What Causes Pollen Allergies?
Beginning each spring and continuing through summer and fall, millions of Americans suffer from pollen allergies, sometimes called "hay fever." Symptoms include headaches, itchy and watery eyes, a runny nose, and sneezing. While rarely life-threatening, pollen allergies can certainly make your life miserable.
So what causes pollen allergies? It all starts with microscopic protein particles made by the male parts of flowers and tree blossoms. When these tiny particles come into contact with female flower parts, a seed is created. If this seed is later dropped onto good soil, and you then add water and sunlight, a new plant is born.
Pollen is spread from plant to plant by floating through the air or by catching a ride on insects, birds or other animals. This is called "cross-pollination" and it results in stronger plants. But how do these tiny protein particles end up causing so much misery for so many people? For that, you can blame your immune system.
Your immune system is a complex combination of chemical and biological defenses that your body uses to stop harmful invaders such as bacteria, viruses and parasites. Pollen is not among these. But sometime in your past, your immune system misjudged innocuous little ol' pollen to be a harmful bodily invader, and it was thereafter classified as a threat. This is known as becoming "sensitized" to pollen. Once this false imprint is complete, it cannot be undone. You will have pollen allergies for the rest of your life. Or maybe not - keep reading.
But why did your immune system make this silly mistake? There are two possible explanations. First, genetics. Pollen sensitivity can be passed from generation to generation via genetic coding. If you are in this category, then you can thank your parents or grandparents. A second possible explanation is something called "co-infection." If maybe you had a bad cold or the flu at the same time that a certain plant pollen was prevalent, then your immune system may have mistakenly concluded that this pollen caused your cold or flu. This could explain why some people can live for years in a certain location without any issues and then, all of the sudden, they develop pollen allergies.
What happens when you have pollen sensitivity?
When "bad" pollen particles enter the body through your nose, eyes or mouth, your immune system springs into action. Immune cells start producing protein particles called anti-bodies. These anti-bodies are similar to pitchforks. They pick up the pollen and transport it over to the nearest white blood cells. Upon contact, your white blood cells immediately release a class of chemicals called "histamines." These histamines trigger your body to start itching, watering, sneezing and wheezing in an effort to expel the pollen from your body through your eyes, nose and mouth. These symptoms continue as long as pollen continues to enter the body, or until the pollen sensitivity subsides.
What are common drugstore treatments for pollen allergies?
Most common allergy medications are anti-histamines.These chemicals are designed to interfere with your natural immune system and block the body from releasing histamines. Some medications are combined with decongestants, which reduce the fluid in the lining of your nose. This, in turn, reduces congestion and swelling. Common allergy medications can provide full or partial relief from your coughing, wheezing and sneezing, depending on genetics (again) and the severity of the pollen season.
Can raw honey help with pollen allergies?
This is actually a more controversial question than you might think. On one side of the debate are those who say that scientific studies do not support the claim that raw honey is beneficial for treating pollen allergies. It is interesting how this side includes a number of allergy doctors and drug companies. On the other side are thousands of testimonials from people who have tried it and who say that it works for them. For example, one customer from Mississippi told us:
"I take tupelo honey every day for allergies. I have not sneezed from hay fever or been unable to breathe for a couple years!"
Not surprisingly, beekeepers and honey companies tend to side with this second group.
Results from scientific studies on this issue are mixed. Some studies indicate a correlation between raw honey and allergy relief. In one study from 2011, 44 patients suffering from pollen allergies were given daily doses of raw honey over a 4 month period. A control group of 17 additional patients continued using their preferred allergy medication. The honey group reported a 60% reduction in overall allergy symptoms and 70% fewer days with severe symptoms as compared to the control group. ("Birch pollen honey for birch pollen allergy - randomized control pilot study," by K. Saarinen, J. Jantunen and T. Haahtela, International Archives of Allergy and Immunology, December 2011.)
But in another study from 2002, 64 patients were randomly divided into three groups. Group one received a daily dose of raw, local honey. Group 2 took doses of store bought honey, and group 3 took doses of honey flavored corn syrup. Patients were instructed to record daily allergy symptoms in a diary. At the end of the study, the researchers found no differences in allergy symptoms between the three groups. ("Effect of the ingestion of honey on rhinoconjunctivitis," by TV Rajan, et al., Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, February 2002.) Until additional or conclusive studies are reported, this debate is sure to continue.
