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Propolis in Modern Times

For thousands of years natural medicine—herbs and plants to treat disease—was the only medicine available to humans. As we have seen, medicine then was as much allied to a religious worldview as modern drug-based medicine is to scientific thinking. However, from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards little of the old medicine was able to resist the inquisitive onslaught of the new science of objectivity and the growing belief that anything nature could do, humanity could do better. The accumulated experience of millennia was dismissed as old wives tales—the mumbo-jumbo of the past. At best it was seen as inspired guesswork and at worst as witchcraft.

The Impact of Licensed Medicines

In the West the decline of natural plant medicine was the quickest and most profound. One reason for this was the emergence of a system of licensed medicines linked to and protected by patents. For the first time, synthetic drugs based on specific active ingredients were developed to ‘treat, cure or prevent’ particular diseases. At the heart of this system lay the belief that diseases are caused by particular viruses, bacteria, fungi etc. and could be defeated by identifying and applying the appropriate anti-bacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal agent.

The safety and efficacy of these new drugs could obviously not be evaluated through traditional use, as had been the case with plant medicines for centuries. Instead an entirely new licensing system had to be created, capable of both evaluating the efficacy of these new chemical entities and assuring the public that they were safe. The licensing system devised, which still operates today, required firstly that the chemicals that made up the new drugs be always the same, in both the clinical trials undertaken to test their efficacy and in any subsequently manufactured drug. Secondly, the compounds tested had to prove through clinical trials in vivo, i.e. in human patients, that they were effective against specific disease conditions or disease agents and had no long-term toxic or adverse effects when used.

It did not take long to recognise that there was a price to pay for such chemical drugs. It was not always possible to identify within a short period the long-term effects of the drugs and inevitably some, perhaps most, drugs had greater or lesser short- term side effects. So another concept was developed to deal with this problem, that of risk-benefit. A drug may be shown to be immediately  effective  in  a  particular  area,  for  example,  in reducing inflammation in conditions like arthritis, yet have some unavoidable side effects in connection with the operation of some other bodily function, e.g. the stomach. Those responsible for licensing had to calculate the extent to which the benefit of the new drug balanced the risk or negative side of it. From the beginning it was possible to licence a new drug for a particular purpose even though it was known to have specific side effects.

In effect this licensing process created a new and radically different definition of medicine—one based on the specific identifiable effect of a narrow range of synthetic, replicable chemical compounds. This new category now offers the only definition of medicine, as orthodox or traditional medicine. Traditional medicines—plant-based medicines in use since time began—are  now  labeled  ‘alternative’,  ‘complementary’ or ‘natural’. The inevitable connotation of these ‘alternative’ labels is that they are somehow inferior, ineffective or inappropriate in a modern scientific world.

Even now, as society recognises more and more the down side of this synthetic ‘risk-benefit’ definition of medicine, the system of licensing developed to regulate it is still seen as the only appropriate way of assuring the consumer of the safety of all medicines, synthetic and natural. The problem is that it is virtually impossible to  evaluate ‘natural’ medicines—whole plant-based medicines—using a system created to regulate synthetic chemical drugs. To begin with, natural medicines are highly complex biochemical compounds—far more complex than synthetic drugs—containing, as in the case of propolis, hundreds of separate biochemicals. Although the rough biochemical ‘fingerprint’ of propolis found in different areas may remain similar, the presence and quantities of particular elements may vary enormously and are far from predictable.

Secondly, for many natural products, the Grail-like search for specific active ingredients has proved futile. Scientists are increasingly coming to realise that natural medicines work holistically and synergistically: the more complete and whole, they are the less refined and purified, the more effective they appear to be. The increasing medicinal use of St John’s wort provides a good example of the problem. Recognising the value of St John’s wort for treating depression, scientists believed they had found the active element in hypericin, only to find out later that hypericin itself has some significant adverse effects: it photosensitizes the skin and can increase the risk of skin cancer. New actives are now being identified and trumpeted whilst the medical herbalists wait patiently for medical science to realise that it is the effect of the whole plant extract that achieves the result.

Finally, ‘natural’ medicines, whilst they may have a reputation for treating a specific health problem, are often effective across a broad range of conditions rather than for one single problem. Propolis is a good example but there are many others. The assumption of ‘orthodox’ medicine is that drugs exist to treat single problems and that those who claim a variety of benefits for natural medicines are somehow deluded. How then can natural medicines ever be evaluated by a licensing system designed to regulate a form of medication so utterly different?

The patent system adds a final ironic twist to the reinvention and renaming of medicines. Because chemical medicines are based on single synthetic chemical entities, they can be registered as unique inventions. This means that the inventors of these drugs can prevent anyone else producing them for a fixed period of years. In one sense this system does make sense. To develop a new drug can take years and in some cases millions of pounds. It does not seem fair that the companies developing the drug should spend all the money only for others to step in and reap the benefit. However, it only makes sense if you fundamentally believe in the nature of what is being protected.

