Seasonal allergy sufferers know that relief from streaming eyes, itchy throats, and stuffy noses can be elusive. One of the more widely touted home remedies is eating local honey or bee pollen to help prevent symptoms. The theory is that by exposing yourself to pollen produced by nearby plants—presumably the same ones triggering allergic responses—you can train your immune system to not react.
If you're plagued by pollen, you might be tempted to stock up on local honey—but don't head to the farmer's market just yet. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, allergists don’t believe local honey has a medicinal effect on allergies.
There are a few reasons why honey, delicious as it is, isn't an allergy cure-all. For one, most people with seasonal allergies are responding to pollen from trees, grasses, and weeds—plants that bees rarely pollinate. (They prefer non-allergenic flowering plants.)
What’s more, pollen of any variety isn’t present in honey in large quantities. Bees make honey from nectar, not pollen; any pollen that ends up in honey is there accidentally, and according to the National Honey Board, it's only present in trace amounts that won't have a noticeable effect on your immune system.
The available science supports that claim: One study, published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology in 2002, found that sufferers who ate either local honey or commercially produced non-local honey got no more relief from their symptoms than sufferers who took a honey-flavored placebo.
Commercially available bee pollen supplements are also touted as a method of allergy relief for their purported ability to teach your immune system to be calm in the presence of pollen. But the supplements contain far more pollen than what most people would be exposed to by just walking around—which means they can actually make allergies worse. Just 50 pollen grains per cubic meter of air can trigger hay fever symptoms; one study estimated that there could be between 0.4 and 6.4 million pollen grains in a single gram of bee pollen.
It's probably not surprising, then, that there are reports of patients with pollen allergies suffering reactions as severe as anaphylaxis after consuming bee pollen. But that's not the only reason these supplements could be harmful: In an article for the Journal of Dietary Supplements [PDF], researchers explained that because pollen is collected by bees in less than sterile conditions, bee pollen may be adulterated with mold and bacteria, and caution that “it is impossible to produce a stable, consistent, and clean product from this contaminated source.”
Though honey and bee pollen won't help allergy sufferers get relief, they do have options. There are two immunotherapies currently available and approved by the FDA: the allergy shot and a sublingual (under the tongue) tablet. (Sublingual drops and anti-allergy toothpaste are also available outside the U.S.) Both methods give you a repeated, low-dose exposure to an allergen, adapting your immune system into not responding to that allergen—exactly what honey and bee pollen are supposed to do but don't. And unlike bee pollen or local honey, these treatments are administered or prescribed by a doctor, the doses are regulated, and studies have demonstrated their efficacy, all of which lower the risk of adverse reactions and increases your chance of successful treatment.