Sunday, January 8, 2012

Propolis for Colds and Other Bugs

Have you heard about that horrible stomach virus going around? I was up all night with it two nights ago. I started taking propolis yesterday morning, and have now had three doses. And while I'm still laying low and taking things easy, I feel pretty darned good. Propolis is one of my favorite secret weapons.

I stole this image from here.

Propolis is popular in Brazil and other places, but little-known here, and what little information exists on the Internet comes from companies selling the stuff, so it's not very objective. Here's a dump of everything I've learned in my twenty five years of experience.

Propolis is one of the amazing things bees make. It's a resin, used for sealing big gaps in the hive, and it keeps the place very clean (all those bugs living in such close quarters could easily create infections, but that's nearly unheard of....thanks to propolis). Luckily, propolis' antiseptic and antibiotic/antiviral qualities carry over to humans. Beekeepers have for centuries recognized it as a panacea. Medical science would, too, if it weren't for a vexing problem: each hive makes slightly different propolis, since its components are gathered from varied local sources. There is, therefore, no apt way to test the stuff, and so its effectiveness is mostly anecdotal. But I've been using it for years, and have turned friends (like you) on to it.

Resins are hard to ingest (much less assimilate). You can chew it, but it makes your teeth feel fuzzy (no health issue though; it kills plaque). To avoid these difficulties, propolis is often prepared as a tincture. The downside is that the processing and the alcohol is thought to erode some of the goodness. And you've got to take it with honey, or, like the resin, it will cling to your teeth. Easiest to ingest are capsules of powdered propolis, but this is the most processed and least fresh alternative. And in these sorts of natural substances, freshness is a good thing.

I should note that while I'm always seeking out the freshest propolis, I've found that even musty old drug store capsules which have sat at the back of my medicine cabinet for a year or two still work pretty well.

Propolis is impossible to test and difficult to ingest. On top of that, there's at least some risk. Any dense, rich, concentrated food is a boon, due to the concentrated nutrients, but also concentrated are toxins. Fortunately, bees are meticulous in sourcing components of propolis, so you don't have to worry about most sorts of taint. But there's one thing they don't know how to winnow: heavy metals. So, as with fish oil, the dense concentration of nutrients carries a risk of concentration of bad stuff, too. I doubt it's enough to really harm you if you take propolis only occasionally, but it's worth bearing in mind as you 1. source your propolis, and 2. decide when to take it. I've probably taken under two ounces, total, in my lifetime, and view the benefits as greatly outweighing the small risk.

You'll see brands of propolis touted as "organic", but that's a crock. Bees are the ultimate free-range critters. No one can control where they go and what they gather. I'd eat honey from bees in, say, Staten Island, but never anything as concentrated as propolis. So I try to buy directly from beekeepers in rural areas, and I only take it when I need it.

The temptation to take it often is great, because this stuff is a panacea. If you have situations like a cold, mild to medium bronchitis or sinus problems or diarreah (from food poisoning or virus), and are on the fence about resorting to antibiotics (i.e. your condition isn't yet dangerously severe), propolis can bring surprisingly dramatic improvements (though, if it doesn't, please don't be stupid: antibiotics are a nasty business, but they're vastly better than serious infection, toxic shock, and death!).

I've heard that you can use the tincture on burns, or chew the resin for a sore throat, but I've never tried those things. I use propolis whenever I get that "Uh-oh" realization that I'm coming down with something. And it generally knocks it out. I always bring it when traveling, in case of tourist tummy (it's not for ordinary indigestion, however).

Dosage is hard, because, again, no two samples are identical. If you take too much propolis, the first symptom is a slightly upset stomach (no big deal). So one strategy is to find that point, then back off the dosage. A good range would be 10-20 drops of tincture twice/day (mixed into honey for assimilation and to minimize tooth-coating), or a half to one capsule twice/day (most of the capsules are rather high dosage). Hardcore types who chew the resin should start with a chunk the size of a match head. I like the taste, but you may not (if you hate it, capsules are for you).

Propolis is what Chinese doctors call "heating". Actually they don't call it anything, because it's apparently unknown to Chinese medicine. But if they did, they'd consider this one of the most heating substances known. So if you already have chronic symptoms of over-heating (aside from any fever associated with your momentary illness) - such as night sweats, menopausal hot flashes, irritability, or if you're having issues with kundalini energy), go easy on the dosage.

