Despite advances in medicine, cardiovascular disease remains the number one killer in America. It’s so prevalent that, according to the American Heart Association, someone experiences a heart attack every 40 seconds and someone else dies of a stroke every three and a half minutes. These statistics aren’t just an American problem. Many other industrialized nations share soaring rates of heart disease. France, however, is one of the very few notable exceptions. Despite a diet laden with butter, cream, and other high-fat foods, the French have relatively low levels of heart disease. What’s the deal?
Some scientists speculate that the secret lies in the amount of red wine French people consume. Recent studies show that certain compounds found in the seeds of wine grapes can enhance cardiovascular health. Known as oligomeric proanthocyanidin complexes (OPCs), these compounds are a rich source of specific antioxidants called flavonoids. OPCs also provide powerful anti-inflammatory benefits that can foster better cardiovascular health. When combined with a healthy whole foods diet and simple lifestyle changes, OPCs from French grape seed extract may be the missing link you’ve been looking for.
OPCs are a class of polyphenols that reduce the expression of three key inflammatory cytokines—IL-1α, IL-6, and TNF-α—involved in the development of cardiovascular disease. They are found in many plants, including blueberries, cocoa, cranberries, currents, onions, parsley, tea, and of course, red wine. While all of these foods are excellent additions to a healthy diet, taking a supplement containing French grape seed extract not only helps neutralize inflammation; it can provide 50 to 200 times more free-radical fighting power than all of these foods put together! And the most abundant source of supplemental OPCs comes from the seeds found in French wine grapes.
If you like a nice bottle of dry red wine, you can thank the tannins in both the grape seeds and the grapes themselves. But if you’re looking for heart-health benefits, tannins can be a problem. Tannins are a group of bitter and astringent compounds that act like a natural pesticide to protect the plants that contain them. Yet tannins have a high molecular weight that prevents absorption in humans. Even if they could be efficiently absorbed, tannins aren’t well utilized by the body. Unfortunately, these large tannins are often counted as OPCs on supplement labels—a claim that is misleading at best.
Grape seed OPCs must have a low molecular weight, which means the molecules are small enough to be absorbed. Studies have found that one proprietary French grape seed extract known as VX1 is highly enriched for small flavonoids, molecules that enter the cells and fight inflammation and free radicals. When shopping for a grape seed extract, check the label on the supplement to make sure it contains VX1, which is standardized to a low molecular weight and is tannin-free to ensure optimal absorption and bioavailability
OPCs for Hypertension
Known as “the silent killer,” hypertension—more commonly called high blood pressure—has no symptoms, yet it can be deadly. In fact, it’s a leading cause of heart attack and stroke. Blood pressure is the amount of force (pressure) that blood exerts on the walls of the blood vessels as it passes through them. When the pressure in the blood vessels becomes too great, the arterial walls may narrow or thicken, putting an extra burden on the heart. What’s considered too high? Blood pressure that reaches 130/80 or above on a consistent basis. What do the numbers mean? The top number, or systolic pressure, represents the pressure while your heart is beating. The bottom number, or diastolic pressure, represents the pressure between beats when the heart is relaxed.
In a joint 12-week study by researchers from the Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of California, Davis, participants with prehypertension who consumed a drink containing 150 mg of grape seed extract twice a day experienced a 5.6 percent drop in systolic blood pressure and a 4.7 percent reduction in diastolic blood pressure. An analysis of 16 clinical trials involving more than 800 participants found similar results. But in this meta-analysis, those garnering the biggest benefits were people who were younger (under age 50), obese, or had metabolic disorders. Studies looking at how grape seed extract does this have found that, in addition to reducing inflammatory markers, OPCs lower blood pressure by relaxing the inner lining of the blood vessels, known as the endothelium.
OPCs Reduce the Risk of Atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis is a condition caused by the gradual buildup of plaque deposits inside the arteries. This plaque damages the endothelium, causing the arteries to lose their elasticity. As plaque accumulates, the arteries narrow and stiffen. Over time, enough plaque can build up to significantly reduce blood flow through the arteries. And this can prevent the heart from getting the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function properly.
Two of the biggest factors leading to the development of atherosclerosis are the oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol and inflammation. Oxidized LDL accelerates plaque formation inside arteries. Chronic low-level inflammation then weakens this plaque, making it more vulnerable to bursting and causing a dangerous blockage. In a series of clinical trials, grape seed extract reduced the risk of heart disease by lowering oxidative stress and inflammation.
By discouraging both inflammation and the oxidization of LDL cholesterol, the OPCs in grape seed extract help to limit the amount of plaque that accumulates in arteries. This was shown in a study of 287 people with plaque buildup and abnormal thickening in their carotid artery (the artery that brings blood and oxygen to the brain). Half the participants took 200 mg of grape seed extract daily for two years, while the other half took a placebo. By the end of the study, those in the grape seed extract group had a significant reduction in the development of cholesterol-containing plaque in their carotid artery. They also had a marked decrease in the thickness of the artery. As a result, during the two-year study period, the people taking grape seed extract had fewer heart attacks, coronary bypass surgeries, and strokes. But to ensure these benefits translate from studies to the real world, it’s important to choose a tannin-free, low–molecular weight French grape seed extract VX1.
OPCs and Your Gut-Heart Axis
New research suggests that there’s a link between the state of your gut and the health of your heart—and it turns out that supplementing with grape seed extract can benefit both. Researchers at Rutgers University have discovered that grape seed extract strengthens the tight junctions in the intestinal lining. This helps prevent a condition called “leaky gut syndrome” in which pro-inflammatory substances breach the intestinal barrier and leak into the bloodstream. Not only can leaky gut contribute to atherosclerosis; one Japanese study has made a connection between the resulting inflammation and heart failure.