Hacking Your Health With Bees
From raw honey to royal jelly and venom, new evidence suggests bees and their byproducts can help boost your immune system.
Apitherapy: The Many Benefits of Bee Products
Apitherapy is the art of using bee products—everything from honey to venom—to have more energy and to control your biology. Modern science is now discovering the power of bee products, but we’re hardly the first people to use bees as a source of natural medicine. In fact, apitherapy may be one of the oldest biohacks around; its origins trace back to ancient Greece, Egypt, and China.
Studies show that bee products may help manage autoimmune diseases, cancer, Alzheimer’s, HPV, Lyme Disease, multiple sclerosis, and arthritis—bacteria in bee stomachs could even act as alternatives to antibiotics.
You’ve probably heard about eating small amounts of raw honey to improve your sleep, but have you heard about using bee venom to hack your immune system? Propolis for inflammation? Pollen for allergies (how’s that for a contradiction)? What about nutrient-dense royal jelly, associated with enhanced brain function, increased metabolism, improved mood, and about a dozen other upgrades for your body?
Read on to learn more about these powerful—and unusual—biohacks. Some have more evidence behind them than others—I’ll talk about that too.
Can bee venom therapy boost your immune system?
Bee venom therapy is exactly what it sounds like—getting stung by bees in a controlled setting. That’s the traditional approach. The FDA has also approved a venom extract called Apex Venenum Purum, and it’s widely available.
This is one reason why, when my 5-year-old son got stung for the first time by a bee, I praised his new “bee powers” which magically made the pain go away.
Why would you want to swallow (or inject) extracted bee venom? Well, it turns out there may be more than a few benefits to this odd biohack.
Here’s the theory behind bee venom therapy: bee venom only causes slight inflammation, but in many people (even those who aren’t allergic to bee stings), the immune system mounts an unnecessarily large response to it. Your brain triggers excessive release of several hormones that control immune response, and once they take care of the bee venom, the leftover hormones can deal with other immune problems.
To be clear—this mechanism is still a theory. We don’t yet fully understand the process behind bee venom therapy. However, there’s growing research supporting bee venom therapy’s effectiveness in all kinds of immune system-related issues. One study found that venom significantly improved thyroid function in women with hyperthyroidism. Bee venom enhanced the effectiveness of arthritis medication in individuals with rheumatoid arthritis. It also decreased arthritis-related edema—that’s when joints fill with fluid and become swollen.
A spoonful of sugar…
You don’t have to suffer stings or swallow poison to benefit from bee products. Raw, unfiltered honey can do a lot of good things for you too, as long as you watch the sugar content. Many varieties have broad-spectrum antibiotic effects, along with antifungal and antiviral properties. Honey is powerful enough to fight off infections in burns and open wounds, making it a possible alternative to traditional antibiotics and a way to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (One reason this works is simple osmotic pressure—plain table sugar packed in a wound can do this too!)
Honey gets its special properties from the gut biomes of the bees that produce it. Bees have two stomachs, one of which is dedicated to holding honey that the bee later sucks out and stores. In the honey stomach is a unique group of 13 lactic acid bacteria (LABs) that stick in the honey when bees stash it. The LABs are high-performance pathogen killers, secreting protective compounds like hydrogen peroxide and fatty acids that destroy invaders and damaging microbes—including antibiotic-resistant MRSA.
Pasteurizing and filtering honey destroys LABs and removes all kinds of nutrients, too. That’s why raw, unfiltered honey is key. But remember, it’s a double-edged sword because the sugar in honey will take you out of ketosis and raise inflammation and triglycerides. It’s best to stick to a tablespoon or less of honey, an hour before bed.
Props for cancer-fighting, anti-inflammatory propolis
Bees make propolis from the resin of trees and materials from other plants. Propolis covers hives like glue, keeping fungal and bacterial invaders at bay.
Propolis benefits humans too. In fact, it’s been a popular remedy for thousands of years, and in Europe it’s still used today to treat wounds, burns, sore throats—even stomach ulcers. Its uses don’t stop there:
• Two components of propolis, caffeic acid phenethyl ester (CAPE) and artepillin C, fight both cancer and inflammation.
• Propolis may improve atherosclerosis (PDF).
• Propolis-based mouthwash reduces plaque and gingivitis (PDF).
• To top it off, propolis contains more than 180 compounds (PDF), many of which are great for you. It’s rich in antioxidant polyphenols, magnesium, calcium, iron, and zinc, plus 16 amino acids and a host of B vitamins. It’s like nature’s multivitamin.
Royal jelly: brain hacks from bees
The first time I heard about royal jelly was in 1995, when I asked a very energetic 50-year-old college professor how he kept up his energy for teaching. He told that he took a tablespoon of royal jelly every day and swore it worked. I tried it, but didn’t feel much. Not surprising, given that I was eating a low-fat, low-calorie diet and overtraining at the time…
Royal jelly is a nutrient-dense mixture of protein, about 5 percent fat, and sugar. All larvae eat it in small amounts, but one chosen larva is fed nothing but royal jelly its whole life. That larva is the one that turns into the queen. An average worker lives for a few months, but a queen lives for 3-5 years, producing over 2,000 eggs every day, and up to 1,000,000 in its lifetime. Talk about upgraded performance. (No, it probably won’t quadruple your lifespan too, unless you’re a bee…)
Royal jelly has a lot more nutrients than regular honey, and contains B vitamins, folate, biotin, inositol, pantothenic acid, acetylcholine, collagen, and vitamins A, C, D, and E, plus a wide variety of minerals, amino acids, and enzymes. It also has antibacterial and antifungal properties.
Royal jelly supports neurogenesis—the growth of new brain cells—by stimulating neural stem cells, neurotransmitters, [G1] and neuroprotective glial cells. Royal jelly is also the only food that contains 10-HDA, a fatty acid that may enhance overall cognitive capacity. Royal jelly’s concentration of phospholipids helps with impaired cognitive learning, awareness, and motor function; it also may improve short-term memory and learning processes.
For these kinds of benefits, I’m glad to have a little bit of sugar from royal jelly, as long as I keep my daily intake of fructose low. This is not a license to drench all your food in raw honey or royal jelly.
Local bee pollen hacks allergies
Young bees eat bee pollen. It’s 40 percent protein, half of which is broken down into readily usable amino acids. On top of that, bee pollen, like royal jelly, is exceptionally full of nutrients.
It may be useful as more than a supplement, too. Bees collect pollen from local flowers and other plants, so if you have seasonal allergies you can take small amounts of locally produced bee pollen to desensitize yourself to plant-based allergens. In one study, bee pollen significantly improved allergy symptoms for nearly 75 percent of participants. However, other studies have shown that it doesn’t do much for allergies. I’ve tried it and not had any improvements, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for you.
The key to benefiting from apitherapy is to get your bee products raw and unfiltered. Quality matters more than ever, especially with honey. Some companies—often ones based in China—are processing honey to such an extent that there is no pollen, propolis, nutrition, or anything else. Over-processed honey is basically the same nutritionally as corn syrup. And remember not to eat too much; for all its good effects, honey still has a lot of fructose in it!