How might raw honey help with seasonal allergies?
Assuming that raw honey does provide some relief from pollen allergies, how might it work? The theory is pretty straight forward. Honey in beehives contains pollen particles from the trees and plants visited by bees. Bees bring in this pollen voluntarily (packed onto their hind legs) and involuntarily (sticking to the tiny hairs on their bodies). If the honey is not filtered during harvesting and processing, then this pollen remains in the honey that we eat. But the pollen found in raw honey is at relatively low levels. In addition, raw honey contains various beneficial enzymes, vitamins and minerals. In this harmonious combination, over time and repeated exposure, your body seems to become less sensitive to the pollen. So, in some way, your immune system is being reprogrammed to stop reacting to pollen as a bad thing. Once this relearning is completed, pollen no longer triggers the negative reactions of before.
This effect, however, is definitely gradual and does not work for everyone. We know of one case where a father was cured of his moderate springtime allergies by using raw honey daily, but his son ate the same honey and it did nothing for his pollen allergies. In our experience, for best results, at least 2 teaspoons of good quality, raw honey should be consumed daily throughout the entire year. And if you are just starting with raw honey, then you should begin this regimen well in advance of springtime (like the winter before).
Do you need local honey for allergy relief? The local honey myth.
Not necessarily. A common claim is that you should get local honey, made within 50 miles of your house, for the best allergy relief. This does make some sense, as local honey will contain the same type of pollen that is giving you fits. But the geography of North America is divided into several large areas that span all or parts of multiple states. For example, the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plain covers all or parts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. In this large area, there is significant similarity in plant life from state to state. So if a honey harvested in Florida contains some of the same pollen particles that bother you in Virginia, then a Florida honey may work just fine for allergy control. This would explain the testimonial included above, where a customer reported that tupelo honey from Florida helped with her local allergies in Mississippi.
There are 6 other geographic areas of North America, with each one covering multiple states. It is our opinion that as long as the raw honey comes from the same geographic area that you live in, it is probably beneficial in terms of allergy relief. If you can find honey from your immediate locality, then all the better. But the key is that they honey must be raw and unfiltered. Pasteurized and filtered honey will not work.
When folks ask, we recommend raw wildflower honey for seasonal allergy relief. Wildflower honey is going to contain the largest variety of different pollen types. Typically, our wildflower honey contains nectar and pollen from at least a dozen different plants - trees, flowers, bushes and grasses. This variety of pollen is more likely to contain the specific pollen type(s) that are bothering you.
How about using honeycomb for allergy relief?
DeForest Clinton Jarvis graduated from the University of Vermont Medical College in 1904 and opened a private medical clinic in Barre, Vermont in 1909. The story is told that not many patients were coming into his office, and he wanted to know why. When he started asking around, the locals replied that they always used home remedies for their illnesses. Only when such remedies failed did they seek out a doctor. For Dr. Jarvis, that started a life-long study of home remedies, eventually leading to the publication of his best-selling book "Folk Medicine" in 1958. One of the folk remedies that receives a lot of attention in his book is honey and honeycomb. In the chapter on honey, Dr. Jarvis notes:
"Honeycomb is excellent for treating certain disturbances of the breathing tract. The value of chewing honeycomb applies especially to the lining of the entire breathing tract. In addition to chewing the comb, eating honey each day is also part of the treatment."
Later in the chapter, Dr. Jarvis advises:
"Vermont folk medicine divides hay fever into three classes: mild, moderately severe and severe. Its treatment is both preventative and symptomatic. If honeycomb cappings are chewed once a day for one month before the expected hay fever date, the hay fever will either not appear or will be mild in character."
Again, there is not a lot of scientific study regarding this claim. But it does make logical sense. Honeycomb will have even more pollen particles than raw honey. Plus, honeycomb and beeswax may contain additional, beneficial substances that are not necessarily present in honey alone. So as Dr. Jarvis concludes, there is at least enough anecdotal evidence to give plausibility to this time-tested remedy of eating raw honey and chewing on raw honeycomb.
Final Words of Caution
Raw honey should never be given to children under 1 year old. In rare cases, raw honey may contain botulism spores. The immune systems of infants are not sufficiently developed to handle botulism, and this can lead to severe illness and even death.
The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a doctor or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a serious medical condition.