What is apitherapy?
Apitherapy is the use of beehive products in daily life to alleviate various ailments. The products from beehives include honey, pollen, royal jelly (a substance made by worker honeybees and fed to potential queen larvae), propolis (a resin collected by honeybees that is used to seal honeycomb chambers) and bee venom.
History of apitherapy:
The exact history of apitherapy is not clearly known, although it can be traced back to ancient China, Greece, and Egypt. The use of honey is also mentioned in ancient Indian/Hindu scripts, and honey is found to be an ingredient in many Ayurvedic medicines. Honey was used for embalming bodies in ancient Egypt. Healing properties have been attributed to propolis as well. Since bees acquire propolis from tree resins, the characteristics of this compound are known to vary, depending on its geographic origin.
The revival of Apitherapy is attributed to an Austrian scientist, Dr. Phillip Terc, who studied voluntary bee stings and rheumatism. Bodog Beck of Hungary followed Dr. Terc. American beekeeper Charles Mraz contributed to popularizing apitherapy in the US.
Medical benefits of beehive products:
- Cold, sore throat: Honey, in combination with ginger roots, has been used for centuries as a remedy for cold and sore throat. Natural honey is a product of about 200 compounds and has been reported to possess antibacterial properties. Apart from honey, propolis has also been used, as reported by German beekeepers, to treat colds, sore throats, and gum disorders.
- Wounds and burns: In a study of 59 patients with wounds and ulcers, most of which had failed to heal, researchers reported that ulcers in 58 patients showed remarkable improvement with topical application of honey to the wounds. In the study with German beekeepers, it has been reported that they use propolis for wounds and burns as well. Interestingly, during World War 1, Russians are reported to have used honey to accelerate wound healing.
- Plaque psoriasis: Recalcitrant localized plaque psoriasis yields to treatment with honey when other tropical and physical therapies have failed, reports a study published in the Journal of Dermatological Treatment.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: Bee venom has been used in combination with acupuncture for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. While some patients find relief, adverse events have also been reported.
- Immunity: Propolis is reported to have immunomodulatory properties and is known to inhibit inflammatory reactions in the body and improve immunity. Propolis is also known to activate macrophage function, which is a key component of the immune system.
- Cancer: Propolis has been found to inhibit cancer cell growth by decreasing the number of stem cells in cancerous tissue, blocking oncogenic pathways, modulating the tumor microenvironment, and inhibiting blood supply to cancer cells.
- Cardiovascular risk factors: In a study with both healthy and normal individuals, as well as those with elevated values of cardiovascular risk factors, consuming natural honey is reported to moderately reduce risk factors such as LDL-cholesterol, triglycerides, C-reactive protein, etc., while increasing HDL cholesterol numbers. The total cholesterol numbers were reduced in both groups with consumption of honey. A slight decrease was also observed in body weight.
- Ophthalmology: Application of honey to eyes affected by conjunctivitis reduced redness, puffiness, swelling, pus discharge, and time for eradication of bacterial infections (Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Escherichia coli, Shigella dysenteriae, Haemophilus influenzae, Staphylococcus aureus).
- Fungal and viral infections: In several studies, honey is reported to have antifungal properties against Candida albicans, some yeast, some species of Aspergillus and Penicillium, and many dermatophytes (those fungi that need keratin for growth and cause surface infections of skin, hair, nail). Additionally, honey has also been found to have anti-viral properties, as it was found effective against recurrent Herpes infections when compared to commonly available topical treatment options.
- Gastrointestinal tract diseases: Oral ingestion of honey has been found to be effective against diarrhea in children. The antibacterial property of honey is reported to be the reason for the effect of honey in the treatment of gastritis and gastric ulcers.
From the research on beehive products and results obtained, it would appear that they do have medicinal properties. However, the quality and geographic origin of beehive products may play a role in their composition and usability for medicinal purposes.
A word of caution: Please consult with your healthcare provider before initiating alternative therapies. Tell your healthcare provider about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help your healthcare provider assess your clinical situation better. This will also help them take appropriate clinical measures to assist you. Full disclosure to your healthcare provider will help ensure coordinated and safe care.
Written by Mangala Sarkar, Ph.D.