Bee Pollen as a Sports Food
I learned about bee pollen as a sports food the hard way. The very hard way.
I had always wanted to go hiking in a cloud forest, and I realized I was getting older, so a few years ago I booked a flight to Costa Rica and hired a guide to take me to the cloud forest on the side of one the country's famous volcanoes. The trip was everything I had hoped it would be and more.
Every step was a different picture postcard view. My guide told me I was doing fine and left me to explore a cliffside trail on my own.
Despite Mt. Arenal's proximity to the equator, it's a chilly, even frosty place. Earlier that morning we had scraped frost off the jeep's windshield and bundled up against blustery winds. On the way to the departure point we had passed through lower elevations that were enjoying warm, sunny weather, but the peak looked like it had been wrapped in a winter storm.
I put only several layers of clothing and a coat and hat. My guide ducked out of his duties to attend to "el necessario." After then, I didn't see any more of him. (He was an American in Costa Rica, by the way, not a native guide.) I kept finding more and more beautiful views as I went higher and higher up the side of the volcano. As I crept along a narrow trail with a 300 meter drop to one side, however, the totally unexpected happened.
The sun came out. The temperature quickly rose to 40° C/ 105° F. I started to take off my coat and rain gear and watched my camera case tumble hundreds of meters down the cliff. I decided to turn around and hike back down with my coat on.And I passed out from heatstroke. Fortunately the very next hiker on the trail was a vacationing neurologist who practiced emergency medicine at a leading hospital in New York City. Over the next hour or so he got me down the mountain and packed in ice and put in an ambulance for San Jose. I spent the next few days recovering in a hotel before getting put on a plane to get checked out in Houston, Texas (where the doctor pronounced me good as new).
The chef at the hotel told me he had just the thing to get me going again. He called it "miel de la selva," jungle honey. This honey was so full of pollen it looked more like tapioca than honey. But it did indeed perk me right up.
Not as much as getting packed in ice and carried off the side of a cliff, but it perked me up in a big way.
If you ever find yourself collapsed on a narrow ledge by the side of the a precipice and a kindly neurosurgeon offers to treat you, don't say, "That's OK, I'll just wait for a jar of bee pollen." But bee pollen does indeed have considerable benefit in recovery from hard workouts and athletic competitions, and, at least for me, heat stroke in cloud forests. Let me tell you why.
Bee Pollen as a Source of Complete Protein
If you work out to build muscle, you have to give your muscles the raw materials to remodel and expand. New muscle is made with protein, which requires complete amino acids. But new muscle is also made with glycogen, which is a chemical combination of glucose and water. Bee pollen and honey are good for workout recovery.Bee pollen is between 12 and 40% protein. This protein contains all the amino acids the human body uses, including those it can't make for itself. There is no need for whey, egg, soy, or pea protein to make up any missing amino acids. If you eat sports bars made with bee pollen within half an hour of finishing your workout, or even during your workout, your muscles will have a hefty dose of complete protein they need to bulk out.
Bee pollen is best when combined with honey.
You don't just need protein to rebuild muscle after a workout. You also need glucose and water. Honey is a good source of sugar in the form of glucose, which is exactly what muscles need to store fuel for your next workout. The glycogen the muscles make from glucose and water adds bulk to your muscle, while the new muscle fibers made with the amino acids add strength.
What's Wrong With Energy Drinks?
But you might object that you can just get your protein, sugar, and water from energy drinks. There is just one problem with that approach. It is all the other "stuff" you get with energy drinks.
A small can of energy drink (Rockstar Energy, for example) may contain up to 60 grams of sugar. If you just restrict yourself to a smoothie with 2 tablespoons of honey, you are only going to get about 20 grams of sugar.
Energy drinks are usually fortified with caffeine, or with gurana, which contains a number of chemicals that are very similar to caffeine, only more potent. If you are exercising to bring down your resting pulse rate, it really does not help to consume the amount of caffeine found in two cups of espresso.
