Honey and Allergies: Sweet Relief or Sticky Disappointment??
|Lisa Dargel, MS, MPAS, PA-C
Houston Allergy and Asthma Clinic
About the author: LISA ADAMS DARGEL, PA-C, is a board certified physician assistant with a special interest in preventative medicine and immunology. She received a bachelor of science degree in biology from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. After graduation, she moved to her hometown of San Antonio, Texas. She spent the next five years conducting biomedical research in the field of host immunology in HIV infection at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio while working on a master of science degree in biotechnology from the University of Texas at San Antonio.
In these days of increasing allergy prevalence, it seems everyone’s got a quick fix. One of the more common claims states that taking a tablespoon of locally produced honey everyday can rid you of your allergies. As the theory goes, local honey contains local pollen, and eating it exposes you to daily amounts of the pollen in the same way allergy shots or drops would, eventually “desensitizing” you to the pollen.
Here’s the problem with that theory: the pollen in honey is not the same pollen that makes you sneezy, runny, itchy and stuffy. Allergenic plants (the ones that do make you sneezy, runny, stuffy) pollinate by wind. They produce pollen that is very light, thus giving it the ability to become airborne. This pollen is then transferred on air currents to other plants, causing pollination. In order for this method of pollination to be successful, the plants must produce very large quantities of the pollen in order to make contact with another plant.
The fact that these pollen particles are so light, produced in such high volumes, and are airborne is what makes them allergenic to those of us who breathe the air around us (and thus the pollen). The majority of pollen that winds up in honey, however, comes from plants that rely on insects for pollination. They produce only a small amount of pollen and rely on nectar to attract insects that then carry and distribute pollen to other plants. Thus, honey is more likely to contain pollen from flowering plants like hibiscus, clover, or fruit trees, not the oak or ragweed pollen that plagues allergy sufferers.
But let’s put it to the test: In 2002 a study out of Connecticut looked at the role of daily honey ingestion in reducing allergic symptoms of nasal congestion, drainage, and sneezing. They compared three groups: local honey, national honey, and placebo (honey flavored corn syrup). No difference was found in allergic symptoms among the three groups (Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 2002;88:198–203). There have, however, been reported cases of people suffering severe allergic reactions, even anaphylaxis, after eating honey. These reactions are believed to stem from the pollen contained in the honey. Rarely, honey can even contain botulin spores, which, while harmless to most children and adults, can be toxic to an infant’s less developed intestinal tract. Thus, honey should never be fed to infants under 1 year old.
Honey has many other purported health benefits, including cough suppression, antimicrobial qualities, and antioxidants, and eating local honey helps to support the local economy and local farmers, but if you’re expecting it to ease your allergy symptoms, you might be in for a not-so-sweet surprise.