Your Christmas Tree Bark May Fight Arthritis

I don’t know about you, but each Christmas brings the same discussion about trees to my house. It revolves around one important question: should we get a real tree or use an artificial tree? For the past seven or so years, I’ve deferred to my wife’s preference for real trees. Largely, I’ve not been disappointed.

Of course, there was the “year of the bug,” when some kind of small, black beetle-spider-alien creatures swarmed out of the tree we’d put up a week earlier. Yuk! But besides that little experience, having a real tree has benefits.

First, there’s the sheer beauty of a real Christmas tree. Tall, majestic and hearkening to places in the world where men are men, women are women and everyone avoids the huge bears.

Then there’s the aroma! We’re partial to Balsam Firs. If you’ve never had one of these beauties in your house, you’re really missing out. Totally worth the effort.

If research from the American Chemical Society from 2004 is to be believed, there’s one more reason to want a real Christmas tree. Well, a Scotch Pine Christmas tree, to be precise.

According to some ACS researchers, there’s a group of compounds in the bark of Scotch Pines that are anti-inflammatory in nature. The scientists believed the compounds could have been developed into food supplements or drugs for treating arthritis and pain. The compounds are found in other pine species as well.

Currently, there are essential oils made from Scotch Pine that are claimed to have anti-inflammatory properties. While this may be true, there is virtually no scientific evidence for the effectiveness of essential oils. But we digress.

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Lots of plant species yield anti-inflammatory compounds, but this find represents the first time a Christmas tree has been shown to have potential medical benefits beyond making us feel good about the most wonderful time of the year. The compounds they found were phenolics, which are a highly active class of plant chemicals with significant and provable health benefits.

“The preliminary study showed that highly purified preparations of pine bark extract have potent anti-inflammatory effects. In the future, this may mean that people with arthritis may ease their pain by eating food supplements made from Christmas trees,” says study leader Kalevi Pihlaja, Ph.D., a chemistry professor at the University of Turku in Finland. In order to determine the safety and effectiveness of these compounds, human and animal testing would be needed, Pihlaja warned.

This wasn’t the first time pine bark had been implicated as being medicinal. For centuries, it has been used as folk medicine. It’s been used both topically and orally to treat a variety of health issues ranging from wounds to coughs. Research, including some human studies, has revealed that pine bark extract has the potential to relieve high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma and even skin cancer. The ACS research helped provide an explanation of some of the health benefits ascribed to it.

The ACS team was looking for healthy compounds in plants that could be converted into functional food products or nutraceuticals. They studied several different pine bark preparations from Scotch Pine (Pinus sylvestris.) They found as many as 28 compounds, some with high biological activity.

They tested the extracts against macrophages, or inflammatory cells, from mice, testing their ability to produce nitric oxide and prostaglandin E2 (PGE2.) These chemicals help trigger inflammation when they are produced in the body in excess, like during injury or disease. These results were compared to the chemical responses of macrophages not exposed to pine bark extracts.

The result? The most highly purified extract tested had the most potent anti-inflammatory activity. The extract (at 50 µg/mL concentration level) inhibited nitric oxide production, an excess of which has been linked to arthritis and circulatory problems, by up to 63 percent, they say. At the same concentration, the extract inhibited prostaglandin E2 production by 77 percent. Excess PGE2 production is linked to arthritis and pain.

The likely mechanism for blocking PGE2 production involves blocking COX-2 enzyme activity, which is normally enhanced during inflammatory responses, according to the scientists. Blocking this enzyme is the basis for some widely used arthritis medications.

It is not known how the compounds in the extract compare to anti-inflammatory agents that are already on the market. Some of the phenolic compounds identified in the extract are already familiar to scientists as potent disease-fighting antioxidants, but there are other compounds present in the extract that have not yet been characterized, the researchers say.

While the researchers didn’t find any signs of cell toxicity in their study, you might want to hold off making your own tea or remedies from your Christmas tree. The extracts must be put together and buffered in just the right way for them to be tolerated in the body and for effectiveness.

So for now, enjoy your Scotch Pine Christmas tree. Maybe Santa will bring you something a little stronger for that arthritis. It might even have come from last year’s tree…or the drug store!

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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