Throughout our lives, we always seem to be bombarded with a plethora of marketing information. Lose weight fast, stop hair growth, be more energetic, be faster, be healthier. And all you need is a magic little pill that will help you attain all of your desired physical and mental capabilities. This scenario reminds me of Jack and the Bean Stock. While Jack’s beans did grow into something, I am fairly certain that the outcome of that event was not exactly what Jack pictured. Often times, when we just pop random multivitamins and supplements into our bodies without know exactly what our bodies need, we are taking a huge chance on the outcomes. I recently did some research on bee pollen for a school paper, and here is what I have found:
The idea of bee pollen as a supplement for athletic performance has existed for a long period of time, however, athletes and athletic nutritional professionals should know the exact effects of bee pollen on performance, the efficacy of this supplement on desired performance, as well as the side effects associated with this supplement. Bee pollen is a biological product that comes from honeybees; it is the chief source of protein for bees. While pollen can be diverse in the exact chemical composition, it has been found to contain not only protein, but also carbohydrates, fat, phosphorus and iron, as well as more calcium and magnesium than legumes. Bee pollen contains a high content of vitamins, and higher concentration of pantothenic acid, when compared to other sources such as beef and eggs (Linskens & Jorde, 1997). While bee pollen can be directly consumed, it is also often digested with the intake of honey; however, the exact amount of pollen consumed depends on the specific kind of honey.
Since bee pollen is considered a foodstuff, it is digested by the mouth and digestion tract. Once the pollen reaches the digestive tract, the grains start to swell. As the grains swell, they break up and release starch, while enzymes digest the protein, carbohydrate and lipid content. The remaining contents of the pollen such as sugar, amino acids, vitamins and fatty acid, are reabsorbed by the gastrointestinal tract and enter the blood stream. The macro nutrients of the bee pollen are turned into energy, while micronutrients are used as antioxidants (Linskens & Jorde, 1997). Due to the fact that bee pollen is high in protein and carbohydrates, it is thought that is a great daily energy supplement. Such digestive qualities are thought to enhance sports performance by increasing energy and metabolism for athletes. Furthermore, bee pollen, when taken daily, is claimed to decrease recovery time for athletes (Nogueira, Iglesias, Feás, & Estevinho, 2012). However, such claims need to be further examined by scientific process in order to determine the actual functions of bee pollen in the body; concrete evidence must support the claims of the health benefits of bee pollen in order for nutrition professionals to be able to suggest such a supplement to athletes.
The carbohydrate and protein content of bee pollen leads to many claims that bee pollen is a great energy supplement for athletes before, during and after exercise. A Portuguese bee pollen study, determined that the two strains, Boraginaceae and Ericaceae, were nutritionally well balanced; containing high levels of proteins, fat, energy, carbohydrates, reducing sugars, essential n-3 fatty acids and good ratios of polyunsaturated fatty acids to saturated fatty acids (Estevinho, Rodrigues, Pereira, & Feas, 2012). The bee pollen samples were analyzed according to AOAC procedures; results showed a statistical similarity of both carbohydrate and energy content, where carbohydrates accounted for about two thirds of the total weight of each pollen grain (Estevinho, Rodrigues, Pereira, & Feas, 2012). Another research study pointed to the same carbohydrate content in ten other species of sampled pollen strains; this study in particular expressed that energy output was between 400.70 ± 0.36 and 411.75 ± 0.63 kcal per 100 grams with no statistically significant differences between samples (Nogueira, Iglesias, Feás, & Estevinho, 2012). Such carbohydrate content would lead to energy production from the consumption of bee pollen, potentially leading to an energy replacement supplement rather than having the ability to increase energy beyond normal levels in athletes.
Perhaps not just bee pollen needs to be examined in order to determine sports performance benefits for athletes; research studies on honey could point to similar hypoglycemic results due to a high contamination of honey with bee pollen. Natural honey needs to be examined for nutritional effects due to a higher probability of elevated bee pollen content. Ahmad et. al. (2008) determined that glucose response was noticeably lower in their natural honey consumer group compared to simulated honey or the D-glucose consumer groups, concluding that natural honey, with increased bee pollen content, stabilized physiological glycemic response with rebound recovery in plasma glucose levels. Low Glycemic Index carbohydrates play a role in continuous, balanced energy. Multiple studies point to a significant amount of participants not reaching the hypoglycemic level with natural honey, during which time they instead exhibited a rebound increase in blood glucose level at the 180 minute mark, indicating that honey sugars metabolized differently as compared to glucose (Ahmad, Azim, Mesaik, Nazimuddin, & Khan, 2008). Using bee pollen, perhaps in conjuncture with natural honey, could aid avoidance of hypoglycemia in endurance athletes.
