Does Eating Honey for Allergies Work?
"I must have flowers, always and always." -- claude monet
Each year, approximately 60 million Americans suffer from seasonal pollen allergies (also known as allergic rhinitis or hay fever). These allergies can manifest during spring, summer or fall, and the symptoms are dreary -- headaches, watery eyes, itchy nasal passages, runny nose, sneezing, wheezing and coughing. So what causes all of this grief, and can eating raw honey help? Let's dive in and find out.
what causes seasonal allergies?
It all starts with microscopic protein particles called pollen, which are made by the male parts of flowers. When these tiny particles come into contact with female flower parts, a seed is created. Pollen spreads from plant to plant by floating through the air, or by catching a ride on insects (pollinators!), birds and other animals. This process of cross-pollination results in stronger and hardier plants. But how do these tiny protein particles end up causing so much misery for so many people? After all, the human body needs protein to survive (think meat, fish, dairy, nuts, beans and legumes).
How did you become sensitized to pollen?
When you are allergic to something, then you have become "sensitized" to it. How does the process of sensitization work? There are two possibilities. The first is genetics. Pollen sensitivity can be passed from generation to generation through genetic coding. If you are in this category, then you can thank your parents or grandparents. The second possibility is something called "co-infection." If maybe you had a bad cold or the flu at the same time that a certain plant was puffing out pollen, 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.
After you become sensitized, when pollen particles enter through your nose, eyes or mouth, your immune system springs into action. Immune cells start producing protein particles called anti-bodies. Anti-bodies are similar to pitchforks. They pick up the pollen and carry it over to the nearest white blood cells. Upon contact with pollen, the white blood cells immediately release a class of chemicals called "histamines." 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. This battle continues as long as the pollen continues to enter your body, or until the pollen sensitivity subsides.
how do common allergy medicines work?
Most common allergy medicines fall into the category of antihistamines. These medicines contain chemicals that are designed to stop the body from releasing histamines. Some medications are combined with decongestants, which reduce the fluids in the lining of your nose. This, in turn, reduces swelling and congestion. Depending on genetics and the severity of the pollen season, common allergy medicines can provide full or partial relief from coughing, wheezing and sneezing.
does honey help with allergies?
Eating honey for allergies is actually more controversial that you might think. On one side of the debate are those who say that there is insufficient scientific evidence to support the claim that using raw honey to treat pollen allergies is beneficial. This side of the debate contains a number of drug companies and allergy doctors. On the other side are thousands of testimonials from people who have tried it and they swear that eating raw honey does help their allergies. One customer from Mississippi wrote to us: "I take tupelo honey for allergies every day. I have not sneezed from hay fever or been unable to breathe for a few years." It should be no surprise that beekeepers and honey companies favor this side of the debate.
There are, however, at least some medical studies that support using of honey for allergies. In one study from Malaysia, 40 people with pollen allergies were divided into two groups. Group one was given a daily dose of honey, while the other received a daily dose of honey-flavored corn syrup. Only the group given honey showed significant improvement in their allergy symptoms. But a similar study from the University of Connecticut did not get the same pro-honey results. Additional clinical trials in this area are needed.
why is honey good for allergies?
Assuming that eating raw honey for allergies does provide some relief, how does it work? Foraging honeybees pick up pollen from just about every flower they visit. Some of this pollen is collected on purpose and is packed onto their hind legs in little bundles. Other pollen particles catch a free ride by sticking to the tiny hairs on the bee's body. When the bee returns to the hive, this pollen gets tracked all over the place and plenty of it ends up in the honey cells. But the pollen levels found in raw honey are relatively low. In addition, honey contains beneficial enzymes and other bio nutrients. In this harmonious combination, when you take in small, repeated does of raw honey, your body may become less sensitive to local pollens. Essentially, your body is being reprogrammed through immunotherapy to stop reacting to pollen as a dangerous invader. Once this de-sensitization is complete, pollen no longer triggers the negative reactions of before. This relearning is definitely gradual and it does not work for everyone. We know of one case where a father was cured of his moderate springtime allergies with regular does of honey, but his son ate the same honey and it did nothing for his pollen senstivity.
what is the best honey for allergies?
Any good quality, raw and unfiltered honey that still contains pollen would be a good choice. You might want to try a polyfloral honey such as wildflower, which is made from lots of different flowering plants. It is a bit of a myth that the honey must be local (i.e., within 50 miles of where you live). As long as the flora visited by the bees are the same or similar to the flora causing your allergies, then that honey will be a good choice.
How much honey should I take for allergies?
In our experience, and for best results, take at least 1 to 2 teaspoons of a good quality raw honey throughout the year for allergies. Your body needs time to reprogram before the air is thick with pollen. If you wait until peak pollen season, then it is probably too late.
What about honeycomb?
In 1904, DeForest Clinton Jarvis graduated from the University of Vermont Medical College and he opened a private medical clinic in Barre, Vermont a few years later. But only a few patients were coming into his office and he wanted to know why. When he started asking around, the locals replied that they preferred home remedies for treating their illnesses. Only when such remedies failed did they seek out a doctor. For Dr. Jarvis, this revelation started a life-long study of home remedies. He eventually published a best selling book named "Folk Medicine."
Two remedies that receive a lot of coverage in his book are honey and honeycomb. Dr. Jarvis wrote: "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 be mild in character."
There is not much study about this claim. But it does make logical sense. Honeycomb will have even more pollen particles than honey alone. Plus, honeycomb and beeswax contain additional beneficial substances that are not always present in honey alone. So, as Dr. Jarvis concludes, there is at least sufficient anecdotal evidence to support this folk remedy of chewing on honeycomb to treat seasonal allergies.