Gwyneth Paltrow says she's had the controversial treatment done. But that doesn't mean it's medically proven—or safe. Here's what the experts have to say.
Gwyneth Paltrow has become famous not only for her acting, but the alternative—and sometimes controversial—health treatments she touts on her website, Goop, and its new accompanying magazine. In the debut issue, she says she has used bee venom treatment to heal her C-section scars. "The doctor stings you [with a live bee] like it's an acupuncture needle," she says. "I had it done on my cesarean scar…I had some buckling in the scar, and it really evened it out." Um, OK, but how exactly does this work?
The buzz about apitherapy
A trained holistic practitioner actually gets the bee to sting you by placing it on your skin, leaving its stinger behind and killing the bee. The venom sac continues to pump its contents into you. "Apitherapy, or the ancient use of bee products, uses bee sting therapy for the treatment of arthritis to scars," says Purvisha Patel, MD, dermatologist and creator of Visha Skin Care. "It is thought that the venom has anti-inflammatory effects." One theory is that the venom improves circulation and stimulates the production of collagen and elastin, which help skin reclaim its shape. Another idea is that the sting prompts an anti-inflammatory response by mobilizing the immune system's forces to the site.
So is it effective? "There is no good scientific data to support this trend," Dr. Patel says. Although it's been used in Chinese and other traditional medicines for thousands of years, like most holistic remedies it lacks actual medical evidence. Some anecdotal claims exist that it helps autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS), but they haven't been backed up as of yet.
The American Apitherapy Society admits its treatments aren't accepted by the medical community. "No official body in the US has sanctioned apitherapy as a recognized treatment modality," its website states. "Bee venom has been approved by the FDA for de-sensitization purposes only. Apitherapy is considered, from both the legal and medical view point, an experimental approach."
Is bee venom therapy ethical?
And what about the bees? "We must ask what their practices are for sustainability and renewal of life," says Tami Bronstein, a medical herbalist who doesn't perform apitherapy herself. "It seems to inflict great harm to these valuable creatures as a vital resource for food production—especially when scarring can be manually worked with."
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Beekeepers do provide bees for apitherapy, and some apitherapy practitioners have even become beekeepers themselves. Encouraging more beekeeping may actually help the plight of the bees, even with the fate that awaits them in bee venom therapy. Some practitioners may use the bees for venom therapy when they're at the end of their life cycle anyway. And it's unlikely that bee venom therapy actually contributes to colony collapse disorder of honey bees—that's the result of parasites, diseases, poor nutrition, habitat loss and pesticides.
But still, killing bees is not exactly animal-friendly. Recently, a new, more humane method for collecting the venom has been developed. Bees are prompted (via a weak electrical current) to sting a thin fabric covering a plate. The stingers don't get stuck in the fabric, so the bees are free to fly off unharmed. The venom then can be administered by injection. However, making bees sting does subject them to stress.
It's one thing to go through bee venom therapy for painful conditions like MS or arthritis after you've tried other treatments, but it's quite another to do so for cosmetic issues like C-section scars. Plus, you might not realize you're allergic to bee stings, which can be quite dangerous. One review of studies found bee venom therapy to have a 29 percent chance of adverse reactions, a 261 percent increase from a saline injection. "Allergies and possible anaphylactic shock could ensue with such treatments," Dr. Patel says.
Gwyneth Paltrow can keep her bee venom therapy—instead, to ensure your C-section scars are minimal, practice proper wound care and don't lift anything heavy after your surgery to prevent the skin from stretching. Chances are, the scar will be so small and so far down you won't even notice it much anyway.