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Propolis starts as the sticky resinous sap which seeps from the buds of certain trees and oozes from the bark of others. The bees gather this "bee glue" and carry it back to the hive where it is blended with wax flakes secreted from special glands on the underside of the bee’s abdomen. Propolis is used to line the interior of brood cells in preparation for the Queens laying of eggs. With its antiseptic properties it provides a hospital clean environment for the rearing of brood. Propolis is a very complex mixture that varies according to the source it comes from. At least 180 different compounds have been identified so far in propolis. A broad analysis reveals approximately 55% resinous compounds and balsams, 30% beeswax, 10% ethereal and aromatic oils, and 5% bee pollen. Many flavonoids contribute to propolis and have a great deal to do with its antibacterial qualities. Other components include cinnamic acid, cinnamyl alcohol, vanillin, caffeic acid, tectochrysin, isalpinin, pinocembrin, chrysin, galangin, and ferulic acid.

Research shows that propolis offers antiseptic, antibiotic, anti-fungal, and even antiviral properties. It is often called "Russian Penicillin" in acknowledgement of the extensive research that has been done by the Soviets. One of the most valuable properties of all the natural bee hive products is that they exhibit true immunostimulating characteristics. Unlike many modern medical drugs, propolis does not depress the immune system, but instead boosts it. Chemical antibiotics destroy all bacteria in the body including the friendly and necessary flora required for healthy functioning. An individual that takes constantly takes antibiotics for one condition after another soon learns that the drugs no longer work as well as they once did. As the bacteria get "smarter" the drugs become less effective over time. It is a medical fact that some biologically harmful strains of bacteria develop a resistance to antibiotics. Propolis, being a natural antibiotic works against harmful bacteria without destroying the friendly bacteria your body needs. Propolis has been proven effective against some strains of bacteria that resist chemical antibiotics.

Propolis is collected by commercial beekeepers, either by scraping the substance from wooden hive parts, or by using specially constructed collection mats. The raw product undergoes secondary processing to remove beeswax and other impurities before being used in a variety of natural health care products (eg., lozenges, tinctures, ointments, toothpaste).

Propolis is derived from the Greek works pro ("before") and polis ("city"), and refers to the observation made by beekeepers in ancient times that bees often built a wall of propolis at the front entrance of their colony.

Propolis has been used by man since early times, for various purposes, and especially as a medicine because of its antimicrobial properties (Crane, 1997). Ancient Greek texts refer to the substance as a "cure for bruises and suppurating sore", and in Rome propolis was used by physicians in making poultices. The Hebrew word for propolis is tzori, and the therapeutic properties of tzori are mentioned throughout the Old Testament. Records from 12th century Europe describe medical preparations using propolis for the treatment of mouth and throat infections, and dental caries.

One of the non-medicinal uses of propolis is as a varnish, and it has been suggested that the special properties of Stradivarius violins may be partly due to the type of propolis used, although the claim cannot be substantiated.

Anticancer Effects

Ethanol extracts of propolis have been found to transform human hepatic and uterine carcinoma cells in vitro, and to inhibit their growth (Matsuno, 1992). Substances isolated in propolis which produce this cytotoxic effect are quercetin, caffeic acid, and clerodane diterpendoid. Clerodane diterpendoid shows a selective toxicity to tumour cells.

Propolis was also found to have a cytotoxic and cytostatic effect in vitro against hamster ovary cancer cells and sarcoma-type tumours in mice (Ross, 1990). The substance has also displayed cytotoxicity on cultures of human and animal tumour cells, including breast carcinoma, melanoma, colon, and renal carcinoma cell lines. (Grunberger et al, 1988). The component producing these effects was identified as caffeic acid phenethy ester.

A substance called Artepillin C has been isolated from propolis, and has been shown to have a cytotoxic effect on human gastric carcinoma cells, human lung cancer cells and mouse colon carcinoma cells in vitro (Kimoto, et al, 1995).