It should be noted that further research is needed in order to determine the exact effect of bee pollen on glycemic effect; one study points to fructose, a sugar found in both honey and bee pollen, as the major contributor to glycemic effect. (Erejuwa, Sulaiman, & Ab Wahab, 2012). Results from one study showed that glucose and fructose caused a synergistic effect in the gastrointestinal tract and pancreas that improve intestinal fructose absorption as well as had the potential to stimulate insulin secretion. The results reveal the beneficial effects of fructose on glycemic control, and energy expenditure (Erejuwa, Sulaiman, & Ab Wahab, 2012). This can be explained by the activation of glucokinase and the inhibition of other enzymes, causing a hepatic effect of fructose leading to both improved glucose tolerance and the ability to reduce elevated blood glucose levels (Shiota, et al., 2002). Variable carbohydrate utilization by the human body provides different results of energy and macronutrient balance. The utilization of fructose from carbohydrate resources has a faster metabolism rate than say glucose. The fast metabolism process is found to be due to Fructokinase, the enzyme responsible for phosphorylating fructose. It is approximately 10 times more active than enzymes responsible for glucose uptake. Moreover, during glycolosis, fructose avoids the rate- limiting enzymes resulting in a quicker metabolism and accretion of carbon components available for gluconeogenesis and glycogen storage (Blaak & Saris, 1996). Study findings such as these suggest that once again, bee pollen can aid as an energy supplement rather than having a direct effect on metabolism or increased energy by athletes. Due to fructose content, bee pollen can have a faster effect on energy levels due to a fast metabolic process, however research points to no known evidence of actual effects on increased energy beyond the expected energy output for macronutrient intake. Neither is metabolism increased during this process; research points to faster intake of fructose, a compound in bee pollen, which allows bee pollen to enter blood plasma faster than perhaps other carbohydrate sources digested at the same time.
Perhaps another reason bee pollen is thought to be associated with energy supplementation is due to the high vitamin B-complex found in many pollen strains. B-complex vitamins such as Thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, and biotin are a part of production of ATP during metabolism because they are part of the enzymes that regulate energy production (Dunford and Doyle, 2011). However, it is important to note that once full saturation of tissue with water soluble vitamin B-complex is achieved, the rest is expelled from the body through urination; increased intake of these vitamins does not increase enzyme activity, and will not increase energy above standard levels. Ten common bee pollen strains showed noticeable levels of vitamin B-complex; dried samples showed concentrations of vitamin B1 ranging from 0.64 to 1.01 mg/100 g, a range between 1.77 and 2.56 mg/100 g for B2 and ranges between 0.33 and 0.77 mg/100 g for B6 (de Arruda, Pereira, de Freitas, Barth, & de Almeida-Muradian, 2013). From stated vitamin B-complex concentrations in bee pollen, it is evident that bee pollen can be a beneficial supplement in order to ensure full saturation of vitamin B-complex in an athlete’s tissues, ensuring there are enough vitamins to metabolize the greatest amount of energy. If an athlete’s energy metabolism has been compromised, bee pollen supplementation could potentially aid in decreasing fatigue, but will not inversely increase energy utilization in a properly balanced body.
Research studies have also been conducted to investigate antioxidant properties of bee pollen and their effects on oxidative stress due to the heavy chemical composition of known antioxidants in many pollen strains. Many athletes are concerned with oxidative stress during training because exercise releases and excessive amount of reactive oxygen and nitrogen species that turn into free radicals when not enough antioxidants are present to bind with the excess free radicals, causing damage to tissue, cells and even organs. Bee pollen’s chemical composition shows a concentration of antioxidants that could be beneficial for dealing with oxidative stress. One research study observed that healthy participants that fed honey at 1.5 g/kg of their body weight gained phenolic antioxidants and increase plasma antioxidant capacity (Schramm, et al., 2003). Antioxidant qualities of bee pollen can be closely associated with honey, where, while different strains of honey have different amounts, the antioxidant content found was phenolic compounds, more specifically, flavonoids that qualify honey as a good source of antioxidants. The presence of bee pollen’s phenolic compounds like vitamins C, and E contribute to the antioxidant ability of the supplement (Al-Mamary, Al-Meeri, & Al-Habori, 2002). While antioxidants are an important factor to prevent excessive oxidative stress in athletes, the claim that bee pollen is capable of facilitating faster recovery time is far reaching.
