Is Local Honey the Sweet Cure for Your Allergy Symptoms?

by Lola Rosewig on April 10, 2013

Sneezing? Coughing? Congested? Dry and itchy eyes? Yup. It’s that time of year when seasonal allergies have us reaching for anti-histamine and other anti-allergy medications to rein in our unpleasant allergy symptoms.

“I wish I could smell the roses…
if only I weren’t so stuffed up”
(Photo courtesy of pierofix via photopin.com)

Well, what about reaching for some delicious local honey?

Huh?

Will honey help you?

If you are unfamiliar with this idea, there is a belief that consuming honey produced in your local area will ameliorate your seasonal allergy symptoms. The logic goes that local honey will contain small amounts of pollen from flowers to which you are commonly exposed in your local vicinity. And that these small exposures to pollen can help your body to be less sensitive (and have less allergic response) to pollen when you encounter it as you take a deep breath of the fresh spring air.

This seems logical. It’s actually a similar idea to immunotherapy (also know as desensitization immunotherapy or allergen-specific immunotherapy). Since an allergy is an overreaction of the immune system to a normally innocuous environmental stimulus, physicians may treat allergic patients with injections of small but escalating doses of specific allergens in order to stimulate induction of regulatory T-cells (T-regs) (Murphy 2012). These T-regs are responsible for keeping the immune response in check.

If you are interested in more details on the mechanisms of immunotherapy, check out this review article.

So sure, consuming local honey seems a little like DIY immunotherapy for allergy sufferers who can’t handle the plentiful pollination that occurs come spring.

But is there any scientific research to support this practice?

The answer is NOT MUCH. I was only able to find one study, in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, that specifically addresses the question of local honey and allergies. These researchers randomized participants into one of three treatment groups including: (1) locally collected, unpasteurized, unfiltered honey; (2) nationally collected, filtered, and pasteurized honey; or (3) corn syrup with synthetic honey flavoring as a control. Over the course of the 30-week study, participants recorded the severity of their allergic symptoms (which included 10 different variables such as “runny nose,” “itchy eyes,” “post-nasal drip,” and so on). The analysis of the results showed no significant differences between the groups, meaning that local honey was no better at relieving allergy symptoms than normal commercial honey, or corn syrup—which is to say not very effective at all.

So unfortunately, the answer to the titular question seems to be NO. Or at least not likely, based on current research. However, if you love honey (like I do), you should still enjoy it (unless of course you are allergic to honey, or under the age of two). And when possible buy local to support your local apiary!

Local beekeepers need your support!

References:

James, L.K. & Durham, S.R. (2008). Update on mechanisms of allergen injection immunotherapy. Clinical and Experimental Allergy; 38: 1074-1088.  doi:10.1111/j.1365-2222.2008.02976.x.

Murphy, K. (2012). Janeway’s Immunobiology (8th ed.) New York, NY: Garland Science, Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

Rajan, T.V., Tennen, H., Lindquist, R.L., Cohen, L., & Clive, J. (2002). Effect of ingestion of honey on symptoms of rhinoconjunctivitis. Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology; 88: 198-203. doi:10.1016/S1081-1206(10)61996-5.

mark freedman April 10, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Local Honey ? Very sweet topic.

Lola Rosewig April 11, 2013 at 9:05 am

Thanks for reading!

Rick April 10, 2013 at 7:55 pm

“reign in”? I think you mean “rein in”.

The analogy to immunotherapy seems stretched, at least in the scenario you paint at the beginning of the post. When people already have allergic symptoms from specific pollens, giving them a little bit more of those same allergens (in the form of honey) on top of that would seem to be meaningless at best, cruel and unusual punishment at worst.

If the theory is sound, I would have thought that you’d need to consume the local honey through the allergy off-season to get the regulatory T-cells going. And presumably you’d have to gradually increase your consumption for maximum effect.

Lola Rosewig April 11, 2013 at 9:17 am

I agree it’s stretched, but still some people (want to) believe it. And I also agree that were it to work like traditional immunotherapy the treatment would need to continue and a gradual escalation of dose would be important. However, one thing I did not mention about the study is that some participants dropped out because they found the dose unpalatable. So, perhaps further research should look at whether local honey actually does contain the allergens of interest (specific pollen antigens) and in what amount, and how different doses of honey may affect allergy symptoms.

Kathy April 10, 2013 at 8:11 pm

Bummer. I liked believing this.

Lola Rosewig April 11, 2013 at 9:19 am

I know. But, this doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t eat honey. In fact, if you put honey in your hot tea (like I do), it may be soothing to some of your allergy symptoms, even if it doesn’t address the allergy itself.

Diana Sykes April 11, 2013 at 11:01 am

I am one of the people who wish this were true!

Speaking of allergies and anti-histamines… I would be very interested in seeing a post about Zyrtec withdrawal! I took Zyrtec (or its generic counterpart, Cetirizine) for several years due to very bad allergies. I noticed that if I missed a few doses (or later, actively tried to wean myself off of it), I would have horrible and painful itching all over my body. After ignoring this problem several times by simply taking Zyrtec again, I googled the issue and found thousands of people who were having similar–and in many cases, worse–Zyrtec withdrawal symptoms. When people I have spoken to tell their doctors about it, the doctors usually dismiss their concerns. The symptoms are debilitating enough that many people I know who have been through this have written to the FDA asking them to, at the very least, require a warning label on the product.

