Can Eating Local Honey Help With Seasonal Allergies?

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Spring is here, and so are those pesky seasonal allergies. The pollen that comes from those beautiful spring blossoms can also cause terrible allergic symptoms including congestion, sneezing, watering eyes, and itchy nose. As any seasonal allergy suffer will tell you, it’s terrible. And anything that could relieve the symptoms is warmly welcome.

Local honey is commonly recommended for treating seasonal allergies. The idea is that bees collect the pollen of local flowers and the trace amounts that remain in the honey can be used to build up immunity to the local flora when consumed regularly. While this is biologically plausible, there is actually little data to support the claim.

Surprisingly few studies have directly tested the impact of local honey on allergy symptoms. Some mouse studies have shown that bee pollen may reduce allergies by deactivating mast cells that are involved in the allergic response. However, human studies have shown mixed results.

In 2002, researchers at the University of Connecticut randomly assigned participants who tested positive for seasonal allergies to one of three groups. The first group received a daily tablespoon full of locally collected, unpasteurized, unfiltered honey. The second group consumed the same volume of nationally collected, filtered, and pasteurized honey. A third group received a placebo of corn syrup with synthetic honey flavoring. The study lasted for 30 weeks. No benefit was detected in either honey group.

Another study published in 2011 tested the effect of birch pollen honey to alleviate symptoms of birch pollen allergy. In this experiment, participants with the allergy were treated for five months with either local birch pollen honey or regular honey before and during allergy season. During allergy season, they recorded their symptoms as well as use of typical allergy medications such as antihistamines. The control group did not have a placebo, but were allowed to use their usual medications.

Both honey groups showed significantly fewer symptoms than the control group and used 50% less medication. There was no difference between the birch pollen honey group and the regular honey group, though the birch group used less medication than the regular honey group. Because of the lack of a placebo it is difficult to draw conclusions from this preliminary study.

Based on these limited human trials it is difficult to conclude what, if any, benefit can be derived from treating allergy symptoms with local honey.

When it comes to the science of wellness, distinguishing the facts from the urban legends can be tough. That’s why we’ve enlisted Darya Pino – a scientist, foodie, and self-proclaimed geek girl. Check out the ZocDoc Blog every other Tuesday to see her bust the biggest myths in health.

Image: African bees like honey, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from austinevan’s photostream.

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