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Apitherapy

What Is It?
Apitherapy, or bee therapy, is the use of products of the common honeybee for therapeutic purposes. (The term comes from the Latin apis, which means “bee.”) Honeybee venom, bee pollen, raw honey, royal jelly, and propolis are the products generally considered to have medicinal effects. These products are said to be effective against a wide range of ailments, from arthritis and chronic pain to multiple sclerosis and cancer, although few scientific studies have as yet proved their benefits.

The history of apitherapy extends back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and China. Even Hippocrates, the Greek physician known as the “father of medicine,” used bee venom to treat arthritis and other joint problems. Austrian physician Phillip Terc initiated the modern study of bee venom and intentional bee stings when he published his article “Report about a Peculiar Connection Between the Beestings and Rheumatism” in 1888. The late beekeeper Charles Mraz of Middlebury, Vermont, is credited with popularizing bee venom therapy over the past 60 years in the United States. Today, thousands of medical professionals and lay practitioners use apitherapy throughout the world.

How Does It Work?
The five popular honeybee products work in different ways to treat various ailments and conditions.

Bee venom is administered either by needle or by actual bee sting. Chemical studies show that venom contains a number of powerful anti-inflammatory substances, including adolapin and melittin. Said to be a hundred times more powerful than hydrocortisone, melittin stimulates the production of cortisol, a natural steroid that also acts as an anti-inflammatory. Not surprisingly, bee venom therapy (or BVT) is often used for conditions that involve inflammation, such as tendinitis, bursitis, and rheumatoid and osteoarthritis.

Bee pollen is typically marketed as an energy-boosting nutritional supplement. This bee product contains vitamins, minerals, and protein, but no more so than many ordinary foods. Some advocates believe that bee pollen is a beneficial treatment for seasonal allergies, because ingesting small amounts builds up resistance to pollen. Claims that bee pollen helps athletes improve performance or that it slows the aging process are not backed up by any scientific evidence, however.

Raw honey is a quick source of energy (like sugar) and a natural storehouse of B vitamins and various minerals. It has mild antibacterial and antibiotic properties, and it can help soothe sore throats. Those who use it believe that raw honey, which has not been filtered, heat-treated, or processed in any way, is more healthful than processed honey. In some studies, raw honey has been used to suppress bacterial growth, particularly in open wounds.

Royal jelly is a milky white substance produced in the salivary glands of worker bees as a food source for the queen bee–and it may be what dramatically extends the queen’s life and enhances her fertility. There have been numerous claims about royal jelly’s beneficial effects on a variety of medical problems, including fatigue, infertility, asthma, and lack of appetite; these are mainly anecdotal and not substantiated in clinical testing. Interestingly, however, animal and human studies have shown that royal jelly contains ingredients capable of lowering cholesterol levels in the blood. Based on its effect on the queen bee, royal jelly occasionally appears as an ingredient in women’s cosmetics, especially wrinkle creams. There is no evidence that royal jelly retards aging (or aging skin) in anyone except bees, however.

Propolis (sometimes called “bee glue”) is a sticky resin that seeps from the buds of certain trees (the bees prefer poplar) and oozes from the bark of others (chiefly conifers). Worker bees collect it, add their salivary secretions to it, and use it to coat the inside of the hive. Propolis has been shown to contain antibacterial compounds and can be effective as a salve for cuts and bruises. It is also a source of flavonoids, potent antioxidants that can help prevent cell damage caused by free radicals.

What You Can Expect
Bee venom therapy is the most complex of the different types of apitherapy. Always have an allergy test before beginning a course of treatment and always consult a trained practitioner for the treatments. Because honeybee venom is not closely related to wasp or yellow jacket venom, an allergy to those insects does not necessarily rule out being able to have honeybee venom therapy. Nevertheless, careful testing and supervision is a must in all situations. (Eventually, you can learn to administer the treatments at home, either by yourself or with the help of a partner.)

In BVT, the venom is administered by injection, either by needle or by bee sting. Although some practitioners inject the venom with a hypodermic needle, your practitioner may place the bees, one at a time, directly on your skin with a pair of long tweezers and allow them to sting. The bees are typically placed close to the joint, muscle, or other body part that needs treatment.

Obviously, the bee sting can be a bit painful, but it’s nothing to be anxious about. In fact, honeybee stings are much less painful than wasp or hornet stings. The degree of discomfort is basically in proportion to how you respond to pain. The first sting is always the worst because you don’t know what to expect. Once you know what it feels like, the experience definitely gets easier.

Whether you receive BVT treatment by injection or sting, you can expect to feel some local discomfort–inflammation, stiffness, soreness, or itching–but the practitioner will usually place an ice pack on the affected area to reduce these symptoms as quickly as possible. If the practitioner is working with actual bees, the stingers will be removed immediately or within a few minutes.

For a relatively simple condition, such as tendinitis, just two or three sessions may be required, with two to ten stings per session. For a complex condition, such as multiple sclerosis, you may require up to three sessions per week (with two to three stings per session) for six months or more.

You do not need to consult a practitioner to try the other types of apitherapy. Bee pollen and royal jelly are available over-the-counter in capsules, powders, creams, and lotions for oral or topical use. Raw honey and propolis are available in health-food stores. Because an allergic reaction is always a possibility with bee products, you should proceed with care if you don’t know whether or not you’re sensitive.

Health Benefits
There have been few controlled scientific studies proving the value of bee venom, bee pollen, raw honey, royal jelly, or propolis, but there are many anecdotal reports about their health benefits. (One difficulty with controlled studies of bee venom is that a proper placebo is impossible to create; if you’re stung by a bee, you know it.)

Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, bee venom is commonly used to treat diseases such as arthritis, bursitis, and tendinitis. It is also used to relieve chronic back and neck pain. Some apitherapists report that bee venom can also help break down and soften scar tissue, flattening scars and lightening them. This idea is supported by the fact that bee venom contains powerful enzymes that can break through scar tissue.

Bee venom therapy is additionally reported to decrease spasms and fatigue in multiple sclerosis patients and to increase the patients’ stability. The National Multiple Sclerosis Association funded research at Allegheny University in Philadelphia to explore the possible benefits of apitherapy. The preliminary results of experiments conducted with laboratory mice, reported in 1998, found no beneficial effect against the course of an MS-like disease. Research is ongoing, however.

How To Choose a Practitioner
There are no licensing or credentialing organizations for apitherapists (apitherapy practitioners). Some physicians perform bee venom therapy themselves; others work with beekeepers who provide the bees and administer the stings under supervision. As in any type of treatment, getting a referral from a trusted health-care practitioner, friend, or relative is the best way to find an apitherapist.

Cautions
Advocates say that most of the allergic reactions attributed to honeybee venom are actually to yellow jacket or wasp venom. However, if you are allergic to bee venom, you should be very careful when using this therapy, and get professional supervision. Furthermore, in case you have an undetected allergy, be sure to keep a bee-venom allergy kit (including a syringe and epinephrine) on hand.

Health shakes (blended drinks from juice bars) often contain bee pollen or other bee products. If you are allergic, such drinks can cause dangerous reactions. Be sure you know what’s in a drink before you consume it.

If you have heart disease, hypertension, tuberculosis, or diabetes, avoid apitherapy.

Children less than a year old should never be given honey (raw or otherwise), since it may contain bacteria that can be harmful to them.

People with compromised immune systems should use caution when eating raw honey, which may contain infection-causing fungus.

Recommended dosage levels have not yet been established for bee products. Therefore, exercise caution when using any of them.


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