If you happened to be a natural products researcher who spent a lot of time combing through the Russian-language medical journals (and this writer is), you would find literally hundreds of research papers on the healing properties of propolis. Natural medicine in some parts of the world simply couldn't function without it, although many people in the English-speaking world haven't ever had a chance to get to know what propolis and what it does.
Propolis serves as putty the bees use to repair cracks in the walls of their hive. It's mostly composed of resins that ooze out of young leaves and the bark of certain trees. Worker bees that specialize in collecting these resins mix them with a little honey, a little wax, and some important enzymes to make propolis. The final mixture is usually about 50% plant resins, about 30% beeswax, about 10% essential oil, and about 5% each of pollen and debris, a little dust making the final mixture stronger and stickier.
Propolis strengthens and repairs honeycombs, and the soldier bees (did you know hives are defended by bee soldiers?) use propolis to mummify the bodies of animals that unsuccessfully try to break into the hive. When a rat or some other kind of rodent too large for bees to drag out of the hive dies inside the hive, propolis keeps the natural process of decay from contaminating the rest of the colony.
One of the important functions of propolis is to sterilize the hive. It stops the spread of fungi, bacteria, and viruses that multiply in the warmth and humidity inside it. The brood chambers the hive uses to hatch eggs are lined with propolis. And Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Turkish, Unani, and Ayurvedic medicine have used propolis as an antiseptic for over 3,000 years.
Bees tend to be fussy about the plants they visit to collect the resins they use for propolis. Propolis consistently has a chemical “fingerprint” that identifies the plants on which the colony depends for its supply. Some plants, like the plants visited by bees to may Manuka or Brazilian tropical honeys, provide especially potent antiseptics that protect both bees and people.
There have been more than 1,700 studies of the healing properties of propolis. A number of studies have confirmed that propolis potentiates prescription antibiotics such as chloramphenicol, neomycin, penicillin, streptomycin, and tetracycline. This makes it possible for the doctor to get good results with a lower dose causing fewer side effects, although you can't shorten the time you need to take antibiotics by taking propolis. This bee product works whether it is taken by mouth or applied directly to infected skin or mucous membranes.
Studies in Poland have found that taking propolis capsules (ground up propolis) helps clear up sinusitis and bronchitis. A Romanian study found that children given a propolis extract (the soluble components of propolis dissolved in alcohol and then the alcohol evaporated away) had fewer colds and ear infections. Combinations of propolis and echinacea extract given to prevent infections have been found to result in 55% fewer cases of colds and ear infections in children (138 infections in a group of kids taking the product compared to 308 infections in a group of kids that did not), and the product also bolsters the benefits of taking vitamin C.
How much propolis do you need to help prevent winter colds and flu?
As a general rule:
- Taking just 500 mg of propolis per day is enough to reduce the frequency at which you catch upper respiratory infections throughout the colds and flu season.
- Taking 1000 mg of propolis per day is a good idea when you ride a plane or you visit people who are sick.
- Taking at least 4000 and up to 8000 mg of propolis per day (half this amount for children aged 3 to 12) is necessary to help clear out upper respiratory infections once they have occurred.
Colds, flu, and sinusitis are not the only kinds of infections against propolis can defend. Propolis also neutralizes the Streptococcus brinus, Streptococcus mutans, and Streptococcus sanginuinis infections that cause cavities, tooth decay, and gingivitis. To get rid of these kinds of oral bacteria use a mouthwash that contains from 0.05 to 0.5% propolis, preferably without any added alcohol (which can dry out your gums and leave cracks where bacteria can hide). Brazilian propolis is especially effective for fighting gingivitis and gum disease.
Propolis is also useful in skin repair. Creams and salves made with propolis are proven bacterial. In a Brazilian clinical study comparing propolis with an antiseptic called silver sulfadizine, propolis killed just as many bacteria as the chemical germ killer. Wounds treated with propolis,however, healed faster with less inflammation.
When you are using propolis to stimulate healing of a wound, a mixture of honey and propolis is ideal. There are even some cosmetic surgeons in the US who use honey and/or propolis dressings to prevent swelling as well as infection when they close sutures after plastic surgery. There are commercial dressings you can apply directly to the wound, or you can just break open a capsule of propolis and spread it over the wound.
Finally, propolis is effective for treating pain caused by inflammation. It's one of the best natural remedies (along with the herb known as either lemon balm or melissa) for the burning, aching, searing pain caused by shingles. It's an effective pain reliever for herpes outbreaks, although it won't make them heal faster, and it's useful for treating pain caused by strains, sprains, and pulled muscles.
One of the ways propolis reduces inflammation is by counteracting a “homing signal” that causes tissue-destructive white blood cells to migrate to the site of an injury, but without interfering with the activity of antimicrobial white blood cells. Another way propolis reduces pain is by slowing down the body's production of a group of compounds known as leukotrienes. A compound in propolis called a caffeic acid phenethyl ester or CAPE (not chemically related to caffeine) counteracts a process through which every cell in the body can make inflammatory hormones from the arachidonic acid in fatty foods.
The thing to know about using propolis for inflammatory pain relief is that a relatively large dose is required, typically 100 mg for every kilogram of body weight (or a 1,000-milligram capsule for every 20 pounds of body weight). Pain relief for a person who weighs 100 kilos (220 pounds) would require about 10,000 mg per day.
Can anything go wrong with propolis? The main issues arise from choices among brands. Brazilian propolis is better for fighting infections, but because it contains less CAPE, it's not as good as the European or Korean brands for relieving pain and inflammation.