This article was originally posted in the Montreal Gazette.
Apparently, if you search the internet, you will find articles saying that eating honey will help treat your seasonal allergies. It won’t. Honey can do many things, but it can’t do that.
Seasonal allergies are common, especially among kids. Fortunately, many people outgrow them, myself included. But an unfortunate few have symptoms that persist into adulthood and do their best trying to manage symptoms with over the counter medications. Relief is variable. Older medications were effective but caused drowsiness and new generation meds have tried, with variable success, to match their efficacy without that side effect. But over the counter medications just mask the symptoms. Treating the underlying problem is more difficult.
An allergy is essentially an immune reaction to a foreign substance. Normally this serves us well when your body is invaded by a bacteria or a virus. But when your immune system detects food or medication as a foreign substance the immune response becomes an allergic reaction that can range anywhere from a mild rash to a potentially fatal case of anaphylaxis.
There are ways to treat an allergy. Oral immunotherapy for peanut allergies and injections for allergies to pet dander can help, although treatment for pet allergies usually require weekly injections for three to five years, which limits their appeal.
Desensitization protocols for medication allergies are easier and I’ve referred a few patients for aspirin desensitization over the years. Essentially, you give patients with an aspirin allergy tiny but increasing doses of aspirin in a monitored setting to habituate their immune system to the medication.
The use of honey to treat seasonal allergies seems like an extension of this idea. Bees collect nectar from flowers to make honey and the pollen from flowers gets stuck to their legs and makes its way into the honey when they fly back to the hive. So honey, especially local honey made by bees in your area, should have pollen from the flowers in your immediate environment. If you eat the honey, your body should become used to seeing this pollen and not mount an allergic reaction next spring or fall, whenever your allergies are.
That’s the theory. The problem is the pollen found in honey probably isn’t the pollen you’re allergic to. People can be allergic to anything, but when it comes to seasonal allergies certain patterns predominate. In early spring, most allergies are due to pollen from trees and shrubs. Between May and October grass pollen like turf, hay, bluegrass and brome usually predominates. And anyone with allergies in the fall is probably suffering from ragweed. But flowers, especially the flowers used by bees to collect nectar for honey production, aren’t usually on the list.
The other problem is that if you were going to use honey as a form of immunotherapy, you would basically have to eat it every day. Immunotherapy works via a sustained and chronic dosing regimen to induce tolerance. Unless you happen to be Winnie the Pooh, eating honey every day for months or years to treat your seasonal allergies may start to wear thin after a while. But that also presumes that your honey has a consistent and fixed dose of the same type of pollen every time, which is also unlikely.
In short, it’s a myth that honey can treat seasonal allergies. There is precious little scientific data on this issue. A small trial from Malaysia, which will inevitably come up if you Google the subject, purports to show a benefit. But when you read the actual paper, the symptom scores do not actually differ between the group who got honey and those who got a placebo.
Anyone looking for scientific proof that honey helps with allergies will be hard pressed to find any. There are a number of ways to treat seasonal allergies but honey isn’t one of them.