While dogs have long been considered humanity’s best friend, bees have done as much or more to earn that prestigious title. They pollinate many of our plants, including key agricultural crops, enabling us to have sufficient food to eat. Additionally, they produce several products highly beneficial to human health, including bee pollen, royal jelly, propolis, beeswax, and of course, honey.
Humans have relied on honey since ancient times. There is evidence of humans using bee products for at least 8,500 years, reaching all the way back to the Stone Ages. Scientists found traces of beeswax in pottery in several sites all across Europe from the Neolithic era. It is highly likely these ancient humans also consumed honey, although it is hard to detect sugar molecules from such a long time ago, so the scientists were unable to make the same conclusions that they have with the beeswax. Yet, archaeologists have found perfectly preserved 3,000-year-old honey in the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, illustrating the Egyptians enjoyed honey.
Many ancient cultures used honey for medicinal purposes, thanks to its perfect mixture of anti-bacterial and antioxidant properties. An ancient Egyptian medical manual mentioned using honey as a wound-healing agent sometime between 2600 and 2200 BCE, and Hippocrates, the famous father of modern medicine, also highly recommended the use of honey for healing wounds.
Modern research supports the medicinal use of honey, showing how smart our ancient ancestors were in selecting this sweet treat to also treat injuries and illness.
Honey Fights Bacteria and Other Pathogens
Honey’s antibacterial properties provide many of its health benefits. There are a few key characteristics behind the antibacterial benefits: specific enzymes, products of reactions, influence on the immune system, antioxidants, moisture, pH, color, total sugars, minerals, vitamins, and more.
Basically, honey creates an environment in which bacteria cannot thrive. Honey releases a small amount of hydrogen peroxide, which negatively affects bacteria. It also activates NF-kB, a nuclear transcription factor, and tells neutrophils to go to work. To further its efficacy as an antibacterial agent, honey’s flavonoids act as antioxidants to prevent further damage. Honey also does not have much water, which stops the growth of bacteria. The sugar also attracts water away from the wound, which kills any bacteria already present. To further inhibit any growth, honey has a low pH at 3.2 and 4.5. Honey also stimulates the body’s immune system, including cytokines that activate leucocytes.
Most likely, these properties work together to kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi to fight infection, including drug-resistant strains of bacteria like Clostridium difficile. Depending on the floral source, the makeup of honey differs significantly, but all honey has some level of antimicrobial action.
Honey was widely used to treat wounds by our ancient ancestors, and it is becoming a popular remedy once again. In a systematic review on the efficacy of honey in wound healing, researchers found that honey demonstrated an antimicrobial effect in many of the studies, and there was also a reduction in the time it takes to heal wounds in several of the studies. Two of the trials reviewing burn treatment also had results that showed a significantly better outcome than silver sulphadiazine, which is the standard care for burns.
The systematic review also found there was a reduction in MRSA infection in diabetic ulcers. The researchers concluded that there was sufficient evidence pointing to the potential for honey’s antimicrobial properties, especially in treating burns, and its ability to speed wound healing.
Honey has the potential to help the skin with more than just healing wounds. It has been found to help rejuvenate skin and hydrate it, one reason it is also found in many skin care products.
Having a cough can be frustrating, especially when it goes on for a long period of time. Finding the right treatment, particularly for children, is frustrating. Some studies have pointed to the ineffectiveness of over-the-counter cough medicine for acute coughs, making many people wonder what to do. One solution is honey.
Several trials have found benefit in treating coughs with honey, including in children. A Cochrane Review, one of the most well-respected publishers of systematic reviews, demonstrated that honey was better than no treatment, a placebo, and diphenhydramine to relieve coughs. However, it was not better than dextromethorphan, and there was no significant difference in the length of the cough. Ultimately, the researchers determined that none of the evidence was strong enough to determine conclusively whether or not honey was effective. Please note that it has been advised not to give honey to infants (children one year old or younger) due to the potential for their immature immune system to react to potential toxins like Clostridium botulinum that may be contained in the honey itself.
An open, randomized study found that taking a milk and honey mixture was at least as effective as medication, including dextromethorphan and levodropropizine, the most common over-the-counter treatments in the region of the study, Italy. The study looked at 134 children who had an acute cough with no specific cause. They ingested a mixture that included 90 ml (3 ounces) of milk and 10 ml (two teaspoons) of honey over three consecutive nights. Another group took medication in the regularly prescribed amount. The researchers assessed whether there was at least a 50 percent decrease in the score on a cough questionnaire. They achieved this in 80 percent in the honey and milk group and 87 percent in the medication group, a fairly similar outcome.
