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Striking Health Benefits of Bee Propolis and Royal Jelly

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

royal jelly health benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • Propolis and royal jelly have antimicrobial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties, and help maintain pluripotency of embryonic stem cells
  • Acetylcholine, a compound found in royal jelly, which bees use to signal growth of the hive, is a neurotransmitter necessary in brain health for memory and focus. It may also lower your risk for dementia
  • Insect pollinators, such as the honey bee, provide a vital function to sustaining life on Earth; without pollination the environment would collapse. However, the population of honeybees is dramatically dropping, with nearly 700 species in North America headed toward extinction
  • You may help support bee populations by planting bee friendly flowers in your yard, eliminating the use of toxic pesticides in your garden and lawn, and consider setting up a hive in your backyard

Bees provide a vital function to sustain life on Earth. Without their tireless service through the pollination of trees and crops, we would simply not be able to put food on the table. Through pollination, the simple transfer of grains of pollen from one plant to another, bees fertilize the flowers of crops and other plants, ensuring seed production.

Some plants rely on wind, others are self-pollinating, but most need the services of natural pollinators such as honey bees. In addition to providing benefit to the agricultural industry, they also pollinate wild plants and flowers, helping preserve natural forests and a wealth of flowering plants.

An indirect benefit of honey bees, yet a crucial one, are the wild plants they pollinate which feed numerous animal species. Loss of the honeybee would mean a collapse of the natural ecosystem, beginning with vegetation and ending with the animals that rely on this vegetation as a food supply, including humans.

The process of turning flower nectar into honey is one marvel happening in the beehive. Health benefits from bee products are significant, including bee propolis and royal jelly. However, it is important the products you consume are from a pesticide-free source as products created in the hive are concentrated.

Unfortunately, this becomes more difficult each year as more farmers use neonicotinoid pesticides. In one sampling collected around the world, researchers found 75 percent of honey collected were contaminated with neonicotinoids and 45 percent contained two or more pesticides.1

Honey, Pollen, Propolis and Royal Jelly

In this interview with Chris Kresser, Carly Stein, owner of Bee Keepers Natural, describes the variety of products produced by a healthy hive, the benefits to human health and the necessity for protecting the bee population.

The first product is honey, which is a source of food for the bees, providing the insect with necessary carbohydrates. The honey is rich in enzymes and minerals and raw honey is a powerful antioxidant with natural antiviral properties.

Bee pollen is a product many have been taking for years, and is the main source of protein for the bee, used to fuel their athletic endeavors each day of carrying almost half their body weight in flower pollen back to the hive. Bee pollen is packed with vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B and more protein per gram than any animal product. In essence it is an all-natural, food-based, bioavailable nutrient boost.2

Bees make propolis from tree resin and use it to line the hive as a natural immune system, protecting the insects inside from outside germs. Propolis contains over 300 natural and powerful compounds to support immunity. Bees also line the front entrance of the hive with propolis in order to decontaminate themselves before coming in.

If honey is the carbohydrates, pollen are the proteins and propolis is the immune system, then royal jelly is the superfood of the hive. This is the substance the hive uses to create the queen bee. Within the first three days of development, all larvae are fed royal jelly. Then only one larvae, destined to become the queen, will exclusively eat royal jelly.3

The queen grows significantly larger than the rest of the bees and may lay up to 1,500 eggs a day, while other females do not develop reproductive organs. She can live three to five years, as compared to regular foraging bees, which may live only six to eight weeks.

Royal jelly has been used cross-culturally for decades. Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners use it to improve fertility and as a hormone stabilizer with known immune modulating properties. Western medicine, researchers have evaluated the effects it has on the brain, specifically on focus, memory and reducing the potential of dementia.

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Effect of Royal Jelly on Brain Health

Nootropics are substances that may improve cognitive function, specifically executive function such as memory, creativity or motivation. They are sometimes called "smart drugs" as are used to improve mental performance and have gained popularity in a highly competitive society valuing speed and performance. Royal jelly is one of those substances.

Royal jelly is unique in that it contains proteins, sugars, fats and amino acids.4 However, it is the compound acetylcholine in the royal jelly that likely gives it its nootropic effects.

Acetylcholine is an abundant neurotransmitter, found in your central and peripheral nervous system. It helps to activate pain responses, regulates your endocrine system and rapid eye movement sleep function.5 Deficiencies can lead to myasthenia gravis, characterized by muscle weakness.

Although there are foods with an abundance of choline, a precursor to acetylcholine, royal jelly is the only food source containing acetylcholine. This essential nutrient is used by the brain in mood, mental alertness, concentration and memory functions, qualities that dim or are lost with cognitive impairment and dementia.

In fact, acetylcholine activity is a target of Alzheimer drugs that block the breakdown of this neurotransmitter to reduce symptoms.6 Royal jelly has a beneficial role in neural functioning and findings support the potential neuroprotective role of royal jelly.7

Oral administration of royal jelly in an animal model produced a promising avenue for ameliorating neuronal functioning through regeneration of hippocampal granule cells, necessary in the cognitive process.8

In a recent study evaluating the worldwide use of neonicotinoid pesticides and the link to the declining bee populations, researchers found the pesticides had an adverse effect on the acetylcholine the bees produced. The authors believe this is a new discovery of how the neurotoxic effects of the pesticides may be killing honeybees.9

Royal Jelly May Facilitate Stem Cell Research

Three days after a mammalian egg is fertilized, the inner cell mass can be isolated, containing embryonic stem cells designed to develop into a baby. Stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they have the ability to turn into any type of tissue in the mammal from which they came. Adult stem cells are multipotent, meaning they have the ability to form a subset of tissue but are limited.10 

In order for researchers to successfully use embryonic stem cells, they must be kept in their native state as long as possible. Since embryonic stem cells have the potential to grow into different cells serving specialized functions, they are valuable for research.