Certainly, our belief in drug-based medicine has become almost complete during this last century, so much so that we have been unwilling to recognise the mounting price that we have apparently been paying for it. Not only have vast fortunes been made out of this kind of medicine by the drug companies, but it now seems clear that we have only postponed illness rather than cured it. More frightening than this is the probability that we have created a whole new genre of health problems with our chemical treatments, problems which we go on to treat with more drugs. The ultimate hidden cost of our belief in essentially unnatural medicine is likely to be beyond our imagination in terms of the universal weakening of the immune defence mechanism of humanity worldwide.

It is hard to measure the effect which the patent system has had on the development of modern medicine. Patents have undoubtedly locked us into a synthetic drug-based system of medicine and to the same extent locked us out of the valuable contribution which whole natural products could make to maintaining good health. In the Soviet Union and in the many Eastern European countries influenced by them following the Communist revolution no patent laws existed. There was not, therefore, the same pressure to put profit before the potential of natural substances. Propolis as with other natural medicines continued to be used both as a folk medicine and to be tested by scientists.

Dr Mansfield,  a doctor and the first Director of the Propolis Information Bureau, puts his finger on it.

‘Neither patents, nor chemistry need dictate our lives. In Eastern Europe patents have not been an issue, so different questions have been asked—what do we have and what can we use it for? Research Institutes in China, Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries have as a result come up with very different results from their Western counterparts. We should study their methods and results urgently, and not be too hasty to convert them to our own’.

Referring specifically to propolis, Dr Mansfield reminds us how, prior to 1993, the Western scientific community showed little or no interest in propolis despite increasing interest in popular natural health publications. When it did begin to show an interest, ‘their interest is in discovering its active ingredients and isolating them as patentable medicines.’

Propolis in Eastern Europe

The Eastern Europeans in general and Russia in particular continued to use propolis and other natural medicines long after they had been discarded in the West. Beekeeping in Eastern European countries has always been an important agricultural activity and propolis a valued by-product of honey production. The wild bees of the Caucasus produce large quantities of propolis to help them survive the harsh continental winters. For generations local people have used propolis to treat a very wide range of health problems including coughs, colds and chest problems, burns and wounds and dental problems.

One of the most often quoted and dramatic uses of propolis occurred during the Boer War in South Africa, where it was used extensively to treat wounds. Propolis was mixed with Vaseline and the mixture, known as Propolis Vanogen, was applied in many cases following surgery, and in particular following amputations. But the Russians had been using something similar many years before, at the time of Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of that country. In Napoleon’s army the traditional treatment following amputation was to tar the amputated stump, but in the Russian army the doctors instead dressed the stump, with the scrapings of the honey barrels carried with them for provisions. These dregs contained high levels of propolis and assisted rapid and complete healing.

With the birth of modern medical science at the turn of the century, Russian and Eastern European countries turned naturally to the scientific process to look again at age-old remedies. We shall see when we look in detail at the science behind propolis over the last 40 years that it is dominated by work carried out in Russia, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. During the Second World War, for example, Russian doctors  successfully  experimented  with  the  use  of  propolis ointment in treating wounds at two clinics in Sverdlovsk. In 1947 the  Veterinary  Institute  of  Kazan,  on  the  edge  of  the  Urals, undertook one of the earliest scientific investigations into the anti­ microbial properties of propolis. So successful was this work that propolis became known as Russian penicillin. Ironically, just as the West is beginning to fund research into propolis Russian research institutes are struggling following the fall of Communism.

In Yugoslavia, Mitja Vosnack,  one-time foreign minister of Yugoslavia, eventually left politics to pursue his interest in the honeybee and propolis. In his book The Miracle of Propolis he recounts the experience of a nineteenth-century Yugoslavian church painter, Rado Seifert. Seifert first started keeping bees when he received two hives as payment for a job. It was sometime afterwards that he began to have trouble with his leg. The skin on his foot turned purple and then black. He lost the feeling in his foot and an ulcer opened up which simply refused to heal. Every week he went to the doctor, who prescribed ointments, but the problem got worse. Finally, the doctor recommended amputation. Rado turned down the doctor’s advice and instead went home and covered his leg with honey and propolis and bandaged the whole thing up. After a few days he removed the bandage. The ulcer was gone, the foot no longer hurt and he could stand on it. After using propolis again to help heal a burn his wife had suffered he decided it was time to tell the doctor of this wonderful new medicine. But the doctor, despite having seen Rado’s leg heal, was not impressed and he refused to try it on his patients. Some time later however, a friend’s daughter was suffering from chronic tonsillitis which became so bad her tonsils began to suppurate while her temperature rose to 39°C (103°F). The doctor decided to try propolis delivered on a sugar cube. Within a few hours her temperature was down and the inflammation cleared, never to return.

