Winter might be the best time for you to fortify your immunity!

Seasonal allergies are miserable. For those of us who suffer from them, the glories of nature aren’t harbingers of hope but rather warning signs to stay indoors and wash your hands before you touch your face.

Depending on what you’re allergic to—a skin or blood test performed by your allergist can give specific data—attempts to alleviate symptoms can range from a series of shots at the allergist’s office, to a regimen of over-the-counter antihistamines, to local products like honey and, oddly enough, bee pollen.

But wait, isn’t pollen what’s causing the trouble for many of us in the first place?

What is bee pollen?

Bee pollen is composed of pollen from plants that bees have collected and then mixed with nectar, a secretion from their salivary glands. This mixture, called “bee bread,” is stored in honeycombs and covered with honey and wax. After a fermentation process, it becomes the main protein source for the colony.

Bee pollen has a powerful nutritional profile, which is why some consider it a superfood. In addition to being packed with protein, it contains amino acids, vitamins (including B-complexes), and folic acid. Dr. Vincent Caruso Jr., D.C., of New Jersey Total Health, says it’s also easily absorbed and assimilated into your system, which means your body can readily put all that nutrition to good use. Research suggests that it’s beneficial for everything from improving ovulation and managing weight to eliminating allergy symptoms and enhancing athletic performance.

As far as allergies go, the theory is that because bee pollen has demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties in rats, it may be able to counteract the inflammation that occurs in a human’s eyes, nose, or throat during an allergic reaction. Likewise, research studies indicate it may function to stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies that calm an allergic reaction in humans. Dr. Caruso recommends beginning to take bee pollen six weeks before the commencement of allergy season and then throughout the season.

The Research Behind It

Anecdotes abound online, but definitive clinical conclusions are tough to draw because different types of plants from which the bees gather pollen can change its composition (i.e., southwest bee pollen is vastly different from what you’d find in the northeast). This is why you’ll see some bee pollen granules that are yellow and others that are green or almost black. Also, most studies have been done on animals, so while there’s some research basis to believe the same results will be achieved in humans, the official jury is still out.

One widely cited report on humans was performed by Leo Conway, M.D., of Denver, Colorado, who administered bee pollen to his patients with allergies. Of those who followed his three-year protocol, all reportedly found relief from asthma, allergies, sinus problems, and even migraines and urinary disorders. Dr. Caruso also cites bee pollen as a means of preventing colds and the flu and an aid to circulation, the heart, and building blood.

While Dr. Conway’s studies are promising, there have been cases of severe allergic reactions to bee pollen as well. Those who are younger than 2 or allergic to bee products should not take it.

What to Look for When Buying Bee Pollen

When shopping for bee pollen, Dr. Caruso encourages seeking out a product that’s both sourced and manufactured locally so that some of the plants you may be allergic to have been incorporated into the bee pollen; bee pollen sourced from another environment won’t be effective. Starting on bee pollen long before allergy season may desensitize you from having reactions to these local plants. So if your seasonal allergies flare up in January, start taking bee pollen now.

To err on the side of caution, always start with a low dose of granules—half a teaspoon or less—and slowly work up to, at most, three tablespoons per day, over a period of a few weeks. Granules—recommended more often than capsule and powder forms—can be mixed into smoothies, oatmeal, granola, yogurt, and more as long as they’re eaten raw. Dr. Caruso advises buying granules that are stored in the refrigerated section of your preferred retailer as the freshest and most powerful. Plus, the granules are naturally gluten- and fat-free and have a very subtle taste, so they’re a versatile ingredient to have around. You can eat bee pollen by itself, but it’s best taken with food, specifically fruit, as the interaction is purported to give the most efficient result.

Also, ask about the cultivation process where you purchase:

  • Purity: Were the bees exposed to high-fructose corn syrup, pesticides, or anything else that may have found its way into the product? (i.e., Was the pollen harvested from organic plants? Were the bees given artificial nectars?)
  • Freshness: When was the pollen harvested? What’s the expiration date?
  • Quality: Are there sweeteners, fillers, additives, preservatives, etc. that were added to the product?

We can’t yet bee super-sure that bee pollen lives up to the substantial buzz about its benefits, but most sources agree that there’s little risk in giving it a shot. It might be the sweetest thing you do for yourself this season.