And while bee pollen and honey both contain plant chemicals, some of the plant chemicals you get in energy drinks are of questionable value. Eleuthero (which used to be called Siberian ginseng, before the US Congress banned to the use of the word in advertising in a rider to an anti-terrorism bill in 2002) is used with great success by many professional athletes. It helps the immune system fight bacterial and viral infections, especially when inflammatory T-cells are activated by heavy exercise, and it helps a man's body conserve testosterone.
Conserving testosterone is not always a good thing. Most of the American professional basketball players who are heavy users of eleuthero drinks are also completely bald. And not because they shave their heads.
I prefer energy drinks with honey or energy bars with bee pollen. Even when I'm not climbing up the side of a tropical volcano. And I also enjoy saving money by making my own energy bars, such as with this recipe:
Cinnamon Raisin Bee Pollen Bars
(Recipe Makes 8 Bars)
- 2 cups (160 g) rolled oats
- 8 scoops (80 g) vanilla whey
- 1 cup (60 g) raisins
- 1-1/2 cups (360 ml liquid measure) unsweetened applesauce
- 1/4 cup (30 g) bee pollen
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of flaxseed oil
- 2 tsp (8-9 g) ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp (5 g) salt
- 1 tsp (3-4 ml) vanilla extract
- 10-20 packets of Splenda (or 1/2 cup)
Mix the dry ingredients (oats, whey cinnamon, salt, and Spelda) in a bowl or process in a mixer until thoroughly blended (about 1 minute if you are using a blender or about 3 minutes if you are stirring by hand). Exact measurements are not critical to the success of this recipe, so you can add more or less of any ingredient you like, up to about 10% more or 10% less than the recipe states.
Cut 8 squares of aluminum foil about 8" x 8" (or 200 mm by 200 mm). Lightly coat the interior of each square with cooking spray or a very fine coating of olive oil. Spoon out 1/8 of the mixture into each square of foil, fold up the edges, and then flatten to make a bar. You can also make the "bars" in a roll shape, but they will quick a few minutes more quickly.
Bake the bars in a preheated 350° F/ 175° C over for 16 to 18 minutes. Take the bars out of the oven and allow to cool, unwrapped, on a wire rack. Eat as you would any other sports bar.
These sports bars contain about 15 times more bee pollen than most commercial sports bars.
Nutritional information per serving:
Calories (k/cal) 290
Protein (g) 25
Total carbohydrates (g) 35
Fiber (g) 5
Sugar (g) 18
Omega-3 fat (g) 2.0Omega-6 fat (g) 0.7Saturated fat (g) 0.5
Bee pollen and honey, however, are not the only products of the beehive that are useful for athletes. Many athletes fight inflammation with propolis.
Propolis is a plant product, not a bee product. It consists of the sticky resins bees collect from trees and weeds. These resins have some potent antibacterial and antiviral properties that protect the hive and that can also protect you. But the way propolis reduces the severity of bacterial and viral infections is just by killing germs, it is also by modifying the immune system.
Propolis changes the way the body uses arachidonic acid. This is the "bad fat" in hot dogs, cheeseburgers, packaged potato chips, baloney, and scrambled eggs. The caffeic acid phenethyl ester in propolis (which isn't found in honey or bee pollen) stops arachidonic acid from becoming an inflammatory chemical in torn muscles and strained joints. At least one study has found that propolis extract was as effective as steroid injections for pain relief.
But a little propolis won't stop pain. You have to take a lot.About 50 mg/kg of body weight is the analgesic dose of propolis. If you weigh 100 kilograms (220 pounds), then you will need about 5 grams (4 or 5 droppers) of propolis every day for 4 or 5 days to stop the pain of an injured joint or a sprained muscle.
Propolis will relieve inflammation. It won't cause weight gain or mood swings or changes in skin color or skin texture the way steroids will. And it's actually a lot cheaper than paying out of pocket at the sports medicine clinic.If you are going to get pain relief from propolis, you get it in within a week. Don't keep trying it indefinitely. If it doesn't work for you, get your money back and try something else. But many athletes will find propolis to be a very helpful natural supplement.
A surprising number of serious athletes will take time to make their own energy bars and to use bee pollen, honey, and propolis in creative ways. If you are short on time, just take bee pollen and propolis on a regular basis for prevention, and add honey to shakes and smoothies instead of stevia or sugar.