Antioxidant Effects

The flavonoids concentrated in propolis are powerful antioxidants, and have been shown to be capable of scavenging free radicals and thereby protecting lipids and other compounds such as Vitamin C from being oxidised or destroyed (Popeskovic, et al, 1980). It is probable that active free radicals, together with other factors, are responsible for cellular ageing and degradation in such conditions as cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, Parkinson disease and Alzheimer disease.

Wound Healing and Tissue Repair Effects

Propolis has been shown to stimulate various enzyme systems, cell metabolism, circulation and collagen formation, as well as improve the healing of burn wounds (Ghisalberti, 1979; Krell, 1996). These effects have been shown to be the result of the presence of arginine in propolis (Gabrys, et al, 1986). Propolis and aloe vera was found to be superior to standard wound treatment products in trials on mice (Sumano-Lopez, et al, 1989).

Anaesthetic Effects

Propolis and some of its components produce anaesthesia, which in some studies has been shown to be 3 times as powerful as cocaine and 52 times that of procaine, when tested in rabbit cornea (Ghisalberti, 1979). The anaesthetic effect has been shown to be produced by pinocembrin, pinostrobin, caffeic acid esters components in propolis (Paintz and Metzner, 1979).

The anaesthetic effect may explain why propolis has been used for centuries in the treatment of sore throats and mouth sores. An anaesthetising ointment for dentistry using propolis has been patented in Europe (Sosnowski, 1984).

Effects on Immune System

Propolis has been shown to stimulate an immune response in mice (Manolova, et al, 1987). More recently, Japanese researchers have shown an extract of propolis to produce a macrophage activation phenomenon related to the immune function in humans (Moriyasu, et al, 1993). Propolis activates immune cells which produce cytokines. The results help to explain the anti-tumour effect produced by propolis.

Propolis has been shown to suppress HIV-1 replication and modulate in vitro immune responses, and, according to the authors, "May constitute a non-toxic natural product with both anti-HIV-1, and immunoregulatory effects" (Harish, et al, 1997).

Cardiovascular Effects

In mice, a concentrated extract of propolis has been shown to reduce blood pressure, produce a sedative effect, and maintain serum glucose (Kedzia et al, 1988). Dihydroflavonoids, as contained in propolis, have been shown to strengthen capillaries (Roger, 1988), and produce antihyperlipidemic activity (Choi, 1991). Propolis has also been shown to protect the liver against alcohol (ethanol) and tetrachloride in rats (Coprean, et al, 1986).

Dental Care Effects

In rats inoculated with S. sobrinus, about half of their fissures were carious, while dental caries were significantly less in rats given water containing propolis extract. No toxic effects of propolis on the growth of rats were observed under experimental conditions in this study (Ikeno, et al, 1991). Propolis has also been shown to be effective as a subsidiary treatment for gingivitis (gum infections) and plaque (Neumann, et al, 1986). A 50% propolis extract was found to antiseptic against pulp gangrene (Gafar, et al, 1986).

Clinical Effects on Humans

A total of 260 steel workers suffering from bronchitis were treated for 24 days by various methods including local and systemic regulation of the immune system and local treatment with an ethanol extract of propolis (EEP) in a physiological salt solution. Best results were obtained with inhalation of the extract, together with propolis tablets (Scheller et al, 1989a). Propolis has also shown positive effects in other otorhinolaryngologic diseases, such as pharyngitis (Doroshenko, 1975), chronic bronchitis (Scheller, et al, 1989a), rhinopharyngolaryngitis (Isakbaev, 1986), pharyngolaryngitis (Lin, et al, 1993), catarrh (Zommer-Urbanska et al, 1987), and rhinitis (Nunex, et al, 1988).

Sixty students were divided into groups to test the effect of propolis on the development of plaque and gingivitis. The results suggest that a propolis preparation can be a useful subsidiary treatment in oral hygiene (Neumann, et al, 1986).

A strong immune deficiency was found in 2 patients with alveolitis fibroticans. Treatment with a combination of the propolis, Esberitox N and calcium-magnesium resulted in good improvements in the state of the immune system and the clinical condition of both patients (Scheller et al, 1989 b).

