pilot Study on the Clinical Effects of Dietary Supplementation with Enzogenol, a Flavonoid Extract of Pine Bark and Vitamin C Phytother Res 2003;17:490-4.
7) Woodhall, AA; et al; Carotenoids and Protection of Phospholipids in Solutions or in Liposomes Against Oxidation by Peroxyl Radicals: Relationship between Carotenoid Structure and Protective Ability Biochimica et Biophysica Acta 1997;1336:575-586.
8) Brown, L; et al; A Prospective Study of Carotenoid Intake and Risk of Cataract Extraction in US Men Am J Clin Nutr 1999;70:517-24.
9) Chason-Taber, L; et al; A Prospective Study of Carotenoid and Vitamin A Intakes and Risk of Cataract Extraction in US Women Am J Clin Nutr 1999;70:509-16.
10) Giovannucci, E; et al; A Prospective Study of Tomato Products, Lycopene, and Prostate Cancer Risk [PDF] J Natl Cancer Inst 2002;94:391-8.
11) Pattison, DJ; et al; Dietary Beta-Cryptoxanthin and Inflammatory Polyarthritis: Results From a Population-Based Prospective Study Am J Clin Nutr 2005; 82:451-5.
12) Aust, O; et al; Supplementation with Tomato-Based Products Increases Lycopene, Phytofluene, and Phytoene Levels in Human Serum and Protects Against UV-Light Induced Erythema Int J Vitam Nutr Res 2005;75:54-60.
13) Britton, G; Structure and Properties of Carotenoids in Relation to Function FASEB J 1995;9:1551-58.

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