Local Honey As A Cure For Allergies: The Debate Buzzes On

Linda Tillman, Ph.D. in psychology, is a master beekeeper, and has thousands of bees in her backyard that create trays and trays of honey.
Linda Tillman, Ph.D. in psychology, is a master beekeeper, and has thousands of bees in her backyard that create trays and trays of honey.
Credit Brenna Beech / WABE

The tree allergy season is winding down, but for those with grass allergies, the misery is just beginning.

And if you’ve had itchy eyes and a runny nose, you’ve probably heard the advice to eat local honey. WABE took a look at whether it can help with allergies, or if it’s just an old wives’ tale.

About 1,000 bees fly all around in Linda Tillman’s Atlanta backyard. She’s been a beekeeper for about a decade and swears by her daily dose of local honey.

“I think it helps. It helps me,” Tillman says. “When I take a teaspoon of honey in my tea, my allergies are almost nonexistent.”

Tillman remembers what it was like before she started using honey for allergies.

“Red eyes, sneezing every three seconds, that kind of thing, but they’ve gotten better over time, and certainly better since I’ve been keeping bees.”

Tillman is just one of many here in Atlanta who will tell you that using Georgia honey and bee pollen can help with allergy relief.

Sonja Nilson ─ a manager at Sevananda, a natural foods market in the Little Five Points neighborhood ─ is one of them.

“We’ve got a new honey here,” she says. “This is Hometown Honey. This is from really local, which is great. This is from Kennesaw, Georgia.”

Nilson points to a display of local honey that sits right at the front of the store. She says because this year’s allergy season has been worse than some in the past, honey has been flying off the shelves.

“This is one of the top subjects there are right now …We have several hundred people a month coming in and looking for natural remedies for allergies,” Nilson says.

She recommends that customers take a teaspoon of local honey twice a day. She also says bee pollen can help. She says it works because bees collect pollen from flowering plants all over the area.

“And then when it goes back to make the honey, it carries those allergens,” Nilson says. “It’s sort of like homeopathy, and it diminishes the symptoms depending on how much that you use.”

But Dr. Stanley Fineman, an allergist with Atlanta Allergy and Asthma, says it doesn’t work that way.

“When you think about how honey is made through bees collecting pollen from flowering plants, those are not the kind of plants that cause allergies,” Fineman says. 

He says most seasonal allergies are caused by hardwood trees like maple and oak.

“Those are the trees are pollinated through windborne allergy not from insects, so it’s not the same kind of a protein in the local honey,” Fineman says. 

Fineman points to research, including a study done at the University of Connecticut Health Center. In the study, one group of allergy sufferers took a tablespoon of local honey every day for several months. A control group was given a placebo of corn syrup, and a third group ate commercial honey. So what did researchers find?

“People taking local honey comparing that to people who did not [take] local honey, there was no difference in their symptomatology,” Fineman says.

That’s why Fineman doesn’t recommend honey to his patients.

“Honey is not an alternative therapy,” Fineman says. “It’s fine to eat, but I don’t think people should think because they’re eating the honey, they’re getting a medicinal effect.”

Shayna Komar is a registered and licensed dietitian with Piedmont Healthcare. She agrees there’s not enough scientific evidence to show honey helps with allergies, but she says it does have other health benefits.

“Honey is anti-inflammatory. It’s anti-bacterial. It’s anti-microbial. It’s also anti-fungal,” Komar says.

She also says it can help with sore throats and even to heal wounds. Komar recommends raw, local honey for most people. But she says those with cancer or with weak immune systems should only eat pasteurized honey. Also, it shouldn’t be given to children under one year old. And because it’s glucose, which is sugar, she says, “Obviously use it in moderation, but it’s a great addition to a healthy food plan.”

Back in Tillman’s yard, she pulls out a frame of honey from one of her hives to check on its progress. It looks like a wooden picture frame. Only instead of a painting inside, there are small combs of honey.

She also believes honey has health benefits. Tillman has read the research that says honey doesn’t help those with allergies. But she still believes it gives her some relief.

“Whatever works,” says Tillman. “It’s like the old patent medicine man that used to say take this, and it will get you better, and people took it and believed it would get you better. It may all be a placebo effect, but I love it and I believe in it.”

But Tillman says no matter what side of the debate you fall on, most can agree on one thing: If nothing else, honey tastes good.

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