The connection to this post is that, after needing eight weeks to totally wean myself off of Zyrtec, I had tried every natural “remedy” to allergies I could find online (including honey). Right now I am just taking Vitamin C, but I know that I will probably have to find something stronger since Spring has finally arrived. I can promise you that it will NOT be Zyrtec.

Lola Rosewig April 11, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Wow, interesting story. I was unaware of the Zyrtec withdrawal issues. Thanks for sharing and good luck this season!

Javier April 11, 2013 at 11:38 am

The best argument I’ve heard against this actually convinced me that the very premise is fatally flawed. It’s that the pollen you would find in honey is simply not the same pollen that causes your allergies. The pollen that causes allergies tends to come from wind-pollenated plants such as grasses and ragweed. These plants produce very large amounts of pollen and release it into the air. They tend to successfully due to the law of large numbers. The pollen you are likely to find in honey, however, comes from vector-pollenated plants. These plants produce limited amounts of pollen and invest their energy into attracting the right species of insect (or bird, bat, etc.) to carry the pollen to its intended source.

Sure some allergenic pollen may find its way into locally produced honey simply because it’s abundant in the air, but it will also get into just about everything else too.

Lola Rosewig April 11, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Interesting point. This definitely seems logical. And another reason I suggested (in response to a previous commenter) that it would be worthwhile to test honey to see what what antigens you are actually exposing yourself to.

Thanks for commenting!

Jessa April 11, 2013 at 12:32 pm

While this kind of do-it-yourself desensitization is an attractive idea, not to mention delicious, it misses an important point. (I’m surprised the scientists testing it didn’t notice this…)

The pollen that bees are collecting, and presumably that which gets into the honey, is large-grained, sticky pollen. This is the type that showy flowers produce and it evolved to stick to bee hairs so as to be carried on the next flower for pollination.

This is not the pollen that plagues springtime allergy sufferers.

It is the pollen produced in vast quantities by by wind-pollinated plants, like many trees and grasses, that tends to plague allergy sufferers, on the other hand. These plants tend to have small, inconspicuous flowers and no nectar (because they don’t need to attract insects to do their pollinating.) Sticky pollen is too heavy to be picked up in any quantity by the wind.

Instead of using these guiles, many trees and grasses invest in pollen in quantity and let the wind do the job of carrying their gametes to the next plant. They flood the air with huge amounts of very lightweight pollen – the scourge of sensitive noses that inhale it. The result – miserable humans.

So, presumably some of this tree & grass pollen might also be showering the bees by chance and ending up in the honey too, but I’ll bet if allergy sufferers’ immune systems are getting exposed to pollen from eating honey, it’s the kind unlikely to have caused their allergy. (This is also why the commercials with people sneezing over bright flowers annoy me.)

Showy flowers may be blooming when spring allergies are in full swing, but don’t blame them. Look to the grass below and the tree above that’s dropping a yellow pollen storm on you, and curse them for your woes.

Lola Rosewig April 11, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Thank you for your comment! This expands on an idea of a previous commenter. And is likely why the researchers found honey consumption provided no benefit for allergy symptoms.

Angela April 15, 2013 at 9:57 pm

Hi Lola! Thanks for the post. I would actually expand more on the explanation of what T-cells/T-regs are/do, instead of linking to a review article. Those kinds of articles also tend to be behind paywalls and thus only accessible to academics/students at the wealthier end of universities.

Lola Rosewig April 16, 2013 at 7:37 am

Thanks for your comment. I had thought that by using the doi to link the article, it would be available, but now I see that only the abstract is available without membership.

geeekk May 30, 2013 at 12:48 am

Hey! Can you do more research into this? Or go to a biologist who has access to a larger library? This study done in 2002 is completely flawed; they only tested <40 people. Immunotherapy might not be it, but theres something about honey that has worked wonders for me during allergy season (and I've tried everything!)

Justina Kropp June 15, 2013 at 10:04 am

I believe more research needs to be conducted before a conclusion is made. Such a small sample size and lack of replication of these results does not warrant a solid conclusion either way. Who is to say that one empirical study outweighs thousands of anecdotal evidence? This is a philosophical argument, of course. However, I do acknowledge the points on different types of pollen plaguing those with allergies, we just need more research to understand the potential benefits of honey.

Benjamin Forbes June 16, 2013 at 8:28 pm

I did check to see if there were more studies. And there is. So, I cannot get the entire study (methods…etc) at Karger. The study promoted a single nectar/pollen source for the honeybees as an aid in relieving allergies.

Any thoughts about this study?
Can anyone get the methods/evaluate them?

Billy June 19, 2013 at 5:55 am

I suffered 50 years with severe allergies every Spring.I had the shots and they didn’t work.Every Spring I have to dose with Claritin,Allegra etc…Not a great feeling.I found a Local Bee Keeper where I live in Massachusetts and started taking a spoonful of raw honey every day.It was really good,I looked forward to my morning dose.This year for the first time in 50 years I am allergy free! Was it the honey? I think so.I was a mess all my life.This is the first Sring since I was 5 that I am free of all my suffering and I know it was the honey…Be consistant and use it from the Fall into the Spring and it can work.
Billy

Ameila July 9, 2013 at 9:20 am

It seems to make perfect sense as to putting small amounts in the body to help the body to be less sensitive to the local pollen. I found that by using sublingual desensitization drops I found at http://www.entandallergyspecialists.com/Pages/Centers/BCS-Center-Sublingual.html has also been very helpful in controlling allergies.

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