Mind & Body

Local Honey Won't Fix Your Seasonal Allergies

When the flowers bloom in spring and the ragweed blows in fall, many of us start to feel it: watery eyes, runny noses, and sneezing all over the place. Seasonal allergies are no joke, but the drowsiness-inducing medications to treat them are no picnic either. That's why a certain natural remedy is so tempting: can you really cure seasonal allergies with local honey? Unfortunately, you can't — and there are a few reasons why.

Catch Me, I'm Pollen

The logic behind this homespun remedy appears sound: seasonal allergies are caused by pollen, bees use pollen to make honey, eat the honey made by local bees and you expose yourself to a tiny amount of the thing you're allergic to. That helps you develop a tolerance, which makes your body's reaction to pollen less severe. Sounds good, doesn't it?

But which pollens are we talking about? As Rachel E. Gross explains in a Slate article aptly titled "Honey Bunches of Lies," the terms "rose fever" for spring and summer allergies and "hay fever" for fall allergies are both misnomers. Because roses and other flowers bloom in spring and hay is tilled in the fall, people put two and two together and assume that's what causes their allergies. But the vast majority of seasonal allergies are caused by pollen from trees and grasses in the summer and ragweed in the fall. In fact, the entire reason you're plagued by pollen during these seasons is that these trees and grasses are wind pollinators that release their pollen into the air. Bees generally pollinate plants that don't have the right equipment to let the wind do the work.

So the pollen you might get in your honey isn't even the pollen that's giving you allergies. But what if you're different? What if you really are allergic to flower pollen? Even in that case, honey isn't the fix. That's because bees don't make honey from pollen — they make it from nectar. Any pollen that gets into the honey probably got there by accident. According to the National Honey Board, "The amount of pollen in honey is minuscule and not enough to impact the nutrient value of honey."

Bittersweet Science

Studies with actual people bear this out. For a study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in 2002, scientists gave a jar of honey to each of 36 seasonal-allergy sufferers and asked them to eat one tablespoon a day for 30 weeks (seven and a half months) while keeping a record of their allergy symptoms. Unbeknownst to the participants, a third of them got local unpasteurized and unfiltered honey, another third got a national brand of filtered clover honey, and the control group got a placebo: corn syrup laced with artificial honey flavoring. At the end of the study, neither of the honey groups saw any improvement in their symptoms over the placebo group.

There is one study people point to to prove that this saccharine allergy cure is valid, however. In 2010, Finnish researchers published a study looking into the effect of birch pollen honey on people who suffer from a birch pollen allergy. But this wasn't just honey from bees that visited birch trees — this was honey with actual birch pollen added to it, so it contained a lot more pollen than the kind you'd find at your local farmer's market. Even that wasn't enough: although those who consumed birch pollen honey experienced fewer symptoms, than the people who consumed regular honey, the differences were so minor that they weren't statistically significant.

Of course, if you swear by honey for easing your allergies, there's no reason to stop. Honey is delicious, and it's even a little better for you than table sugar. But if you need immediate relief, antihistamine medication is really your best bet. It's not as tasty on toast, but it gets the job done.

Want to know if your tendency toward seasonal allergies is in your genes? Analyze your DNA with 23andMe and learn how your genes influence your health. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer May 21, 2018

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