If you're using honey to treat allergies (a really good idea, by the way), you must buy local, to ensure the honey's made from the local pollen that's troubling you. Locality is less important for propolis. You can find a 70% tincture from YS Royal at Whole Foods or Amazon, and they at least seem to be cognizant/diligent about purity, though the "organic" label is, as I said, misleading. They also make capsules.

I'm more confident about White Oak Apiary, a small operation in Brewster, NY. They sell resin for $8/ounce (and an ounce goes a long way) and also make a tincture, which I haven't tried. The problem is you need to order ahead; by the time your propolis arrives, it may be too late to help with your bug du jour! But one nice thing about ordering from White Oak is that you can also stock up on their wonderful honey, particularly the hugely intense buckwheat honey.

For immediate situations, even lousy pharmacies carry cheap capsules of propolis from God knows where (in the vitamin aisle). Know what? It'll work. So if you're feeling skitchy right now, go for it...and then stock up on some good stuff for next time.

White Oak doesn't list propolis on their web site, or sell it at farmer's markets. There's little consumer demand, so you usually have to ask. But wherever you see local honey, propolis will be available upon request.

If you have questions, feel free to comment and I'll reply. And if propolis works for you, pass it around. Half the people I know are miserable this week. So unnecessary!


Seth Godin said...

Hi Jim,

Assuming it fills the role of an antibiotic, how does it help with a virus?

Placebos are fabulous, and I don't want to deprive you of one, but I'm not following...

Jim Leff said...

Seth, I've been touching up the article, but you seem to have come in early. I amended it to antibiotic/antiviral.

Here's the thing: you don't hear much about biological OR viral infections plaguing bee hives (which are, after all, as teeming as...well...hives). And propolis is widely acknowledged to be the way bees stave off such things. Since neither microbes nor viruses seem to attack, propolis would seem, empirically, to have antiviral as well as antibiotic properties. I can confirm this anecdotally.

That said, I absolutely agree that placebo effect is way, way more dramatic than most people even realize (in popular imagination, it's a light mechanism for kooks and hysterics, but it's really not at all). So I'm always willing to entertain that as a possibility. But you live not far from me, so you surely have heard about the stomach virus going around. It lasts a week, but I patched up in under two days. That's one helluva placebo! And propolis always works this well for me (and I'm not a particularly fast recoverer when I don't take it).

Beekeepers have always been renowned for their good health (something like chimney sweeps and good luck). Propolis is the reason, as beekeepers will all tell you. The reason it's unverified by science is that this is among the most difficult-to-test natural medicines in the world.

Seth Godin said...

Thanks for sharing and updating.

Of course, it would actually be pretty easy to test if the results are as profound as you describe for illnesses as common as a stomach virus and the common cold. The drugs that are hard to test either deliver minor results, take a long time to take effect or work on rare problems.

The real problem is that there's no money in it for the pharma folks.

joshi said...

Jim Leff said...

Yes, that obstacle, and all the other usual ones, as well. But the big obstacle is that there is no one thing we can call propolis.

I skated over it, because the article was already long, but bees are unbelievably resourceful in producing this stuff. In dramatically varying environments they always work with a unique set of source materials (bees aren't pandas; their habitats are all over). And so the properties vary. Strength varies. Everything varies.

One way or another, the hive stays more or less healthy, which is just amazing. But in terms of testing any one propolis, at any one dosage, with any given sample of humans, with any one of a huge range of ever-mutating antigens? Well.....bees are miracle workers, but even so, it's a tall order!

There's been some testing. Some results in some tests with some propolises against some antigens at some dosages with some subjects show terrific improvement. But as a whole, results vary. As they obviously must.

And so it's gonna be anecdotal. Try it, and if you like it, spread the word.

Jim Leff said...

Joshi, I'm not a subscriber, and so I can't view. But, per my replies to Seth, anything you say about propolis, scientifically is going to be about just one (or two or ten or fifty) sample(s) of propolis. Positive or negative, the results and conclusions can always be contested. Because there's no one propolis.

That said, I've had very good empirical luck knocking out infections and bugs and colds. Scientific? No. But I'm glad to have this stuff around!

Mil said...

I heard a beekeeper say you can get a chunk of propolis, grind it into some honey, and take it that way. I'm a beekeeper, so that's my plan of action.

Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

I have a horrid virus, caught last Thursday in Tenerife. My immune system is strong but by the time I arrived home Saturday night my chest felt like it was going to burst. Sunday I took 20 drops of propolis tincture, which my amazing mother swears by in chamomile tea with local honey, every 3 hours. Will do the same today a knock this virus out of the park. Feeling 80% better than yesterday

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