Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bee Pollen for Arthritis

     There are more than a hundred different types of arthritis, but not a single truly effective treatment.  It's possible bee pollen might be of some value, according to a Ukranian study.  It's probably not a panacea but, alas, we'll never know--the funding for studies comes from Big Pharma, and none of them can make a profit testing bee pollen.
     Bees are interesting, though.  They had a small place, for a while, in the treatment of multiple sclerosis--which is, essentially, untreatable.   As it turns out, some people claimed that when they got stung by a swarm of bees, their multiple sclerosis went away.  Alternative practitioners administered "controlled stings" to effect a reversal of this otherwise terrible, debilitating condition.
     We know that the immune system is thrown out of whack when people are assaulted by allergic substances--and just about everyone is allergic, to some extent, to bee venom.   If the histamine response to hundreds of bee stings weren't enough to kill you, it might reboot your immune system.  And an overhaul of the immune system might be exactly what a person with multiple sclerosis, or recurrent hives, or severe allergies, or even arthritis, needs.
     Arthritis is described in western medicine as a "degenerative" condition.  The most common type is called "osteoarthritis," but this term doesn't say much.  The hallmark of all versions of arthritis is pain with movement, especially pain in the joints.  The medical profession divides arthritis into two general categories:  arthritis associated with aging, and arthritis "caused by" an autoimmune process.
     It seems to me that all forms of arthritis represent aberrations of the immune system.  The depiction of our bodies as machines that "wear down" might make sense intuitively, and it certainly has gained popularity in the west, but it doesn't represent the body accurately.  It's true that human anatomy takes advantage of laws of physics, hence our arms act as levers and our ligaments like pulleys.  But our bodies are not machines, and they don't work mechanically on the microscopic level, especially when it comes to illness and healing.
     Doctors speak about "inflammation" as though it has a real corollary within joint spaces.  When joints hurt, doctors say the cells in the vicinity are "inflammatory," but this is a misleading term  stemming from the hypothesis that arthritis is a form of inflammation.
     Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis and multiple sclerosis are conditions which often have their onset after severe stressors.  Such stressors include other illnesses, like infections (mononucleosis has been implicated), or emotional stress, like that following a death in the family, a shift in social status, or a betrayal, divorce, injustice, accident, or other rupture of the status quo.
     In the 1940's, many medical profiles attempted to describe the "rheumatic personality."  Alan Stroudemire (in Psychological Factors Affecting Medical Conditions) culls some of these personality features from articles by researchers who published between 1942 and 1980:  "self sacrificing, masochistic, inhibited, perfectionist, retiring," and "emotionally unavailable, depressive," withholding of anger, and "sexuality, neurotic." 
     It's fortunate that we no longer blame patients for having personalities that trigger medical illnesses.  But there may be a way to understand the role of psychological precursors, stress and the brain when it comes to treating conditions like arthritis, which has resisted most allopathic efforts to alleviate pain or effect a cure. 
     There is evidence (by researchers Melnechuk, 1988 and Renoux, 1987) which shows that stimulating specific regions of the brain (in the cerebral cortex, hypothalamus, and midbrain) can affect the immune system in body regions that correlate to the controlling areas of the brain (e.g., the right side of the brain governs the left side of the body).  We know that the sympathetic nervous system--which is poorly understood, but regulates heart rate, breathing, hair follicles, sweating, and body temperature--has an important role in inhibiting the immune system.  Conditions caused by an overactive immune system sometimes respond to surgery that splices sympathetic nerves.
     If arthritis is an aberration of the immune system, and specifically a self-destructive process within joints, treatments aimed at calming the immune response ought to be helpful.  Our model of rheumatoid arthritis describes proliferation of synovial tissue within joints, and heightened levels of  antibodies and immune complexes present, destroying tissue as though it were "other," infectious, or dangerous.  The attack by one's own immune system against healthy, functioning tissue is akin to suicide, at a cellular level.
     Bee pollen is collected by beekeepers from the sticky, hairy legs of bees as they squeeze through small openings to enter their hives.  A single bee colony can produce up to sixty pounds of pollen a year.  Because most people are allergic to bee stings, it's possible that the products of bees might have a beneficial, allergenic effect similar to that of bee sting therapy in multiple sclerosis. 
     People who have life-threatening reactions to bee stings should avoid all products connected with bees, because their immune systems might overreact to minimal triggers.  For those who are not in this small subgroup of highly allergic people, taking one or more teaspoons of bee pollen a day may recalibrate the immune system (by altering histamine production?) without having to suffer the serious, immune-modulating experience of multiple bee stings.  Bee pollen is a nutritive substance, high in  B-vitamins, protein, calcium, magnesium, sulfur (a component of joint fluid), and containing more than a hundred or more enzymes. 
     In 1998, a study by Voloshyn, of Ukraine, showed that ninety-three patients with rheumatoid arthritis had improvement in their painful joints after taking bee pollen.  Some of these subjects reported improvements in other symptoms (some of which could be modulated by the immune system), including gastritis, hepatitis, and gall bladder disease.
     The data isn't abundant, but bee pollen is as safe as any food product and has few, if any, side effects.  There are adequate studies showing that bee pollen may improve prostate and urinary symptoms, pelvic pain, and osteoporosis.  But claims that it increases energy, leads to weight loss, slows aging, or improves athletic performance are unfounded.
     At $20 to $40 for a 16-ounce bottle, bee pollen may be worth the experiment of a daily dose or two, if you suffer from joint pain.  Unlike the usual prescriptions for arthritis, it won't put you at risk for ulcers, kidney damage, or congestive heart failure.
     But remember:  the herb, vitamin and food supplement industries are rife with counterfeit products, often shipped from China (which has been known to lace supplements with cortisone-containing chemicals--they "work," but lead to much worse health problems).  Do your best to find bee pollen that has been collected locally, from bees that span a wide area and therefore make a better, more varied pollen, and from hives that aren't treated with chemical contaminants. 
     Bee pollen is an odd recommendation, but it beats most of the alternatives for safety, and you get to be the judge of its efficacy.


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