What is sweeter than sugar yet more valuable than gold?
It is no surprise that I’m particularly fond of the liquid gold. After all I DID do my Master’s presentation on its wonderfully healing properties. But since my presentation was several years ago, I wanted to take another look at some of the studies available on this buzzing subject.
Onward to the internet streets to scour …
I found referenced articles at NCBI, or the National Center for Biotechnology Information, and PubMed. They are free full text articles, so should you wish to read them in their entirety, they should be available to you. We will discuss what I found here shortly.
But first! Let us fly through the basics of honey:
the What, the How, and the Why
What is it?
Honey is a deliciously sweet golden substance that is considered the cumulative result of the nectar of a flower and the upper digestive tract makeup of the honey bee.
How is it Made?
Honey is made through a complex process that occurs when each bee regurgitates to the next in order to store the substance in the hive. While culminating in the stomachs of the bees, the nectar mixes with a multitude of enzymes before it hits the honeycomb shelves. It then undergoes dehydration secondary to aeration and is stored for food within the hive.
Why is it Made?
The honey is utilized by the bees as a primary food source, particularly during the scarcity of winter months; and lest we not forget almost every mammal, small and large, who finds the substance a delectable treat.
Tried and True Honey Use
According to Eteraf-Oskouei and Najafi (2013), the use of honey in humans can be traced back to more than 8,000 years ago as a depiction in a Stone Age drawing. Many cultures throughout history have recognized its benefits, including ancient Egyptians, Greco-Romans, Chinese, Indians, and Assyrians.
Honey is primarily sugar and water, though it contains a notable amount of amino acids, enzymes, vitamins, and minerals. It can be broken down mainly into two principal sugars with it averaging 35% fructose and 30% glucose with the remaining composition including disaccharides, water, organic acids, and minerals.
The high sugar content directly contributes to honey’s antimicrobial capabilities. In addition to this, the enzymes (namely glucose oxidase) present in most forms of honey help in the production of hydrogen peroxide, another antimicrobial substance.
When looking at strains of bacteria sensitive to the effects of honey, approximately 60 different species were found, including the most common Staphylococcus Aureus, Pseudomonas Aeruginosa, and Streptococcus mutans, pneumoniae, and pyogenes. It has even been shown to be effective in more resistant strains, such as Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus or MRSA (Mandal & Mandal, 2011).
NOW. I know what you’re thinking. Well if it is mainly the sugar that is responsible for the bactericidal activity, then why not just go for plain ole sugar solution?
Sugar’s sweetness just doesn’t compare…
When comparing sugar solution that emulates the composition of honey, it was found that it took greater concentrations (20-30% sugar vs. 4-8% pasture honey and 5-11% manuka honey) to make the solution bacteriostatic or strong enough to halt reproduction of bacteria.
Unlike its golden counterpart, the sugar solution was not found to be bactericidal or strong enough to kill the bacteria, despite being present in higher concentrations (Eteraf-Oskouei & Najafi, 2013).
How Can Honey Be Used?
Honey has had a myriad of uses throughout documented history, but the most notable and probably the most important is for wound healing. For infection clearing and healing potential, honey stands on a pedestal of its own.
It can be used for abscesses and boils, burns, lacerations and abrasions, ulcerative and diabetic wounds, and infected cysts. Though we do know the why behind its efficacy in resolving infections, it is less clear the mechanism to which it speeds up tissue regeneration and healing.
Studies have found honey to be superior in healing times and scar formation when compared to more standardized treatments like silver sulfadiazine for burns and antibiotic ointment for infected wound beds (Eteraf-Oskouei & Najafi, 2013).
Other reported uses for honey are vast and span many different conditions. Studies are ongoing to evaluate honey’s efficacy in treating fungal and viral infections, autoimmune disorders, and gastrointestinal diseases. Actually some studies have shown promise that Manuka honey has antimicrobial activity against one of the main bacteria to cause gastric ulcers, Helicobacter pylori (Mandal & Mandal, 2011).
In addition to the antimicrobial properties, honey is found to have antioxidant activity. It contains several different flavonoids that work together to create an antioxidant effect. This activity needs further studies to determine the extent of its physiological effect on the human body. Honey does show promise in cardiovascular risk mitigation and lipid/cholesterol regulation as well as possible anticarcinogenic activity secondary to its antioxidant (phenolic compound) composition (Eteraf-Oskouei & Najafi, 2013).
Differences in Honey Due to Location and Source
It is important to note that the extent of antimicrobial and antioxidant capability will vary according to when, where, and how the honey is harvested. The source of the honey (for example clover, buckwheat, lavender, etc.) will too create variations in its chemical makeup and even its color.
It should also be apparent that the quality of honey you buy will greatly affect its properties. Typically local, raw, unfiltered, straight-off-the-comb honey is preferred to reap the healthy rewards of use. And as a general rule, you should avoid the cheap bear bottle variety you find at most big box stores.
I hope you have found this article worthwhile. New studies are being conducted to explore honey’s ability to treat other ailments, and I will post again when studies are more conclusive on such conditions. I recommend keeping a high-quality raw, unfiltered honey in your cupboards should the occasion arise for its need.
As always this article is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. Should you have any ailments or conditions with which you are concerned, I encourage you to discuss this and pertinent therapies with your doctor.
Eteraf-Oskouei, T., & Najafi, M. (2013). Traditional and Modern Uses of Natural Honey in Human Diseases: A Review. Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences, 16(6), 731–742.
Mandal, M. D., & Mandal, S. (2011). Honey: its medicinal property and antibacterial activity. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine, 1(2), 154–160. http://doi.org/10.1016/S2221-1691(11)60016-6