However, growing embryonic stem cells in the lab creates a challenge as their natural inclination is to quickly move out of their pluripotent state to differentiate. In a recent study11 by Stanford University scientists, the team found royalactin, also known as major royal jelly protein 1, could stop embryonic cell differentiation and keep the cells in their embryonic state for up to 20 generations in culture.

Normally, scientists use an inhibitor factor to prevent differentiation when grown in culture. The researchers also identified a protein with similar qualities found in mammals, which they named Regina. In their next step, the team plans to investigate whether this mammalian equivalent of royalactin has the ability to affect cell regeneration and wound healing in adult animals.12

Propolis, the Original Antibiotic

Stein calls propolis the original antibiotic, in reference to the strong association it has in supporting your immune system through antimicrobial action. Propolis has been used for thousands of years in folk medicine as an antimicrobial and antioxidant, and for its analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.

Through the inhibition of the activity of certain enzymes that synthesize glucans from sucrose, bee propolis has been found to prevent the formation of dental plaque.13 Propolis is also used for canker sores and infections caused by bacteria, including tuberculosis and upper respiratory tract infections triggered by viruses.14

Propolis has been used for cancer of the nose and throat, for warts and for the treatment of gastrointestinal problems, including H. pylori infections in people with peptic ulcer disease. Direct application to the skin may be used for wound cleansing, genital herpes, cold sores and minor burns.15

Studies have also found oral care with propolis as a mouthwash in individuals undergoing chemotherapy helps to improve oral health, reducing symptoms of oral mucositis, common in those undergoing chemotherapy.16

In a study17 where a suspension of propolis and zinc was given to children who had recurrent acute otitis media (ear infections), researchers found it significantly reduced the risk for new episodes. Propolis was also proven effective against microbes found in saliva samples from those suffering periodontitis, suggesting it may be used therapeutically to inhibit oral microbial growth.18

A study19 evaluating the efficacy of a natural propolis extract given in cases of acute and chronic rhinopharyngitis in children found it lowered the incidence and sometimes suppressed the viral microbial flora in the upper airways. Another study20 demonstrated propolis extract was an effective treatment against pancreatitis in animals.

Benefits From Propolis at Home

Due to its anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, propolis may be used to:

  • Promote oral health — Propolis contains antibacterial properties, which may be beneficial for combating gingivitis and other oral problems stemming from the abundance of bacteria in your mouth. The added antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties from propolis may help speed healing of mouth sores and other oral infections.
  • Support skin health — Propolis may be used in dermatological products due to its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. It also assists in wound healing by reducing free radical activity in the skin and promoting collagen production.21 Propolis ointments may be used to promote healing of cold sores, genital herpes and minor burns.
  • Combat infections — Propolis extracts may be taken to aid in recovering from giardiasis, H. pylori infection and oral thrush.

Contraindications and Side Effects

As a natural supplement, propolis and royal jelly are relatively safe for most people as they do not cause toxicity. However, certain contraindications stem from insufficient long-term studies and pre-existing allergies. If you fall into any of the categories below it would be best to avoid the use of these supplements.22

  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women — Due to insufficient studies proving safety during pregnancy and while nursing, it would be best to avoid bee products to avoid potential complications.
  • Asthma — Certain compounds present in propolis may make asthma worse. If you have asthma, avoid propolis supplements and/or products.
  • Bleeding disorders — Patients with blood clotting problems should not use propolis as it may slow blood clotting, increasing your risk of excessive bleeding. Patients who will undergo surgery should also stop taking propolis a few weeks before their scheduled procedure.
  • Allergies to bee byproducts — People with allergies to bee products should avoid propolis, royal jelly, honey and bee pollen.

How You Can Help Improve the Bee Population

Entomologists around the world are tracking the rapidly declining number of insects, and are concerned by the data they're collecting. As noted by the distinguished Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, Ph.D.:23

"If all humankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos."

If you are unsure of how the collapse of bee colonies may affect you, consider when one Whole Food store removed all produce from plants dependent on pollinators, it ended up pulling 52 percent of its produce from the store shelves, including apples, lemons, onions, broccoli and melons.24

More than 700 bee species are headed toward extinction in North America, according to a report from the Center for Biological Diversity.25 A variety of factors influence this decline, not the least of which is the use of pesticides, which significantly alter the population's growth, which I discussed in "Latest Major Threat to Bees and Trees."

Over the 2015-2016 winter, more than 28 percent of bee colonies were lost, representing an increase of nearly 6 percent compared to the previous winter. To avoid harming bees and helping other pollinators visiting your garden, eliminate the use of toxic pesticides and lawn chemicals and instead opt for organic weed and pest control alternatives.

Consider growing your own pollinator-friendly plants from organic untreated seeds. Stein points out when you support growers who are growing the right way, using pesticide-free alternatives, it makes a difference. Support your local farmers who are choosing organic, pesticide-free agricultural practices.

Maintaining a hive in your own garden requires only about an hour of your time each week and you'll benefit from your own homegrown, raw honey. Additionally, you can provide your backyard bees with water, as bees get thirsty too. Add a bowl of water surrounded by rocks and mulch so the bees have something to perch on and drink.