For well over a century modern science has progressed at a startling rate. With this increase in knowledge has come medicinal and healthcare benefits that have seen ages peak and diseases eradicated. These medical advances were based around the paradigm of the “magic bullet”, isolating the active ingredient and using it to alter the chemistry of a single molecule/protein to elicit a change of state in the patient. Success however has turned to obsession as cracks appear in the armoury of disease fighting drugs at our disposal. MRSA is rifling through our hospitals as antibiotics become ineffective and severe side effects of modern drugs are becoming common place now years after their introduction. A direct consequence of a one dimensional strategy, it is maybe the time to acknowledge the synergistic health benefits of natural medicine.
Propolis is a unique natural medicine because of its breadth of action. It has antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and immunomodulatory effects, it could help treat asthma, allergies, arthritis and joint disorders, eczema and dermatitis, ME, viral infections including HIV and even cancer. This medicine could help treat an illness or keep you fit and healthy.
Propolis: Defender of the City
Propolis is a mainly resinous substance that bees collect from trees and plants. Being made up of waxes, resins, fatty acids and even amino acids. Aristotle reputedly coined the name Propolis meaning “defender of the city”. This is exactly what Propolis is for the hive, it acts as a bee population’s external immune system keeping the hive sterile and free of microbial invaders
Evidence Based Medicine
In the following paragraphs I will describe to you the pharmacological properties of Propolis. Before I do so I must explain where this evidence comes from. All the properties and actions of Propolis have been witnessed and detailed in scientific studies which have subsequently been published in journals. The bulk of these scientific studies have been performed in vitro (i.e. in a test tube) or in vivo (i.e. in a host animal for example rats), a much smaller proportion of these studies are clinical trials tested on humans. The abstracts of these papers can be found on the Medline and pubmed databases on the Internet.
Propolis: A natural antibiotic
Propolis is probably best known for its antibiotic properties. Even as early as 1960 French1 research demonstrated the bacteriostatic action on Bacillus subtilis, Proteus vulgaris and Bacillus alvei. The results have been replicated many times and Propolis has even been shown to be effective to MRSA2, the same antibiotic resistant bacteria that has infected up to 70% of our hospitals. A 1997 study by Calder et al. at the University of Oxford concurred with these results and found that the cinnaminic acids and flavanoids present in Propolis in particular show bacteriocidal action. This action believed to be as a consequence of Propolis uncoupling the bacterial energy respiratory chain. Interestingly this action may be involved in a synergistic action with antibiotics when used together, boosting the effectiveness of the drugs.
Anti-Viral and immuno-stimulatory
Viruses present a unique dilemma in the quest for good health, they are not affected by antibiotics and mutate so frequently that vaccines are hard to produce. They also cause illness by hijacking cells and using the cells machinery to replicate. Modern drugs aim to slow or stop the virus from the replicating and subsequently because they are attacking host cell machinery they have certain side effects. Viruses perhaps pose the greatest threat to humans’ health, we are currently in the middle of a HIV pandemic with “39.4 million” people infected world wide. With a Flu pandemic overdue and certainly on its way and predictions of world wide casualties and chaos, a solution is needed.
The bioflavanoids in propolis have a unique approach to combating Viruses, instead of trying to combat them once they have infected a cell, they lock the virus in its protein coat. This means that the dangerous machinery and DNA/RNA of the virus is nullified and the infection stopped.
Propolis has been shown to be more effective than the pharmaceutical anti-viral acyclovir in treating genital Herpes in a clinical trial conducted in the Ukraine4 and there is growing evidence that Propolis could help treat people with HIV5.
Propolis also works hard as an immunomodulator which is of interest for all of us. It does this by altering the way cytokine production and release is managed. Cytokines are the chemical messengers that allow immune system cells to communicate. By altering the cytokine system, it primes the immune system to be ready to react to antigens quickly and effectively.