In 1962 Mitja Vosnack’s own friend was apparently dying of cancer. His friend’s physician prescribed for him 10–15 drops of propolis liquid in water three times a day, half-an-hour before meals. After six weeks he had begun to eat and gain weight and his old enthusiasm and energy began to return.4 Propolis, says Vosnak, ‘is without a past, for we are only now starting to learn about it and in learning have become convinced that in propolis we have indeed discovered the medicine of the future’ Propolis, for Vosnack, is not like a normal drug; rather it is a natural supplement.

‘Would you call the sun a medicine? Is forest air or fresh clear water a medicine? Is an apple?’

A Revival of Interest in the West

In the West we had to wait until the late 1960s and early 1970s before serious interest in propolis was rekindled. Some would argue that nothing was the same in the West after the 1960s. Certainly at that time a generation came to maturity in both Europe and America who were intent on taking a fresh look at most things. Flower power expressed a re-awakening of interest in all things natural  and  ‘alternative’—religion,  education,  economics  and, of course, medicine. As far as natural medicine was concerned, this was a movement pioneered essentially by lay people or self- taught practitioners as  much as by doctors or  scientists. They were enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, health food shopkeepers, lay practitioners and the like, who believed in the ways of nature.

In 1974 Dr K. Lund Aagard, a Danish naturalist, published The Natural Product Propolis—the Way to Health.5 This book contained the results of 20 years’ practical experience and research into propolis. It was a book which was to earn him the title Mr Propolis and links his name firmly with the re-discovery of propolis in the West.

As is so often the case it was a personal experience which triggered what was to become a lifetime of research. In June 1962

Aagard had been suffering from a sore throat for several days. He knew that on the following day he had to go on a business trip. By evening however, the swelling was so bad he could not swallow and he had a temperature of 40°C (104°F). He decided to try some propolis, crushed a small amount in a mortar and dissolved the powder in a cup of warm water. He filtered the liquid through a coffee filter, ending up with a yellow infusion-like tea. He gargled with this tea two or three times, then drank the rest and went to bed. In the morning he found his sore throat had completely gone. Dr Aagard drew the conclusion that ‘propolis contains a very strong antibiotic if it could cure such a powerful infection and swelling in just five to six hours.’

Aagard was a practical scientist and conducted extensive research involving more than 50,000 people throughout Scandinavia as well as patenting the first process for cleaning propolis. He sums up propolis in the following way: ‘Propolis is one of the most efficient bee products from the viewpoint of active principles transmitted from plant to man.’6

As a result of his research Aagard claims that propolis can be effective in treating a bewildering variety of problems including swelling of the large intestine, catarrh of the eyes, infection of the urinary tract, swelling of the throat, gout, open wounds, sinus swellings, colds, influenza, bronchitis, gastritis, cancer, diseases of the ears, periodontal diseases, caephalea, intestinal infections, mycoses, ulcers, eczema eruptions, pneumonia, arthritis, lung disease, stomach virus, headaches, Parkinson’s disease, bile infections, sclerosis, circulation deficiencies, warts, conjunctivitis and hoarseness.7 For those who believe medicines are designed to cure specific ailments this long list must seem like heresy.

As Dr Aagard said, propolis is an extremely effective way of delivering the benefits of the plant world to man. It does not operate in the same way as a chemical seeking out and destroying the enemy bacteria, virus or whatever but rather supports the body’s own ability to fight disease. ‘Propolis has a refreshing effect both for regulating hormones and as an antibiotic substance, which is in itself a stimulator of the natural resistance of the body. Propolis may be used by everybody, sick or healthy, as a means of protection against microorganisms.’8

A French doctor at the Sorbonne in Paris, Dr Remy Chauvin, heard of Dr Aagard’s work and joined forces with him. Dr Chauvin is scarcely less enthusiastic about the potential of propolis. ‘The amazing fact, however, is that bee propolis has a 100 per cent killing effect on bacteria. No other antibiotic has this total effect.’9

Dr Chauvin believes that nature has the answer to everything and that all we have to do is find it.

With the introduction of bee propolis, it is possible that we can one day abolish many drug-related chemicals and their side effects. Propolis works by raising the body’s natural resistance to infection through stimulating one’s own immune system. In doing this, propolis also supplies added amounts of vitamins, and all essential minerals, including iron, calcium, aluminium, manganese and silicon.10

This, Dr Chauvin points out, is very important because synthetic antibiotics do exactly the opposite. They kill the friendly bacteria in the system, which the body uses to synthesize Vitamin B and K, causing severe deficiencies. Chauvin continues by observing what we are today being constantly reminded of, that bacteria are developing a resistance to antibiotics, causing a rise in the incidence of infections and a marked increase in the ability of these diseases to pass from one person to another. Once-minor infections are becoming potential killers.

