Bee pollen is said to boost energy, enhance athletic performance, and even protect against cancer. What's the science to support these claims?
A spoonful of honey makes the medicine go down, as we learned from Mary Poppins. But could a spoonful of bee pollen be the secret to a long and healthy life? The grainy yellow powder made up of plant pollen and bee secretions is an ancient remedy that still enjoys a reputation as a superfood today. Is there really something to it or is it just another fad?
Lots of people use bee pollen as a general nutrition supplement, and in part 1 of this 2-part series, I talked about the nutrients it contains. But bee pollen is also promoted as a way to improve athletic performance, reduce symptoms of PMS and menopause, treat allergies and asthma, and even fight cancer.
People swear that it increases their energy, boosts their immune system, helps them lose weight or sleep better, and so on. Unfortunately, most of these benefits have never been evaluated in scientific trials. Without controlled experiments, it's really hard to say how much of these perceived benefits are due to power of suggestion or placebo effect. Let's take a look at what research exists.
Does Bee Pollen Enhance Athletic Performance?
Bee pollen's modern reputation for boosting strength and endurance got a big boost in the 70s, when the coach for the Finnish Olympic track and field team boasted that bee pollen was the team's secret weapon. Mohammed Ali jumped on the bandwagon, too. (Maybe that was the inspiration for his famous "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" line?).
Around the same time, a Russian Olympic coach named Remi Korchemmy also claimed to have conducted a two-year, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, which purportedly found that bee pollen improved his athletes' abilities to exercie at maximum intensity and shortened their recovery time. Unfortunately, Korchemmy's data were never reviewed or published, and Korchemmy later pled guilty to giving athletes illegal performance enhancing drugs. By that time, however, bee pollen's reputation among athletes was well-established.
Two later studies that were published in peer-reviewed journals failed to find any significant effect of bee pollen on athletic performance.
Does Bee Pollen Block Estrogen?
You might see bee pollen promoted as a remedy for PMS, menopausal miseries, prostate difficulties, or even as a way to reduce the risk of breast cancer. There is one study that found that bee pollen gathered from one or two specific plants blocked the activity of one type of estrogen in one type of human cells in a petri dish. While this is an interesting finding, it's a pretty big leap from there to a natural remedy for all things related to estrogen.
Does Bee Pollen Reduce the Toxic Effects of Cancer Therapy?
Once again, there was a study done in a petri dish that found that bee pollen protects cells from damage when chemotherapy drugs are added to the mix. Hopeful news but still a long way from a solid evidence that taking bee pollen during chemotherapy will reduce the side effects in humans.
There was also a very small study done in the 1970s in Yugoslavia and another in the U.S. in the 90s, both of which found that bee pollen helped buffer the side effects of radiation therapy in women being treated for cancer. I would love to see some more, better designed trials on that. But if you are undergoing radiation or chemo, please check with your doctor before adding bee pollen to your regimen. Not only do we need more research to know for sure that it's effective, we need more research to make sure it's safe.
Researchers have also found that bee pollen inhibits the growth of various types of tumor cells in petri dishes and/or lab rats. I know that sounds really encouraging but, unfortunately, the annals of cancer research are full-to-bursting with substances that kicked some serious cancer cell butt in the lab, but ultimately failed to improve outcomes in humans.