As well as this, bioflavanoids within Propolis stimulate the production of interferon which can help people recover from ME, stimulating their immune system. This alteration of the cytokine and interferon systems means that your body is ready to fight off infection and keep you healthy, making a case for using propolis as a supplement for good health, like vitamins. Prevention is better than the cure.
Anti-inflammatory and anti-allergen
A survey of Propolis consumers showed that arthritis was the health problem that Propolis was used to treat the most. This is because of the potent anti-inflammatory properties of the propolis constituents in particular CAPE (Caffeic acid Phenyl ester), CAPE has been shown to suppress T cell activation. A paper by Marquez et al in 20046 evaluated this to mean that since T-cells play a key role in the onset of several inflammatory diseases, CAPE is important because the this phenolic compound is a potent inhibitor of early and late events in T-cell receptor-mediated T-cell activation. Results like this have led other researchers to propose that CAPE is a worthwhile agent for reducing the severity of conditions associated with inflammation.
Many of the experiments performed on CAPE were done so in vitro, however the anti-inflammatory properties of Propolis have been documented in rats when treating rat adjuvant arthritis. A paper by Park et al in 19997 concluding that the ethanolic extract of propolis had profound anti-inflammatory effects on both chronic and acute arthritic inflammations. These anti-inflammation properties extend to other illness and disorders such as asthma and allergies reducing both smooth muscle airway contraction8 and allergic responses. Any disorder or illness related to inflammation could be helped by Propolis.
Propolis and CAPE have been shown to reduce the size of tumours and to selectively destroy and to curb the proliferation of malignant cells of many different types of cancer. As recently as June 10th 2005 Cancer researchers have been given a grant of a million dollars to investigate the therapeutic value of Propolis for cancer. Costas Koumenis the lead investigator for the study was quoted as saying, “a very interesting property of these compounds is that they have been shown to cause cell death in tumor cells but not in normal cells.” This study along with other current studies promises to propel Propolis into the limelight in the field of cancer treatment.
Current Propolis Research in the UK
BVR (BeeVital Research) recently won a major government Research and Development Award, part of a £250,000 research programme looking at the chemical, biological and clinical properties of propolis.
These studies will focus on the:
1. Documenting the regional variances in chemical and biological properties, by HPLS, GC-MS and NMR. (Taking place at Univeristy of Strathclyde)
2. Futher investigating the role of Propolis in the Hive (University of Gloucester)
3. Dental trials – looking at effectiveness of Propolis for Mouth Ulcers, Pericorinitis, Gingivitis and Sensitive Teeth. (Manchester University Dental school)
4. HIV/AIDS trials – looking at the effectiveness of Propolis with anti-virals in Zambia and Tanzania
5. The effects of standardised propolis on mood, stress, fatigue and cognition at the Human Cognitive Neuroscience Unit at University of Newcastle.
6. To evaluate the use of local and non – local propolis for wound healing and the treatment of skin and other dermatological problems. ( The Regional Teaching Hospital for University of Dar es Salaam)
How to use/find propolis products?
A large range of propolis products are available on the market ranging from tablets, capsules, tinctures and liquids to specialist products for skin care – soap, lip balm, creams and oral health care – toothpaste, mouthwash , lozenges and tooth and gum liquid.
Traditionally these have been available through health food stores but are increasingly available in independent pharmacies.
Choosing the best products is not always easy. Current regulations means manufacturers cannot make any kind of medical claim for products that have not been licensed as medicines despite the fact that there is a sound evidence basis for such claims. Part of the reason for this is that no single body is responsible for ensuring that product offered for sale actually are what they say they are.
For this reason the BVR (BeeVital Research) programme is targeted at developing full medicines licenses for some key products. In the meantime BVR have formulated a number of products for the health food market based on their research. Consumers, when purchasing products should look for those products produced by companies who can back up their products by good manufacturing practice (pharmaceutical standard manufacturing ) and research.