Aagard and Chauvin have been responsible perhaps more than any others for the re-awakening of scientific interest in propolis in the West. But it took the practical entrepreneurial vision of others to bring propolis to the public.

Warren Ogren was an amateur beekeeper living in a small town in Wisconsin. In the late 1960s Warren heard about Dr Aagard and his work on propolis and was sufficiently inspired to make the trip to Denmark to see him. Dr Aagard taught Ogren how to clean and process propolis and for four years was his only customer. At that time propolis was selling for around $200 per kilo, a huge amount compared to the world market price today of around $20 per kilo.

Eventually Ogren started making up his own propolis products to sell to the public. To start with he produced propolis capsules, throat sprays and skin cream. Linda Graham, Ogren’s daughter, takes up the story: ‘The formulations were made by trial and error (lots of errors) in the back of our house. He gave away hundreds of free samples to friends and family those first years, just to see how the product would work. Half of our small town of Hayward has had a sample of some product my father first formulated.’11

The company which Warren Ogren started now sells propolis all over the world.

Royden Brown from Phoenix,  Arizona,  became another champion of propolis. He was one of the first Americans to sign up with the Canadian Air Force in 1939, and was soon based in England, flying missions over Germany. It was in England that he first came across an article in a newspaper extolling the virtues of bee products. After the war and a successful career as a banker and entrepreneur, he turned his unique energy to health and in particular to the important role honeybee products could play in maintaining that. The company he started in 1976 is now one of the largest bee products companies in the world producing honey, royal jelly, pollen and propolis. Royden Brown was one of those people who, once they became convinced of the rightness of something, go for it 100 per cent. His book The Worlds’ Only Perfect Food is, in his words, ‘a joyous celebration of the life of Apis mellifera, the little critters who work so hard to provide mankind with the mysterious and powerful products of the beehive.’ Royden Brown died tragically in 1989 but his company continues, run by his son Bruce Brown, who shares the same passion for the honeybee and who has built the most advanced plant in the world for refining propolis.

In the UK the herbalist and pioneer wholefood shop proprietor Ray Hill13  was the first person to write a book about propolis. In Propolis—The Natural Antibiotic. He echoes the theme of this section: ‘so much ancient wisdom has been lost to modern man, but fortunately this remarkable substance, put into daily use by the bees, has in recent years been ‘‘re-discovered’’ and its effectiveness is constantly being proved by scientific research.’

Dr Felix Murat,  an American, has encapsulated a lifetimes’ interest and fascination with propolis in his comprehensive and enthusiastic book Propolis—The Eternal Natural Healer published in 1982. For a number of years this was one of very few books solely about propolis. It is a powerful and passionate testimony to the importance of propolis and to natural living. In 1987, Jacob Kaal,15  a Dutch beekeeper and apitherapist, published the results of decades of research into the medicinal properties of honeybee products in his book Natural Medicines from Honeybees. This influential little book brought together the then contemporary research in the West illustrating the mounting interest in propolis. For Kaal, as for Aagard, ‘propolis is the most effective means of applying plant-derived therapeutic substances to the human body.

While honey and pollen are often very effective against illness with non-specific symptoms, propolis can be used specifically against infections—both internal and external.’

Slowly, through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, propolis came to be recognised again as a powerful natural medicine. In 1978 Dr John Diamond,16 President of the International Academy of Preventive Medicine, speaking of propolis, told us that of all the natural substances he had tested, ‘the one that seems to be the most strengthening to the thymus, and hence the Life Energy, is bee resin, or bee propolis.’

During this period propolis products became available in the West, principally through healthfood stores, and interest grew amongst the alternative health community. But we had to wait until the late eighties and early nineties before so-called serious scientific interest emerged, with a trickle of peer-reviewed papers appearing in scientific journals in Britain, USA, France, Germany and Japan. This trickle is now turning into a flood. In 1997, Dr Paul Weightman and Carmen Garcia, of the Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Newcastle17 set out to identify the extent of work on propolis published in scientific databases between 1980 and 1995. The table below lists approximately 350 articles in this period.

Topics covered in the research papers identified cover the composition of propolis, pharmacology, allergic reactions and clinical use.

It is interesting that between 1980 and 1995 more articles appeared in the USA than in any other country. Weightman and Garcia noted that over the fifteen year period studied there was a steady improvement in the quality of the research undertaken:

‘Interest moves from folklore and commentary on traditional medicines towards the rigour of advanced scientific study.’ They note that interest is no longer centred in Eastern Europe but is spreading all over the world: ‘Interest in propolis is becoming more widespread, and by professional, respected scientists capable of publishing in peer review journals.’