Bee pollen’s nutritional benefits explained

Bee pollen is cropping up in everything from food items to skincare products to holistic remedies.

For consumer products, it’s taken from the flowers of plants including buckwheat, maize, pine and typha (think: cattails).

Worker bees collect the pollen on their legs and bodies, mix it with salivary gland secretions or nectar and place it in basket-like structures on their hind legs to take back to the hive. Beekeepers collect it by keeping a thick comb at the entrance of hives. When bees pass through, it knocks the pollen off their legs into a collection bin, and the bees go collect more pollen.

Plant source and geographic region can affect the composition of the pollen, which can be as much as 50% of polysaccharides — carbohydrates that consist of a number of sugar molecules — along with other nutrient components including proteins, fats, vitamin C and carotenoids.

Bee pollen commonly is consumed for nutrition and traditionally has been used in Chinese medicine and taken for various ailments.

It’s been touted as being helpful to stimulate appetite, treat obesity, help with hay fever or allergic rhinitis, improve immunity, stamina and athletic performance and assist in menstrual disorders and gastrointestinal problems.

Topically, bee pollen is used to soften skin and treat conditions including eczema and diaper rash.

Bee pollen might stimulate the immune system when taken by mouth or promote wound healing when applied to skin. Evidence from animal research suggests that bee pollen taken orally might increase the development and immune response of organs including the thymus and spleen.

Other animal research has reported that applying ointment containing bee pollen extract can shorten the time for burn wounds to heal. This has been attributed to the antibacterial activity of bee pollen and its ability to promote regeneration of damaged tissue.

But currently there is insufficient evidence on bee pollen’s potential benefits for people, and more research is needed.

People often add bee pollen to smoothies or use itto top yogurt, oatmeal, cereals or salads.

Though bee pollen typically is well-tolerated, pregnant women are advised against consuming it because of concerns that it could have uterine stimulant effects.

And it can cause serious reactions in people who are allergic to pollen, especially those who are allergic to chrysanthemum, dandelion, ragweed, mugwort and similar plants from the Asteraceae family of flowering plants. Reactions can include itching, swelling, shortness of breath, lightheadedness and anaphylaxis.

Environmental Nutrition is an independent newsletter written by experts on health and nutrition.

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