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How Bee Sting Therapy Works

Emerging Scientific Evidence, and Risks, of Toxic Therapies
A bee sting therapist’s clinic in Jakarta, Indonesia.
A bee sting therapist’s clinic in Jakarta, Indonesia.
© BEAWIHARTA/Reuters/Corbis

Venom, surprisingly, isn't all bad news. Although venom isn't a popular therapy in Western medicine, growing scientific evidence is beginning to affirm what ancient healers have practiced for a long time: Honey-bee venom may be an effective and lasting treatment against a handful of neurological and immunological ailments, including multiple sclerosis (MS), and the venom shows promise as a therapy for several more conditions.

Emerging scientific data of the beneficial role of apitherapy suggests the venom may help decrease inflammation and improve circulation, and it may help encourage a healthy immune system. Bee venom has been studied as therapy for a list of diseases, and while most are considered too small or otherwise inconclusive, some results do stand out.

It turns out that melittin, for example, is a pretty powerful anti-inflammatory compound that triggers the body to produce cortisol and is estimated to be 100 times more potent than cortisone [source: Downey]. It may be a potential treatment against bacterial and fungal infections because of its antimicrobial properties; in the right dose, the toxin weakens a cell until it pops, and it's that ability to destroy one cell without damaging another that prompted scientists to explore its efficacy against diseases including certain types of arthritis and cancers, in addition to HIV and the aforementioned multiple sclerosis (MS).

And roughly 2 to 5 percent of the active compounds in bee venom is a peptide, adolapin, which has antipyretic analgesic properties — and that means, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, adolapin is an effective anti-inflammatory and pain-blocking agent. Protease inhibitors make up just 2 percent of bee venom: A protease is an enzyme that can separate a protein into peptides, and protease inhibitors block the enzyme's ability to do that. Protease inhibitors are also associated with anti-inflammatory properties and hemostasis (which is the body's way of stopping you from bleeding when you're injured) [source: Ali].

Scientists in both Greece and South Korea independently published findings that honey-bee venom interferes with the production of a compound called interleukin-1, one of 11 cytokines associated with arthritic pain and inflammation — and that means, at least for the majority of study participants, BVT is effective in reducing symptoms of arthritis.

In a small study, bee venom, in the form of bee venom acupuncture, was successful as a Parkinson's disease treatment; researchers theorize the apitoxin may work in a similar way as the botulism toxin, causing temporary muscle paralysis. Additionally, after a 30-day course of BVT, men with symptoms of enlarged prostate, specifically benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), reported significant symptom relief [source: Lukits]. And when we look at anecdotal evidence, data suggests bee venom may also be effective treatment against post-herpetic neuralgia, a side effect of the Shingles infection.

Apitherapy is considered experimental medicine and is not sanctioned or regulated by the FDA for any purpose other than for allergen immunotherapy, also called desensitization therapy. But that hasn't stopped the experimental therapy from gaining followers. Acupuncturists and naturopaths, plus a limited number of Western-medicine-practicing physicians and nurses, recommend or practice the therapy. Some beekeepers who supply BVT patients with bees also become expert in BVT treatment and methods.

Reactions to bee venom therapy are usually local reactions such as itching, pain, redness and swelling; however, bee venom may cause whole-body allergic reactions. A small percentage of people — an estimated 1 to 2 people out of 1,000 — suffer severe allergic reactions, which begin immediately or within 30 minutes of exposure, while anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction, occurs almost immediately [source: ARS]. Those undergoing BVT should be prepared for an allergic reaction not only after the first BVT session, but as a risk after each and every of them.