Honey hardly a help for hay fever

Ah, spring. Sun shining, birds singing, flowers blooming. In other words, it’s hay fever season.

If, like me, you suffer from hay fever – or allergic rhinitis, if you will – you’ve probably had some well-meaning people advising you to eat honey to hold back the symptoms. But not just any honey: it has to be local honey. The theory is that if you eat honey made from local flowers, you will reduce your sensitivity to their pollen.

But there’s one big problem with this: the plants that cause hay fever are not the same plants from which bees make honey.

A bee approaching a flower with intent to pollinate (click to embiggen)
Bees make honey by gathering nectar from flowers, distributing pollen in the process. These are not the same flowers whose pollen is spread by the wind and cause allergies – if it was, they wouldn’t need the bees (Photo by Louise Docker, via Wikimedia Commons)
Flowering plants need to spread their pollen to reproduce, and they’ve evolved different means of doing so. Some release their pollen to the wind, and these, like the grasses that give me such grief, are the ones that contaminate your air supply and cause an allergic reaction.

Others rely on insects to spread pollen from bloom to bloom, enticing them with sugary nectar. These are the ones that bees visit and use to make honey. They’re completely different species, with completely different pollen, to the wind-pollinated plants.

Although, even if they were the same plants, the time it takes to produce, collect and distribute the honey means they wouldn’t still be flowering by the time you ate it anyway. So it still couldn’t be the same pollen that causes your allergies.

Of course, this is just challenging a theory with a superior theory. But biology is complicated, and theories can be wrong, or there could be some unexpected mechanism that causes something to work. So with medical issues, I think it’s always important to look at actual clinical studies, and there have been some done on this question.

The most notable study failed to find a benefit from unfiltered, unpasteurised local honey compared with both filtered, pasteurised honey and a control of honey-flavoured corn syrup. The 36 participants, all of whom suffered from both runny noses and sore eyes, ate one tablespoon of their assigned substance per day. None of the groups got relief from their symptoms (Rajan TV, Tennen H, Lindquist RL, Cohen L & Clive J 2002, “Effect of ingestion of honey on symptoms of rhinoconjunctivitis”, Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, vol. 88, no. 2, pp. 198-203, PMID: 11868925).

Now, the authors admitted that a possible shortcoming of their research may have been that the dose was too low. But considering that 13 people dropped out of the trial because they couldn’t stand the sweetness, I think it’s fair to say you couldn’t expect people to eat much more.

Interestingly, there was a more recent study performed in Finland that found a benefit from honey laced with birch pollen – birch trees being a major source of allergies in Europe. But once again, that wasn’t honey actually made from birch trees: the pollen had to be artificially added to the honey. Also, the patients still took antihistamines, so even then it wasn’t a complete cure (Saarinen K, Jantunen J & Haahtela T 2011, “Birch pollen honey for birch pollen allergy – a randomized controlled pilot study”, International Archives of Allergy and Immunology, vol. 155, no. 2, pp. 160-166, DOI: 10.1159/000319821).

To sum up, there are plenty of good reasons to eat honey, especially local honey – if nothing else, you’re promoting pollination in your area – but it won’t help your hay fever.

So what can you do? More evidence-based recommendations are:

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