Since honey comes from the nectar of plants, there is a hypothesis that consuming local honey can help mitigate allergies caused by pollen. How valid is this hypothesis? Well, according to the literature, there might be something to it.
One randomized placebo-controlled trial found that consuming a very large dose in addition to traditional allergy medicine (10 mg of loratadine) over a period of four weeks showed a significant improvement in allergic rhinitis symptoms. This study used 1 gram per kilogram of body weight of honey per day, which is a very high amount. For a 165-pound person, this would amount to approximately 75 grams of honey, which would equate to a 2/3 cup. The participants did consume the honey throughout the day, rather than in one large dose. Not only did the treated group see a much more significant improvement after 8 weeks than the control group, it also lasted for a month after they completed the trial.
Another study confirmed the promise of using honey to help with allergies. This study looked specifically at using birch pollen honey to help with allergies caused by birch pollen. In this study, participants used birch pollen honey or regular honey in addition to their medication. They were to start with less than one gram and then increase it to a maximum of 8 grams, which is one teaspoon over a five-month period preceding allergy season. Those who consumed the birch pollen honey had a 60 percent lower total symptom score and two times the number of asymptomatic days as the control group. What’s more, they had 70 percent fewer days where they suffered severe symptoms and they needed 50 percent fewer antihistamines. There was no significant difference between the two honey groups, although the birch pollen honey group did require fewer antihistamines. This study showed benefit despite using a smaller quantity of honey per day. One key difference here is that the participants consumed the honey for a few months prior to allergy season, which primed their immune system.
These studies demonstrate that consuming honey might just help alleviate season allergies, although it is not necessary to focus on consuming local honey. It is also beneficial to consume the honey for months prior to allergy season and/or consuming higher quantities. It might not replace allergy medicine, but it can dampen symptoms and reduce the frequency of needing it.
Honey does not just have a place as a wound healer for ulcers attributed to diabetes; it also might help manage blood sugar levels and associated problems. In those with type 1 diabetes, which is an autoimmune disorder in which the pancreas no longer produces insulin, consuming honey might help reduce fasting blood sugar, cholesterol levels, triglycerides, and low-density lipoprotein, and increases in C-peptide, which correlates to insulin release. The participants were between 4 and 18 and consumed 0.5 mL per kilogram of body weight every day. For our same 165-pound person, that would be 2.5 tablespoons.
Honey consumption might also be beneficial for those with type 2 diabetes. Some of the benefits of honey are due to its antioxidant properties, which might provide some protection even in states of high blood sugar. In type 2 diabetes, some of the damage to the pancreas, which limits insulin productions to counter high blood sugar, is due to oxidative stress. In one study, pancreatic cells from hamsters were treated with a particular type of honey from Malaysia called Gelam honey. The cells were treated with the honey extract and some additional flavonoids components, including chrysin, luteolin, and quercetin. Then, they were stimulated by glucose. The cells pretreated with the honey had a reduction in the oxidative stress markers, including ROS production and lipid peroxidation. There was also an increase in insulin production.
Studies have also found that honey might help some common diabetic medications fight oxidative stress, including metformin and glibenclamide. In a study reviewing markers of oxidative stress, consuming honey along with the medication significantly increased the markers of antioxidant capacity. These antioxidant properties might also help with other diseases attributed to oxidative stress, including problems in the gut.
Another study found that consuming honey for eight weeks led to a reduction in body weight, total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. It also increased HDL, the healthier cholesterol. These are many of the markers that are reviewed to determine the risk of developing diabetes complications. However, this study also found a significant increase in the HbA1C, which monitors blood sugar over a period of time. Therefore, the researchers advised caution when consuming honey.
Choosing the Right Honey
Most of the studies on honey look at pure samples of medical-grade or Manuka honey. That does not mean the honey you buy in the supermarket does not have some of these beneficial properties. If you consume it on a regular basis, you might find you have some protection from allergies, infection, and oxidative stress.
However, if your main purpose for consuming honey is to use it medicinally, especially on open wounds, you will probably want to choose medical-grade honey, as this is the type used in the scientific studies. It has a greater antibacterial effect than table honey, and there is less risk of contamination by potential pathogenic bacteria. What makes honey “medical grade” is that it has been sanitized using gamma irradiation and other processes to ensure it does not have any potential contaminants. The main medical-grade honey available in the U.S. is Manuka honey. There are several brands that offer products to consume or to put on the skin, which are available in a variety of health-food stores and pharmacies.
There are many ways to enjoy honey and reap the benefits. You can apply to your skin for dermatological problems or wound healing. Depending on your health needs and what your healthcare practitioner recommends, you can also ingest it alone or in tea to give your immune system a boost.