Honey to combat allergies? Other immunotherapy options safer

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

From farmers markets to a growing number of backyard beehives, golden Colorado honey is booming in popularity, the perfect accompaniment to everything from figs to its more traditional culinary partners: tea and peanut butter.

While honey lovers wax rhapsodic about its sweet, complex flavors, boosters also cite the potential medical benefits of honey.

The pitch goes like this: eat raw, local honey and you’ll reduce your seasonal allergy symptoms.

Promoters are careful to warn that there are no peer-reviewed scientific studies. But, they report that many happy customers find delicious relief from their worst sneezing spells.

The theory is based on immunotherapy. Like a flu shot, you can trick your body into combating invaders that trigger an immune response. So, proponents say that if you eat local raw honey, produced near your home, you’ll get a healthy dose of local pollens and your body will naturally immunize itself against allergies.

“Almost all the evidence regarding the immunizing effects of eating honey is anecdotal — and we’ve sure met a lot of people who swear by it,” writes Brent Edelen, a sixth-generation beekeeper and owner of Grampa’s Gourmet, a honey company in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.

Edelen has been running a survey on his website and a handful of people who took part were convinced that honey helped their allergies. The majority weren’t sure, but said they loved eating honey no matter what.

Across Colorado, the Denver Post reports that a growing number of cities from Aurora to Denver and Grand Junction have been legalizing backyard beekeeping. Bee Culture Magazine estimates that there are 100,000 backyard beekeepers nationwide.

Rare allergic reactions to honey

The hobby and the honey may be divine,  but Dr. Harold Nelson, an allergist with 25 years of experience at National Jewish Health, one of the top medical facilities for allergy sufferers in the country, warns that eating honey isn’t likely to help allergies and can do some harm to rare people with severe allergies.

“The simple answer is that it’s very dangerous. Cases of anaphylaxis have been reported due to eating bee honey,” Nelson said.

For instance, a patient in Arizona suffered anaphylactic shock after eating honey that contained mesquite pollen. Other studies, including a 2001 report in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, found that honey caused an anaphylactic reaction in a patient.

Other reports of anaphylaxis related to honey have emerged from Turkey to Japan.

The idea of using honey to cure allergies waxes and wanes from generation to generation. Honey cures were all the rage during the 1970s and the concept of allergy prevention through honey seems to be enjoying a resurgence again now with backyard beekeeping on the rise.

The complicating factor, said Nelson, is that it’s impossible to know how much pollen is in the honey. There are anecdotal reports of benefits dating back to the Native Americans, and honey has been found buried with ancient Egyptian pharaohs.

But, when researchers have tried to prove a beneficial effect, they haven’t been successful.

“Where this has been done in formal studies, it’s been very controlled, with the administration of increasing doses of the allergens. Even then, it’s associated with enough side-effects that it’s been abandoned as a practice,” Nelson said.

“With raw honey, you have no idea how much pollen there is. It might be foolish (for a highly sensitive person to use it for allergies). It’s like chewing poison ivy. You get that as a myth too,” Nelson said.

Controlled studies show some reduction in sensitivity to ivy, but at the same time, some subjects broke out in painful rashes.

“These things aren’t absolute fiction, but they’re not to be recommended in any shape or form,” he said.

“There’s this concept that it’s natural. What could be more natural than letting the bee collect the pollen for you then eating it? It’s like all these herbal (remedies) and megavitamins. They’re all perceived as natural when in fact, most of the time, there’s very little scientific support for their efficacy.

“Most aren’t harmful. Honey is one of the exceptions. Most people can probably get away with (eating) it. But there are these scattered reports (of adverse effects),” Nelson said.

European allergy cure coming soon to U.S.

So, if honey doesn’t cure allergies, what does?

The best treatment is avoidance of allergy triggers, but that isn’t very practical for most people. Nelson said allergy shots, which have been tested for many years, are proven to work and have lasting benefits, even after patients stop receiving shots.

Among the newest treatments is a method called sublingual immunotherapy, which will be coming to the U.S. within a year or two, Nelson said. Used commonly in Europe, the sublingual method allows allergy sufferers to put extracts that target particular allergens under their tongues.

“They’re safe enough for people to administer at home. This is attractive to many people, but there are no approved extracts for use in the U.S.,” Nelson said. “I think it’s promising with definite limitations.”

Among the limitations, most people have multiple sources for their allergies. With allergy shots, patients receive a cocktail that helps them combat as many as eight or 10 allergens, ranging from ragweed to dogs and cats. With the sublingual extracts, the pills so far target just one allergy source at a time.

In Europe, targeting a single allergy source seems to work relatively well. For instance, in England, Germany and the Netherlands, grasses seem to cause the most allergies. Spain has olive trees while in Scandinavia, birch trees are dominant.

“Here, we’re messy. We plant allergic trees on our streets. We have grasses and empty lots full of weeds,” Nelson said.

Coloradohas particularly tough weed seasons that last from July to September. The culprits range from tumbleweed and Russian thistle, also known as ragweed, to sagebrush.

“We have a triple hit on the weed season,” Nelson said. “On the other hand, we have no dust mites. It’s too dry.”

The bottom line with allergies: “It’s quite complex.”

Nelson is confident that the FDA will eventually approve new oral therapies. “In the meantime, if the pills and sprays aren’t working, the shots are very effective.”

Allergy sufferers get shots weekly at first, then monthly. After three years, some people can stop the shots and will continue to receive benefits for up to 10 years.

“The shots have a major impact on the immune system that persists for a long time.”


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