by Debra Kirchhof-Glazier
Member, Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association
Bees have been valued for millennia, not only for sweetening our lives but for health and healing. Honey, propolis, bee pollen, royal jelly, and bee venom have all been used medicinally in apitherapy, a system of healing derived from the Latin word “apis”, meaning “bee”.
Apitherapy has been in existence since antiquity. The ancient Egyptians used it to treat arthritis, and Chinese medicine has employed apitherapy for immune diseases, viral infections, and inflammation. Hippocrates, the Greek physician known as the “father of medicine”, used bee venom to treat arthritis and joint pain. Apitherapy is used today for the treatment of over 500 different diseases and conditions, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, carpel tunnel syndrome, Lyme’s disease, multiple sclerosis, shingles, tendonitis, gout, and fibromyalgia. Recent research is helping to sort out fact from fiction and indicates that apitherapy may indeed be a viable healing modality for some conditions.
For example, honey can help relieve cough symptoms and promote wound healing. A randomized controlled study of 108 children with upper respiratory tract infections compared the effect of honey and dextromethorphan and showed that honey was just as effective as the medication in reducing the frequency and severity of cough. Honey is also used in wound healing due to its antibacterial properties. It has a high sugar content and enzymes that generate hydrogen peroxide in the presence of sugar and water. It is also thick and absorbs moisture, which permits application on wound beds. Manuka honey, produced from the flowers of the manuka bush in New Zealand, has a very potent antibacterial compound known as UMF (unique manuka factor) and is used to treat skin wounds, ulcers, and sore throats. A 2009 study in the Journal of Clinical Nursing showed that manuka honey was more effective than standard hydrogel therapy in causing desloughing, enhancing healing, and decreasing infection in venous leg ulcers.
Propolis, also known as bee glue, is a brown, aromatic substance produced by honeybees from tree resins and gums. Bees use it to strengthen their comb and seal cracks in the hive. It has antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine showed that propolis significantly decreased the outbreak of oral canker sores and increased the quality of life in patients with this chronic condition. A study with rats showed that propolis also accelerated healing after colon surgery, a finding that has promise for the field of gastroenterology.
Bee pollen or bee bread consists of a mixture of flower pollen, nectar, and digestive juices from the honeybee. Many people use it as a health food and claim it is useful for treating such conditions as allergies, impotence, stomach ulcers, cancer, heart conditions, and high cholesterol. A 2009 research study comparing the antioxidant capacity of various bee products showed that bee pollen and propolis have the highest antioxidant activity, a feature that could impact health and healing in a variety of ways.
Royal jelly is a milky white substance secreted from the heads of worker bees. It is highly nutritious and fed to the queen bee and to developing bees, with an extra amount to those larvae that will develop into queens. Royal jelly is used by humans as a supplement to increase health and vitality. Research has shown that royal jelly has antioxidant potential and insulin-like activity. A study using a rat model showed that royal jelly helps protect the kidneys from damage induced by cisplatin, a chemotherapy drug, while another study indicated that royal jelly moderates blood glucose levels in humans.
Everyone is familiar with bee venom. At best, a bee sting is unpleasant, and at worst, it can kill someone who is allergic to it. However, bee sting therapy, also known as apipuncture, can bring some benefits to this otherwise unwelcome association with the honeybee. For example, bee venom injections can be used clinically to desensitize individuals with life-threatening reactions. In addition, ancient claims about the use of bee venom for arthritis are being borne out by modern research. Bee venom combined with medication was shown to be superior to medication alone in treating rheumatoid arthritis In a randomized clinical study. The bee venom therapy also lowered the relapse rates and reduced the dosage of medication required to control the arthritis symptoms. Another study revealed exciting results of the effect of bee venom on molecular mechanisms that suppress cancer. Bee venom can also be administered to acupuncture points, and studies in Korea using this technique showed a decrease in back and neck pain in a clinical trial and a neuroprotective effect in mice that suggests bee venom acupuncture may help prevent Parkinson’s disease.
Apitherapy is a fascinating healing tool. However, there are some important caveats. If you are allergic to bees you could be allergic to one or more bee products. Patients with systemic lupus erythymatosus should be especially cautious, as there is a report in the literature about a patient who experienced a reoccurrence of her lupus after bee venom treatment for arthritis. It is also important to be aware that honey (as well as dark or light corn syrup) should not be given to infants under age one, because of the possibility of contamination with spores that can cause botulism in the very young. With these cautions in mind, you still may want to find out more about apitherapy, especially if you have a chronic condition that might benefit from it. The website www.apitherapy.com is a good place to start.
In summary, bees do far more than pollinate our flowers and make honey for our tea. They can be handy little allies in our quest of for health and healing.
The Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association makes no medical claims or recommendations. Check with your doctor about your specific health care needs. For more information on the Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association see http://hhwa.org/ or contact Jennifer Champion, Program Coordinator, The Natural Connection, at 814-667-2097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.