You can barely drag yourself out of bed. Winter is gradually receding back into the closet of seasons once again, and you're painfully aware that spring is up next. You find the thought of facing another sunny, upbeat vernal equinox when nature bursts to life anew once more too depressing for words.
It's seasonal allergies. All of those beautiful, fragrant flowers and deep green grasses that allergy-free people just love to coo over and pick and prune literally make you sick. Springtime is when trees and plants spread their seeds -- at least the pollen that becomes seeds. And that pollen wreaks havoc on your body whenever you take a breath outside.
You're hardly alone. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates around 36 million people in the United States alone suffer from seasonal allergies, known also by the common name of hay fever and the more technical name allergic rhinitis [source: FDA]. It may not improve your mood to know this, but all that pollen is actually harmless. Those months of runny nose, scratchy eyes and headaches you endure each spring is actually the result of a case of mistaken identity. Your body mistakes pollen for damaging invaders like fungal spores and dust mites. This triggers the release of histamine, a natural chemical that's part of an immune system response. Histamine causes inflammation and irritation of soft tissue, which leads to your suffering [source: Bupa].
Modern medical science has produced countless cures for seasonal allergies. These remedies are available both over-the-counter (OTC) and by prescription, and many work by counteracting histamines. These kinds of drugs are called antihistamines, and they tend to do the trick. But drugs often come with side effects. In addition to reducing allergies, antihistamines can also produce dry nasal cavities, drowsiness and other undesirable conditions [source: Hasselbring].
It's for this reason that some people look for more natural allergy remedies. To combat seasonal allergies, honey's considered a fine replacement for drugs. But how could honey possibly help reduce allergy symptoms? Read the next page to find out.
Pollen, Insects and You: Things to Know Before You Die
Without flying insects like butterflies, wasps and bees, flowering plants would have a hard time surviving. To reproduce, flowers create seeds, which eventually grow into new plants. Seeds don't develop spontaneously; they develop after pollen, sticky spores found on the stamen of a plant, come in contact with the pistil. This process is called pollination.
Unlike humans and other animals, flowering plants can self-pollinate, since they have both the male (stamen) and female (pistil) reproductive parts. Self-pollination happens when pollen from a plant comes in contact with its own pistil. Seeds are produced but usually make for weaker plants. Cross-pollination occurs when the pollen from one plant is carried to the pistil of another plant. This type of pollination can produce the hardiest offspring, but it's difficult for most flowering plants to pull off [source: Missouri Botanical Garden]. Some flowering plants, like dandelions, adapted to produce spores that are easily carried off by the wind (or the strong breath of a child). Others get by with a little help from their friends in the insect world.
When winged insects look for nectar (a sugar water-like substance found in flowers), they generally climb around the reproductive organs of flowers to get it. Since there's only so much nectar to be found in a flower, insects will travel from flower to flower to get their fill. As they do this, the sticky pollen spores that attach to the insects' limbs are transferred to the pistils of other plants they visit. The miracle of cross-pollination has occurred.
Not all of the pollen is transferred to the pistils, however. Some of it remains on the insect. When honeybees return to their hives with a stomach full of nectar, pollen spores can also be found in and on the bee. Bees make honey by regurgitating the nectar (and pollen) into their mouths. Inside, enzymes break down the nectar into simple sugars. Bees spit the ensuing mixture into individual honeycombs and evaporate much of the water found in it by flapping their wings over it. Then they cover the honeycomb with wax until they're ready to use if for food or until a beekeeper breaks into the hive to remove the honey-filled combs found within.
Exactly what does this have to do with your runny nose, watery eyes and scratchy throat? Read the next page to find out how honey may cure what ails you.
How Honey Could Cure Your Allergies
There have been no peer-reviewed scientific studies that have conclusively proven whether honey actually reduces allergies. Almost all evidence regarding the immunizing effects of eating honey is anecdotal. But these reports have proven persuasive enough for some people to try to fight their seasonal allergies by eating honey every day.
Without scientific inquiry, we're left with only theories about how honey could reduce allergies. The prevailing theory is that it works like a vaccination. Vaccines introduce dummy versions of a particular virus or germ into the body and effectively trick it into believing it's been invaded, triggering an immune system response [source: UNICEF]. This produces antibodies designated to fight off the foreign invaders. When the body is actually exposed to the harmful germ or virus, the antibodies are ready for them.
