This bee product can fight disease—and no, it’s not honey

By Alistair Gardiner
Published August 23, 2021

Key Takeaways

Honey isn’t the only product of bee colonies that we can consume. Although this commodity frequently goes under the radar, most health food stores sell bee pollen. But what does this nutritional supplement do, and how does it affect human health? Well, according to several studies, quite a lot.

A recent review published in Nutrients states that bee pollen has been used in the prevention and treatment of conditions like heart disease, diabetes, hyper-dyslipidemia, various metabolic disorders, and cancer. Other studies have suggested that the consumption of bee pollen may support weight loss and maintenance, improve blood circulation, enhance immunity, and boost cognition.

But is this supplement worth all the buzz? Let’s take a closer look at bee pollen—where it comes from and its purported health benefits, according to recent research.

What is bee pollen?

A buzzing hive produces a lot more than honey, from royal jelly and beeswax to bee pollen. As described in a review published in the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, bee pollen is a mixture of the male sexual spore of plants, a digestive enzyme secreted by bees, and nectar. Bee pollen is highly nutritious—packed with lipids, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, proteins, and amino acids.

According to the review, bee pollen consists of roughly 25% protein and 51% polyunsaturated fatty acids, plus essential amino acids, 28 minerals, 12 vitamins (including carotene and vitamins E, D, C, and B), and enzymes, among others. The substance also features flavonoids, which boast anti-aging, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticarcinogenic, anti-atherosclerosis, and cardioprotective effects.

The authors of a review published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (eCAM), reported that roughly 200 biologically active substances have been found in bee pollen produced from a variety of different plant species.

While evidence from human studies is sorely lacking, numerous in vitro studies and experiments using animals have demonstrated bee pollen appears to be the real deal when it comes to bolstering our health.

Protection against heart disease

In studies conducted on rodents, researchers have found that bee pollen induces hypolipidemic activity, resulting in a reduction in serum levels of lipids and triacylglycerols, according to the eCAM article. This suggests that bee pollen could have cardioprotective properties.

“In patients with acute myocardial infarction, antioxidant therapy may be an effective tool for avoiding cardiac damage and myocardial dysfunction,” the authors wrote. 

They cited a study conducted on rodents, which involved treatment with Schisandra chinensis bee pollen extract. Researchers found that the treatment led to less heart damage than a control group of rodents by the end of the 30-day study period.

Another study cited in the review involved monitoring the progression of atherosclerosis in rodents that ate a diet enriched with bee pollen ethanolic extract. Upon finding limited growth of atherosclerotic plaques, researchers hypothesized that the improvement came from the antioxidant properties of the polyphenols and flavonoids present in the bee pollen.

“The results showed that bee pollen-enriched diets could prevent atherosclerosis,” the authors wrote.

Alleviation of allergies

In vitro studies, cited in the same eCAM article, have demonstrated that bee pollen exhibits anti-allergy actions, as a result of inhibiting the degranulation of mast cells in vitro. Similar research also indicated that bee pollen can inhibit signal transduction pathways, which is another potential mechanism by which it could help alleviate allergies.

In a study involving rodents, researchers found that bee pollen could inhibit cell migration to the lung and eosinophil, essentially shielding the rodents from anaphylactic shock. Researchers attributed this activity to the presence of a flavonoid called myricetin.

Anti-inflammatory properties

Bee pollen boasts strong anti-inflammatory properties, the potency of which are comparable to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as naproxen, analgin, phenylbutazone, or indomethacin, the authors wrote.

But how does it work? The authors posit that bee pollen’s mechanisms involve halting the activity of cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase, enzymes that can induce chronic inflammation. Once again, studies conducted on rodents have provided evidence for this theory, suggesting that a concentrated bee pollen extract could reduce the carrageenan-induced swelling of a rodent’s paw by up to 75%.

Anti-cancer properties

Bee pollen also appears to bring an immunoprotective effect, continued the eCAM study authors. Research conducted on rodents, for instance, found that a diet enriched with bee pollen led to significant increases in the proliferation of lymphocytes. Amino acids, vitamins, and essential minerals present in bee pollen could account for the stronger immune system, according to the research.

According to a review published in Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine, studies have also found that bee pollen peptides can induce apoptotic cell death in vitro in several human cancer cell lines, including those derived from renal, lung, liver, prostate, bladder, and lymphoid cancers.

Final notes

Because many of the studies supporting bee pollen were performed on rodents, more research is needed to establish a robust evidence base for its efficacy in human disease.

In the meantime, if you are planning to use bee pollen, dietary experts say it’s a good idea to seek out sustainably sourced products. Improperly harvested pollen, it turns out, can result in the loss of a bee colony. Speaking to Prevention, registered dietitian Ryan Andrews pointed out that bees are an “essential part of earth’s biodiversity.” And the less we interrupt the process of plant pollination, the more bee pollen there will be.

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