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The word “propolis” is a composite that comprises of the Greek prefix “pro,” which means “before” or “in front of,” and the Greek word “polis,” that means “city”. The word’s etymology includes the meaning protection and defense.
We encounter propolis in the bee society. It is a resinous substance composed by the bees in order to fortify and defend their hives. Bees themselves collect propolis from the stems of various plants and then process it by adding beeswax, pollen enzymes and other substances until it assumes its final glutinous form. Afterwards, they use it as a glue in order to smoothen their hives or to repair any cracks or holes, with the purpose of protecting themselves from adversaries or adverse weather conditions. They also use it for its antiseptic properties, as it functions as a disinfectant in the interior of the hives that are going to house the honeybee brood and be used as storage for the honey and pollen.
The Chemical Composition of Propolis
Propolis’ colour varies, from yellow-green and orange-green to light and dark brown. Both its colour and its composition depend, each time, on the plant of origin, since different plants give the bees different secretions, but also on the ratio of wax and pollen mixtures, as well as on the time for which the propolis will stay in the hive. The chemical composition of propolis is especially complicated, as more than 300 different chemical compounds have been detected. Its largest part comprises of resins (50%) and wax (30%). To a smaller degree, it contains essential oils, micronutrients, pollen, vitamins, and more components.
Lastly, regarding its natural properties, propolis, in temperatures lower than 15oC, is vitrified and therefore particularly hard. When exposed to temperatures higher than 30oC it begins to soften and assumes its resinous texture.
The Therapeutic Value of Propolis
The therapeutic properties of propolis were known since antiquity, however, the last decades it inspires a keen interest by researchers, on a global scale, as more than 300 articles on propolis are published annually. Generally speaking, propolis appears to act against pathogenic bacteria, viruses and fungi, while it also has antibacterial properties and a positive effect against various skin diseases. Below we will discuss the main effects of propolis on human health.
Gastrointestinal System Health
Parasitic infections of the gastrointestinal tract are quite frequent and involve symptoms, like abdominal pain, diarrhoea, bloating and nausea. Several studies support the effective action of propolis against gastrointestinal infections. Specifically, there are studies that support propolis’ beneficial effect against the helicobacter pylori and the Giardia lamblia parasite, which colonises the small intestine and may cause an infection with symptoms, like diarrhoea, nausea and stomachache. The use of propolis may also have a positive effect in treating gastritis, duodenal ulcers, as well as chronic colitis.
The two most common occurrences of vaginitis are bacterial vaginosis and candidiasis. Vaginitis usually occurs because of the depletion of the Lactobacillus spp. in the vagina, and is accompanied by an overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria and an elevated vaginal pH. Due to the antibiotic and antimicrobial effects of propolis, the systematic application of a 5% aqueous solution of propolis seems to offer protection against the development of vaginitis, and improves vaginal health. Moreover, because of its anesthetic effect, which derives from its congener essential oils, propolis also provides a timely relief from vaginitis’ symptoms.
The propolis solution does not display any toxicity for human cells, therefore it can be used in cases of chronic vaginitis, in case of tolerance to antifungal medications, and also as an alternative treatment for patients who cannot take antibiotics due to a concurrent pharmacological treatment.
Finally, there are new studies which show that the application of propolis ointment may augment the healing of damages on individuals with genital herpes.
The oral cavity has an extensive bacterial microchlora, and bacterial overgrowth may result in various oral diseases. Studies have shown that propolis, because of its antibacterial properties, may restrict the growth of bacterial plaque and pathogenic microorganisms that are responsible for periodontitis.
Moreover, studies indicate that the use of a propolis mouth wash may improve the healing and reduce the pain and swelling after a surgical operation in the mouth. The use of propolis mouth wash also seems to aid in reducing inflammation and in the faster healing of mouth wounds caused by chemotherapy. Consequently, propolis may be used as either toothpaste or mouth wash for the protection of the oral cavity from pathogenic microorganisms that cause gingivitis and periodontitis.
The antifungal, antiallergic and antioxidant effects of propolis render it remarkably effective during the healing process of dermal wounds. According to studies, propolis significantly reduces the activity of free radicals and activates the composition of collagen and elastin, thus contributing to the healing of wounds. Other studies associate propolis with positive results in treating acne, as well as in the healing of diabetic foot ulcers. Propolis may also be used on eczemata and light burns, and as a local anesthetic to offer relief from the sting of a bee.
Propolis has been associated with positive results against breast cancer. It appears to display minuscule to null toxicity against normal cells, and selective toxic properties against cancer cells, leading them to apoptosis. Another study showed that propolis performs selective cytotoxic actions on human cancer cells in the lungs, minimising their multiplication. There is a plethora of studies that correlate various components of propolis with other types of cancer, although more studies are necessary in order to determine whether, and in which way, propolis can be used in treating various cancers.
In general, propolis, due to the multiple organic and non-organic compounds it contains, helps in the overall enhancement of our immune system. It makes for an excellent option for those who want to fortify their body against viroses, infections and seasonal allergies. There are no major counterindications against the use of propolis, other than the possibility of an allergy manifesting on an individual. In the case of unwanted symptoms manifesting after the intake or application of a propolis product, like itch in the mouth, rashes, nausea or diarrhoea, it is recommended that you cease its use and consult an allergist.
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