The idea behind eating honey is kind of like gradually vaccinating the body against allergens, a process called immunotherapy. Honey contains a variety of the same pollen spores that give allergy sufferers so much trouble when flowers and grasses are in bloom. Introducing these spores into the body in small amounts by eating honey should make the body accustomed to their presence and decrease the chance an immune system response like the release of histamine will occur [source: AAFP]. Since the concentration of pollen spores found in honey is low -- compared to, say, sniffing a flower directly -- then the production of antibodies shouldn't trigger symptoms similar to an allergic reaction. Ideally, the honey-eater won't have any reaction at all.
As innocuous as honey seems, it can actually pose health risks in some cases. Honey proponents warn that there is a potential for an allergic reaction to it. And since honey can contain bacteria that can cause infant botulism, health officials warn that children under 12 months of age whose immune systems haven't fully developed shouldn't eat honey at all [source: Mayo Clinic].
If a regimen is undertaken, however, local honey is generally accepted as the best variety to use. Local honey is produced by bees usually within a few miles of where the person eating the honey lives. There's no real rule of thumb on how local the honey has to be, but proponents suggest the closer, the better [source: Ogren]. This proximity increases the chances that the varieties of flowering plants and grasses giving the allergy sufferer trouble are the same kinds the bees are including in the honey they produce. After all, it wouldn't help much if you ate honey with spores from a type of grass that grows in Michigan if you suffer from allergies in Georgia.
At least one informal (unfunded) study on allergies and honey conducted by students at Xavier University in New Orleans produced positive results. Researchers divided participants into three groups: seasonal allergy sufferers, year-round allergy sufferers and non-allergy sufferers. These groups were further divided into three subgroups with some people taking two teaspoons of local honey per day, others taking the same amount of non-local honey each day and the final subgroup not taking honey at all. The Xavier students found that after six weeks, allergy sufferers from both categories suffered fewer symptoms and that the group taking local honey reported the most improvement [source: Cochran].
The study was never published, but the anecdotal evidence in favor of honey as an allergy reliever continues: Several of the study participants asked if they could keep the remaining honey after the experiment was concluded.
For more information on allergies and other related topics, visit the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Cochran, Brittany. "Honey: A sweet relief?" Xavier University. October 23, 2003. http://www.xula.edu/herald/issues/20031023/honey.html
- Foreman, Judy. "Does 'local honey' help prevent allergies?" Boston Globe. June 23, 2008. http://www.boston.com/news/science/articles/2008/06/23/does_eating_local_honey_help_prevent_allergies/
- Hasselbring, Bobbie. "What antihistamine side effects should I watch for?" Discovery Health. August 2000. http://health.discovery.com/centers/articles/articles.html?chrome=c02&article=LC_56¢er=p01
- Hoecker, Jay, M.D. "Infant botulism: Why is honey a concern?" Mayo Clinic. May 15, 2008. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/infant-botulism/HQ00854
- McClellan, Mark B. "RE: FDA's consideration of forcing prescription non-sedating antihistamines over the counter; docket #98P-0610." U.S. Food and Drug Administration. August 1, 2003. http://www.fda.gov/ohrms/dockets/dailys/03/Aug03/082003/98P-0610_emc-000093.txt
- Ogren, Tom. "Local honey and allergies." Pioneer Thinking. January 26, 2004. http://www.pioneerthinking.com/to_honey.html
- "Allergies: Things you can do to control our symptoms." American Academy of Family Physicians. http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/allergies/basics/083.printerview.html
- "Hay fever (seasonal allergic rhinitis)." Bupa. August 2007. http://hcd2.bupa.co.uk/fact_sheets/mosby_factsheets/allergicrhinitis.html
- "Histamine." Davidson College. 2000. http://www.bio.davidson.edu/courses/Immunology/Students/spring2000/lamar/mfirp.htm
- "How do bees make honey?" Lansing State Journal. July 30, 1997. http://www.pa.msu.edu/sciencet/ask_st/073097.html
- "How does immunization work?" UNICEF. http://www.unicef.org/immunization/index_how.html
- "Mold, dust mites, fungi, spores and pollen: bioaerosols in the human environment." June 1995. North Carolina State University. http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/fcs/mold.html
- "Pollination." Missouri Botanical Garden. http://www.mbgnet.net/bioplants/pollination.html