I know that its that time of year again when I walk outside and immediately start sneezing. Spring is here in full force and so are my allergies. Like most seasonal allergy sufferers, I take nasal spray corticosteroids and antihistamine tablets in order to remain in a somewhat functional state. Honey is a popular natural and alternative remedy for allergies. Its supposed to provide immunity against allergy causing pollens because the honey itself contains pollen. Its thought that locally collected honey that is untreated and not pasteurized works best because it contains local pollen as well as enzymes from the bees that aren’t destroyed or lost by heating and filtering. I’ve experimented with honey myself in an attempt to relieve my symptoms, from raw honey to royal jelly with no luck. I’m still curious to see what the science has to say about the use of honey to treat allergies even though it doesn’t seem to work for me.
Allergies are triggered by immune responses to things that are essentially harmless like pollen or dust mites (allergens). No one knows exactly why some people respond to these allergens and others do not. In allergy sufferers, these molecules trigger production of antibodies called IgE or immunoglobulin E. The antibodies will bind to the allergen and cause them to react with mast cells and basophils, which are types of white blood cells called granulocytes. The binding of IgE to mast cells and basophils, triggers a reaction and causes the granulocytes to release histamine, leukotrienes, and other chemicals that cause inflammation and secretions associated with allergy symptoms.
Incidentally, there has a been a study that has shown pollen collected by bees in honey inhibited the binding of IgE to the receptors on mast cells and basophils in mice fed honey and in cell culture. Ironically, some of the compounds found in honey that are produced in the bees salivary glands could actually trigger an immune reaction in some people.
I could only find two studies that related allergies with humans that consumed honey. The first of which, published in 2002, was a fairly well designed single blind study. 36 patients confirmed to have allergic rhinoconjunctivitis were enrolled in the study and were divided into three groups. One group received locally collected unpasteurized and unfiltered honey, the second group received nationally collected filtered and pasteurized honey, and the third control group received a placebo of honey flavored corn syrup. There was no differences observed in the test or control groups. A flaw in this study, however, is that the effects (or lack thereof) were purely subjective as the patients were asked to keep a diary throughout the study, noting the severity and number of symptoms from day to day.
The other study I found published in 2011 enrolled 44 patients with birch pollen allergies in a single blind experiment. They were divided into three groups as well with one group receiving locally collected honey confirmed to have birch pollen grains, a second group received regular honey and the control group did nothing other than take their normal regiment of allergy medications. The honey was consumed during the “preseason” before their allergies would normally kick in over a period of 5 months with increasing amounts of honey daily until reaching a maximum of a teaspoon per day. The study found that both groups that consumed honey experienced less symptoms during allergy season and required less medication to treat it. However, by the investigator’s own admissions this could have been a placebo effect since the groups that received honey knew they were getting honey and probably with the common knowledge that it might help alleviate allergy symptoms. Additionally, the control group did not take a placebo during the study. The results of this study were also subjective (again acknowledged by the investigators), as they relied on patients to report the number and severity of symptoms during the allergy season which could have been prone to bias knowing they were taking honey for possible symptom relief. Interestingly, they did test the binding capacity of birch pollen for IgE in serum collected from patients and found that IgE only binds weakly to birch pollen, suggesting that there may be another property in honey that reduces allergy symptoms. That observation would be in line with the fact that local honey and regular honey had similar allergy relieving effects in this study.
Overall, it looks like this is another case where alternative medicine holds some clout with anecdotal evidence but is backed only by shaky science. Honey does hold some very valuable medicinal properties that could be exploited. For example, honey is a strong antimicrobial agent and has been found to kill the toughest antibody resistant bacteria such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (VRSA). As for allergy relief, there does seem to be some basis for the use of honey but its difficult to determine if this is a placebo effect with the evidence available to us. Still, the placebo effect is a very real thing. Does it work for YOU? The answer to that all-important question is the only thing that matters.