Nevertheless, bee pollen, in addition to providing antioxidants, also has anti-inflammatory properties, which may lead some to incorrectly correlate increased tissue repair with a decrease in inflammation. In a research study investigating bee pollen from the Cistus sp. of Spanish origin, anti-inflammatory effects of the strain were introduced to both water extract and ethanol extract by a method of carrageenan-induced paw edema in rats . Ethanol extract showed an inhibition of carrageenan-induced paw edema, while water extract had little effect, suggesting that ethanol extract of bee pollen had significant anti-inflammatory activity (Maruyama, Sakamoto, Araki, & Hara, 2010). Ethanol extract of bee pollen enhances flavanoid anti-inflammation effects by the inhibition of NO production within the body. Additionally, Cistus sp. contains quercetin-7-rhamnoside, a derivative of quercetin that has been reported to inhibit the activity of certain enzymes associated with increased inflammation. However, results also point to a high selectivity of enzyme inhibition of ethanol extract of bee pollen, leading to bee pollen having a participatory role in anti-inflammatory responses, rather than a direct role (Maruyama, Sakamoto, Araki, & Hara, 2010). It should also be noted that the anti-inflammatory properties inhibit enzyme production that would lead to faster healing times. Thus the claim that bee pollen is associated with decreased recovery time is not accurate; while an athlete may experience less inflammation in the body, tissue repair will still continue at a normal or sub-normal rate.
Both Athletes and medical professionals should be aware of adverse side effects associated with bee pollen, especially the allergenic properties of pollen and honey. Cases of anaphylaxis have been caused directly by the ingestion of bee pollen (L. Kathleen Mahan, 1984). Food management must be considered when dealing with a high probability of an allergic reaction from bee pollen. One research study even detected that the cause of an allergic reaction to bee pollen was due to the type of plant the pollen was collected from. A small sample of individuals with hay fever showed signs of allergic reaction to bee pollen collected from dandelions, a common plant that can induce hay fever. The study concluded that indicates that individuals with specific plant sensitivities may experience anaphylaxis from ingestion of antigens in certain food stuffs that cross-react with corresponding pollens, like bee pollen supplements and honey (Cohen, Yunginger, Rosenberg, & Fink, 1979). Immunology blood tests should be done for athletes that are considering taking a bee pollen supplement prior to the initiation, as allergic reactions appear to be common when ingestion occurs.
The sports performance claims that bee pollen increases energy and metabolism, as well as enhancing athletic performance and reducing recovery time are not justifiable or proven by scientific research. Research studies do suggest that bee pollen benefits energy metabolism matching carbohydrate digestion characteristic, however, due to fructose sugar content, bee pollen has a faster energy intake into blood plasma than other carbohydrate sugars such as glucose. Additionally, bee pollen also contributes to the metabolic process by providing ATP production vitamin B-complex. The flavanoid activity in bee pollen is also responsible for detectable antioxidant effects, especially in treating inflammation. However, it should be noted that while bee pollen provides antioxidant properties, it does not directly enhance athletic performance nor reduce recovery time. In fact, bee pollen could potentially increase recovery time for athletes due to NO inhibition, as well as have inflammatory affects to those with pollen or plant allergies.
Bee pollen supplements should not be encouraged or suggested as a primary source of energy, endurance or recovery for any athlete. Bee pollen could be a great supplementary source of energy metabolism sourced from carbohydrate and vitamin B-complex composition. Additionally, bee pollen could be useful in aiding controlling the amount of oxidative stress athletes experience after exercise, as well as help control normal inflammation cause by endurance fitness. However, due to the high probability of allergic effects of bee pollen, alternative sources of energy metabolism, antioxidant quality and similar vitamin composition can be suggested. Bee pollen is a food stuff that can be a part of an overall healthy diet for any athlete, but it will not significantly improve any area of sports performance, thus should not be added into an already well managed diet regimen, nor should it replace other wholesome macronutrient and micronutrient sources.
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