Eating locally produced honey is often recommended as a treatment for hay fever. This seems to make sense as honey contains pollen, pollen causes hay fever, and taking pollen allergens by mouth is effective in inducing immune tolerance – at least for grass pollen allergies.
The problem is that most pollen found in honey is heavy, flower pollen from attractive, bee pollinated flowers, rather than the lighter, wind-dispersed pollen from trees and grasses that usually trigger hay fever symptoms.
Bees do accidentally collect non-flower pollen however, and exposure to low doses of tree and grass pollens could still help to induce tolerance. There is also the possibility that honey contains natural antihistamines or other anti-inflammatory substances that might reduce hay fever symptoms.
Local versus national honey for hay fever
In a small study from the University of Connecticut, 36 people with self-diagnosed seasonal allergic eye and nose symptoms (rhinoconjunctivitis or hay fever) were randomly assigned to one of three groups and given a 5 pound jar that contained either:
- a locally collected, unpasteurised, unfiltered honey
- a nationally collected, filtered and pasteurised clover honey
- or a corn syrup with a synthetic, honey flavour that, according to blind tasting trials, was close in texture and taste to real honey.
Starting from mid-March, all volunteers ate one tablespoon (15ml) of their ‘honey’ every day for 30 weeks. They could either take the dose all in one go, or divided into three separate doses of 5ml (on teaspoonful) each, if they preferred.
Each person also recorded the severity of ten different allergy symptoms from 0 to 3 in a daily diary:
Nasal symptoms: Runny nose, Sneezing, Itchy nose, Post-nasal drip, Stuffed/blocked nose
Eye symptoms: Sore eyes, Swollen eyes, Watery eyes, Itchy eyes, Headache.
Only 23 people completed the 30 weeks trial. Those that dropped out did so for personal reasons, or because they were unable to maintain the diary or found the honey too sweet.
No significant improvements were found for those taking the local honey and, in fact, the placebo group did better overall than those eating local honey or supermarket honey.
The overall conclusion was that eating local honey does not relieve the symptoms of hay fever, and that many people find taking 1 tablespoon of honey per day too sweet.
BUT when the researchers went back and reviewed the volunteers’ scratch-test results to confirm which allergens they reacted against (including a mix of 7 grass pollens, 11 tree pollens and ragweed) only 14 of the final 23 volunteers had a true seasonal pollen allergy.
This makes it difficult to draw any meaningful results from this study. The other problem was that the honey was probably started too close to the hay fever season to have any immunotherapy effect.
Birch pollen enriched honey for birch pollen hay fever
Between 10% and 15% of people living in Finland have a birch pollen allergy, with hay fever symptoms typically lasting from the beginning of April until the end of May. A preventative study was therefore timed so that volunteers took the honey treatment from November until the end of March, before the seasonal allergies were expected to kick in.
The researchers used a locally collected, unpasteurised, unfiltered organic honey which contained no birch tree pollen (regular honey), and compared its effects with the same honey that was enriched with bee-collected birch pollen so that each gram of enriched honey contained around 8,400 birch pollen grains. The two types of honey looked and tasted identical.
Forty-four volunteers with hay fever, and doctor-confirmed positive skin prick tests to birch pollen, were divided into three groups. One group acted as a control and did not take any honey products, while the other volunteers were given 900g each of either the regular local honey or the birch-pollen enriched honey.
Those in the honey groups were asked to start taking their honey in November, at an initial dose of one small droplet (less than 1g) per day, dissolved slowly in the mouth. The dose was increased every 3 weeks to a maximum of 1 teaspoonful (around 8g) per day, which was continued until the end of March.
The volunteers kept a daily diary of allergy symptoms throughout the honey stage of the trial, and during the subsequent birch pollen season. They also detailed their use of antihistamine tablets, nasal sprays and eye drops. The researchers also documented the daily pollen concentrations.
Compared to the control group that did not take any honey, those taking the birch pollen honey had significantly lower total symptoms scores during the pollen season overall, and individually for both April and May.
In fact, those taking either form of local honey had more days without symptoms than the control group, but those using the birch pollen honey had a more statistically significant result (p<0.01) than those using the regular local honey (p<0.05).
Overall, compared to the control group, those taking the birch pollen honey had:
- double the number of asymptomatic days during the hay fever season
- 70% fewer severe-symptom days
- 60% lower total symptom scores overall
- a 50% reduced need for antihistamine medication.
Among those taking the regular locally produced honey, 44% also reported less need for medication. Better general health, with fewer colds and stomach upsets was reported by 38% of those taking the regular local honey and 35% of those using the birch pollen honey, compared with 7% of those in the control group.
So does local honey prevent hay fever?
There is little evidence on which to draw any firm conclusion. It does seem that in people with a true pollen allergy, using local honey may reduce hay fever symptoms (at least for birch pollen allergy). But the honey probably needs to be taken for at least five months before the pollen season is expected. It may also help to start at low, immunotherapy doses which are slowly increased to induce immune tolerance.
If you have hay fever, best advice is to wear wrap-around glasses, and to apply a nasal barrier to reduce contact between allergens and the nasal lining.
Click here to read my review of the most effective hay fever treatments.
Have you tried using locally produced honey to prevent hay fever? Please share your experience via the comments below.
Image credits: pixabay; miika_silfverberg/wikimedia; picserver.org;