For tens of millions of Americans, this time of year can only mean one thing: sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes. The arsenal of antihistamines, decongestants and new drugs to combat spring allergies is growing, but an alternative remedy, honey, has been gaining a lot of traction around the region. Despite the popularity, however, there's no good evidence that it works.
"The truth is, if you look into the scientific literature, there is not a lot of published credible information that it actually works for anything," says Dr. TV Rajan, professor of pathology at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.
Testing the theory
About a decade ago, Rajan sought clarification on honey, in part because his own daughter had terrible allergies. He worried about some of the adverse side effects of long term allergy drugs available at the time.
The hyper local honey theory is based on a concept called "oral tolerization." Rajan says allergies occur when the immune system overreacts and thinks particles, like pollen, are harmful when they're not. So the idea is that by ingesting honey, which contains traces of local pollen from bees, one could train the immune system to recognize those allergens as benign. Some liken this concept to the way vaccines work.
Rajan put this theory to the test in a two year, randomized controlled study. It was small, with about three dozen participants.
"[Local honey] clearly does not work for adults," says Rajan.
Lack of research
Rajan says he still gets a lot of calls about this decade-old study, partly because there's just not a lot of research out there.
Effective or not, the drive toward local honey to alleviate allergies has fueled Don Shump's local honey business. The web developer turned beekeeper says people with allergies have been flocking to him like bees to a hive. They're his main source of business.
"I get people responding all the time saying, 'oh you're an urban beekeeper, and you make local honey - that's good for allergies isn't it?' I'm torn between saying 'Yes absolutely!' and 'Technically speaking, we're not sure.'
Taking honey is no big deal, as long as people don't skip helpful, evidence-based drug treatments, and instead continue suffering from allergies, says Dr. John Cohn, an allergist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
"If you're happy, I'm happy," says Cohn. "It's relatively harmless if you're not allergic to it. There are many things people have done that are much more dangerous ways to treat themselves."
Cohn echoes Rajan in stressing that honey for allergies lacks scientific evidence. He also says the theory has some gaping holes in it. One being that bees probably don't bring enough common spring allergens into honey.
"If you remember the birds and bees - bees carry pollen when they are attracted to flowers. But most spring allergies are from trees, weeds and grasses," he says. Even if bees did carry such things, he adds, it would likely be too low to make a difference.
For 19-year-old Grace Kennedy, who recently stopped by Reading Terminal Market to purchase a jar of Pennsylvania honey, she finds that honey helps. Without it, she says, allergies are terrible.
"If I'm eating honey almost every day, it's usually pretty fine," she says, though she also acknowledges honey lacks any scientific proof. "Partly, maybe it's psychosomatic, but I really do think it works," she says.