Propolis is a substance used/created by honeybees for two important functions around the beehive. Imagine a ‘community’ with 35000 members, each packed into a tiny space, crawling over their neighbor and sharing the same food supply. It’s little wonder that the hive environment needs to be highly sanitized to prevent the development and spread of bacteria. That is the first and most important role of propolis – sanitation.
It is collected from tree bark and sap flows which have inherent anti-viral and anti bacterial properties. These properties are retained as the plant matter is collected and combined with bee secretions to form propolis, it is then used around the hive as a natural sanitizer. An example of its usefulness in this regard is in the rather unpleasant role of mummifying the carcasses of stray rodents and insects that wander into the hive and can’t escape. The creatures die and their carcass presents a major viral threat to the entire colony. So the bees rather ingeniously coat the entire carcass in bee propolis and essentially seal it against bacterial interaction with the hive environment.
Its second role is of less interest to us in terms of its potential benefits as a dietary supplement or topical agent, it is used in the hive to repair cracks in the hive structure. Many people imagine the beehive to be a completely sealed structure, where in fact it is not. It is essential for the inhabitants to have open airflow through the hive. Beeswax is used to fill larger holes and cracks and the propolis is applied around the smaller structural holes, but leaving sufficient opportunity for airflow to exist.
So we have a substance with a clear and important role within the confines of the beehive, but what interest can it be to us in the medical or dietary supplement field?
One area of medicine which causes a great deal of concern is the over-prescribing of antibiotics. It seems anyone with a cold, a toothache or a belly ache is prescribed antibiotic remedies. The issue is that your body starts to build a resistance to the actual medications you are taking. Each time you use them, they become a little less effective as your body adjusts to their presence. This is critical, since when you really do need an antibiotic to combat a more serious infection, it may not be effective enough to do the job. However, the body is able to differentiate between artificial and natural, when it sees these substances enter our system. A natural antibiotic can work in harmony with our body systems whereas a chemical agent designed to do the same thing, can cause a rejection, or a steady building up of immunity to its very presence. Propolis is a natural antibiotic agent. It is possible that propolis may be used to replace chemical agents in many situations, or be used alongside them to provide a more natural and effective barrier to bacterial invasion.
We can see the affects of Propolis at work more readily when it is used topically. Many people use it to treat cuts and abrasions and even canker sores and mouth ulcers. In this ‘open’ environment we can easily view and monitor its effectiveness. However, when taken internally, we need to conduct more rigorous clinical studies to establish the benefits and also to monitor possible negative side effects.
Oddly enough there are no FDA commissioned studies into bee propolis from which we can draw meaningful data. Generally, the cost of conducting such research is overly prohibitive for individual supplement companies to engage in. But there are a variety of medical scientists who have been commissioned independently to conduct studies into bee products like royal jelly and propolis, the majority of these studies have been undertaken in Europe, outside of the realms of the FDA.
Danish scientist, K. Lung Aagaard and French physician Remy Chauvin have spearheaded research into propolis with a view to establishing its bioavailability and determining processes required to make the substance useful and available as a medicinal aid. Extracting propolis resin and dehydrating the substance is quite an involved process and usually requires a soluble treatment with food grade alcohol or distilled water. Aagaard and Chauvin conducted a detailed study to devise methods of extracting propolis whilst retaining its nutritional integrity.
In his research paper, Professor S. Scheller talks about the ability of bee propolis to stimulate the immune system and says “it is possible to control the aging process and enjoy a long and healthy life. Propolis holds the key to this form of inner rejuvenation.”
This paper was prepared involving the first double-blind placebo-controlled study of the substance, where Professor Scheller lead a team of four other doctors at the Institute for Microbiology at the Medical Academy in Sabrze-Rokitinca, Poland. The study concluded that propolis did indeed have the power to prolong the prime of life, and that propolis is able to directly stimulate the immune system to release substances that protect against cellular deterioration.
Regrettably, we tend to be relatively slow on the uptake in the USA, when it comes to embracing the powerful substances provided to us by our own Mother Nature. The majority of propolis is still processed in the USA for export into Europe and Asia. When one looks for reasons, one does not need to look too far. The system of ‘lobbying’ within US Government allows extremely powerful companies to influence the decision making processes of the US Governmental departments, including the FDA. There is so much money involved in the pharmaceutical industry and so much pressure to prevent the embracing of natural substances into traditional medicine. One recent evaluation of the workings of the FDA released data suggesting that the average cost of having a substance approved for use as a ‘medication’ is somewhere around $25M. So to take a substance like propolis, have it evaluated by the FDA and provided with their seal of approval, would be far beyond the financial reach of any existing supplement company.
This really presents the public with something of a dilemma. In a sense, it creates an environment exactly the opposite to the one which the FDA tries to facilitate. It makes personal trial and experimentation the only viable option for a person to try out a natural remedy for themselves. But of course there are ways to do this in a controlled way and to minimize the risk. As covered in this article, some of the more interesting supplements are the subject of clinical research, though not always within the USA. There are also sources online where you can research public experiences with certain products, and make conclusions based on your own final judgement. But it is far from ideal.