Propolis is a natural resinous mixture produced by honey bees from substances collected from tree buds, sap flows and other botanical sources. This wondrous substance has been used medicinally and therapeutically by humans for millennia. Modern scientific research has revealed that it contains over 300 active compounds and has numerous health benefits.
What is Propolis?
Propolis, also called bee glue or bee propolis, is a sticky, greenish-brown product that honey bees make by mixing their own waxes and saliva with resinous sap and gum gathered primarily from poplar and conifer buds and trees. The word propolis originates from Greek to mean “defense of the city,” highlighting it’s important role in hive defense.
Bees use propolis to seal cracks and holes in their hive, acting as a protective barrier from intruders like bacteria, fungi and drafts. It also reinforces the structural stability of the hive. The ancient Egyptians observed bees covering their hives in propolis and saw it’s medicinal potential for humans as well. It has had a long history of use in folk medicine dating back to antiquity.
The exact chemical composition of propolis varies depending on the location and botanical source. Over 300 compounds have been identified in propolis, including resins, waxes, aromatic oils, pollen, flavonoids, amino acids and minerals. Key components include:
- Flavonoids: Powerful antioxidants with anti-inflammatory effects
- Phenols: Antioxidant and antibacterial compounds
- Aromatic acids: Antibacterial and antioxidant activities
- Beeswax: Provides protective coating and adhesive properties
- Essential oils: Provide fragrance and therapeutic benefits
- Pollen: Adds micronutrients including vitamins, minerals and protein
This rich assortment of plant-derived compounds gives propolis it’s therapeutic properties and is believed to account for it’s broad spectrum of biological activities. The color also varies based on the plant sources, with common colors being green, red, brown and black.
Traditional and Modern Uses
The medicinal use of propolis dates back thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians used propolis for mummification. The ancient Greeks used it to treat abscesses. It was listed as an official drug in the London pharmacopoeias of the 17th century. In general, it has been used as an antiseptic on wounds, burns, ulcers, sore throats and more.
Modern research is uncovering the scientific basis for propolis’s traditional usage. Hundreds of studies have confirmed that it has antiseptic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, immune-modulating and over 50 other bioactive properties. It is now used in oral hygiene products like toothpastes and mouthwashes as well as dermatological creams, lozenges and health supplements. It is valued in natural medicine and can be found in products aimed at wound healing, cold and flu prevention, oral health, skin health, digestive issues and immune support.
Key Evidence-Based Health Benefits
Propolis has emerged from folk medicine to become the subject of intense research. Scientists are continuously uncovering new health benefits and uses for it’s supported by clinical studies. Here are some of the top ways propolis may benefit our health:
1. Prevents & Treats Upper Respiratory Infections
Multiple studies have found propolis decreases the risk of developing colds and upper respiratory infections (URIs). Propolis disrupts the ability of viruses to replicate, while also blocking bacterial growth. One meta-analysis of 18 randomized controlled studies with over 1,500 participants found that propolis use significantly reduced URI severity and duration. Another review of clinical trials found that propolis reduced the incidence of URI symptoms by 50% compared to placebo.
2. Heals Cold Sores
Applying products containing propolis directly to cold sores has been shown to speed up the healing process. One study had 90 patients with cold sores apply a propolis ointment. The treatment decreased pain levels, reduced healing time and prevented bacterial and viral propagation compared to placebo and acyclovir creams. Other studies have found similar results.
3. Tooth and Oral Health
Propolis has powerful antimicrobial effects against common bacteria involved in dental cavities and infections like Streptococcus mutans and Candida albicans. Clinical research indicates that it reduces plaque, gingivitis, pocket depth and dental caries. Propolis also appears to inhibit the activity of bacterial enzymes that degrade connective gum tissues. Using toothpastes, mouthwashes, ointments and extracts containing propolis improves oral health.
4. Wound Healing
Applying propolis accelerates the wound healing process through both antibacterial action and by directly stimulating tissue regeneration. One study found it decreased wound healing time by 50% compared to control treatments. Other studies indicate improved collagen deposition in wounds treated with propolis. Several clinical studies also found combining it with conventional therapies speeds up the healing of burns.
5. Skin Health
Propolis has been investigated for improving various skin conditions as a natural alternative to topical antibiotics and steroids. Research indicates it may benefit eczema, psoriasis, diaper rash, acne vulgaris and radiation-induced dermatitis. The strong antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory compounds in propolis are believed to be responsible. More clinical research is needed, but propolis appears promising for a variety of dermatological applications.
The wide array of antioxidants and phenolic compounds in propolis reduce inflammation. It has been found to inhibit many inflammation-inducing compounds like prostaglandins and nitric oxide. One of the most well studied anti-inflammatory applications is reducing inflammation and discomfort in the mouth from gingivitis and oral surgery. But it may also help with inflammatory conditions affecting the skin, joints, gastrointestinal tract and elsewhere when applied directly or ingested.
7. Immune Support
Propolis provides significant immunostimulating effects by activating macrophage activity and enhancing antibody production. One randomized trial found propolis taken daily significantly increased lymphocyte, neutrophil and monocyte production compared to placebo. Other studies indicate enhanced macrophage activity and stimulation of immune cells that influence both innate and adaptive immunity. The immune boosting effects of propolis may prevent infection and benefit those with compromised immune systems.
8. Heart Health
Early research indicates that propolis may help support cardiovascular health through antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and other protective vascular mechanisms. One study gave propolis to mice with heart disease and found it prevented and reversed deterioration of heart tissue. Another study found propolis decreased cholesterol accumulation in arteries and reduced atherosclerotic lesions. More research is needed, but the cardiovascular benefits of propolis look promising from initial studies.
How to Use Propolis
Propolis is available in many forms that make it easy to incorporate into your health routine:
- Extracts: Propolis extracts in liquid and capsule forms pack a powerful punch of active compounds. They are convenient to take daily with dosage control.
- Ointments: Propolis ointments provide the benefits of direct topical application for wound healing, cold sores, dermatological issues, oral health and more.
- Mouthwashes and Toothpastes: oral hygiene products like mouthwashes and toothpastes containing propolis improve dental health and prevent gingivitis.
- Lozenges and Throat Sprays: Propolis-based sprays and lozenges provide soothing relief and immune protection for sore throats.
- Cosmetics: Propolis is found in various cosmetics such as wrinkle creams, acne remedies, cleansers, creams and hair products to enhance beauty and skin health.
- Raw Propolis: Unprocessed raw propolis can be directly consumed in small amounts, though the taste is intensely bitter. It is also used to make tinctures and extracts standardized for key bioactive compounds.
Propolis is generally safe for topical use and in small oral doses. Some people are allergic to ingredients in propolis, so patch testing is recommended. Excessive ingestion may potentially interact with certain medications like blood thinners. Always check with your healthcare provider before starting a new supplement, especially if you have any medical conditions.
Propolis has captured the fascination of scientists and natural health advocates as research continues to unveil it’s broad therapeutic potential. As modern analysis becomes more advanced, researchers are isolating individual compounds and investigating ways to synthesize them. But many believe that preserving propolis in it’s complete natural form provides synergistic effects from the full spectrum of compounds. Promising propolis research continues across fields like microbiology, dermatology, dentistry, oncology, pharmaceutics and cardiology. There is still much to discover about the powers of propolis. But this bee product certainly has earned it’s designation as a profoundly healing substance from nature’s pharmacy.