Clinical applications of propolis (1-10%) in ether or alcohol were effective against 10 superficial fungi and 9 deep-growing fungi. On oral treatment of 160 psoriasis patients with 0.3 g propolis 3 times daily for 3 months, about one-third were cured or greatly improved (Fang Chu, 1978).

Patients (110) infected with ringworm bv were treated with 50% propolis as a unguent. In 97 patients it was found to produce excellent results (Bolshakova, 1975).

Sixty-four patients with tibial skin ulcers, aged from 23 to 98 years, were treated using propolis tincture in an ointment. The ointment was applied daily to the ulcerated area, which was also treated on the periphery with antibiotic ointments. The treatment lasted for 4-12 weeks. At the end of treatment, 19 of the 64 treated patients exhibited no clinical signs of the condition, 19 an improved condition (Korsun, 1983).

Patients (229) with burns, clean wounds, infected wounds or abscesses/ulcers were treated with a cream containing propolis at two concentrations (2% and 8%). The higher concentration caused local intolerance in 18% of patients by day 9, whereas the lower concentration caused symptoms in only 1.8% of patients by day 16. Burns and wounds treated with the low concentration cream healed in 11 days on average, septic wounds in 17.5 days, 67% of ulcers in 36 days (Morales and Garbarino, 1996).

Patients (126) suffering external otitis, chronic mesotypanic otitis and tympan perforation were treating with propolis solutions (5-10%). A positive therapeutic result was reported in most cases (Matel, et al, 1973). Propolis has also shown positive results in the treatment of acute inflammations of the ear (Palos, et al, 1989).

Patients (90) with cases of vagina and uterus cervix inflammation caused by S. pyogenes were treated with 3% propolis ethanol extract. Over 50% of the cases responded well to this treatment (Zawadzki and Scheller, 1973).

Patients (138) suffering giardiasis were treated with propolis extracts (10-20%). In children, 52% showed a cure at the lower dose. In adults, the cure rate was the same as for tinidazole, an antiprotozoan drug, at the 20% extract, and 60% vrs. 40% for tindazole at a higher concentration (30% propolis extract) (Mirayes, et al, 1988).

The diverse use of propolis in clinical trials shows that its therapeutic efficacy lies mainly in diseases caused by microbial contaminations (Marcucci, 1995).

Commercial Use

Raw propolis is collected by beekeepers and sold in bulk to companies that refine the product and turn it into usable extracts. Most commercial uses of propolis are based on preparations made up from these extracts. Methods include ethanol extraction (EEP), glycol extraction (GEP), aqueous (water) extraction (AEP), oil extraction (OEP), and water-soluble derivatives (WSD). Where solvents are used, reduction or elimination of the solvent is necessary, either by freeze-drying, vacuum distillation, or evaporation. Extraction is used to remove the beeswax which is mixed with the propolis by the bees during use in the hive, as well as other non-active components such as resinous-balsam substances.

Main commercial uses of propolis are as a dietary supplement and therapeutic. Propolis is sold in tablets (singularly, or in combination with other substances such as pollen, royal jelly and non-hive products), and tinctures, and as an ingredient in lozenges, skin creams, shampoos, lipsticks, toothpastes and mouthwashes. Tinctures and lozenges are popular treatment for sore throats, and tinctures are often used to treat cuts, mouth sores and skin rashes. The antioxidant, antimicrobial and antifungal activities of propolis also offer opportunities in food technology. In Japan, the use of propolis is permitted as a preservative in frozen fish (Krell, 1996).

Propolis is a stable product, but should nevertheless be stored in airtight containers in the dark, preferably away from excessive and direct heat. Propolis does not lose much of its antibiotic activity, even when stored for 12 months or longer. Propolis and its extract function as a mild preservative due to their antioxidant and antimicrobial activities and thus may actually prolong the shelf life of some products (Krell, 1996).

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