Honey: Health Benefits and Uses In Medicine
Honey is a sweet liquid made by bees using nectar from flowers. Bees first convert the nectar into honey by a process of regurgitation and evaporation, then store it as a primary food source in wax honeycombs inside the beehive. Honey can then be harvested from the hives for human consumption.
Honey is graded by color, with the clear, golden amber honey often at a higher retail price than darker varieties. Honey flavor will vary based on the types of flower from which the nectar was harvested.
Both raw and pasteurized forms of honey are available. Raw honey is removed from the hive and bottled directly, and as such will contain trace amounts of yeast, wax and pollen. Consuming local raw honey is believed to help with seasonal allergies due to repeated exposure to the pollen in the area. Pasteurized honey has been heated and processed to remove impurities.
This MNT Knowledge Center article includes a brief history of honey in traditional medicine and explains some of its potential health benefits.
The possible health benefits of consuming honey have been documented in early Greek, Roman, Vedic, and Islamic texts and the healing qualities of honey were referred to by philosophers and scientists all the way back to ancient times, such as Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) and Aristoxenus (320 BC).
Honey has high levels of monosaccharides, fructose and glucose, containing about 70 to 80 percent sugar, which gives it its sweet taste – minerals and water make up the rest of its composition.
Honey also possesses antiseptic and antibacterial properties. In modern science, we have managed to find useful applications of honey in chronic wound management.
However, it should be noted that many of honey’s health claims still require further rigorous scientific studies to confirm them.
The possible health benefits of honey
Modern science is finding that many of the historical claims that honey can be used in medicine may indeed be true. In the Bible (Old Testament), King Solomon said, “My son, eat thou honey, for it is good”, and there are a number of reasons why it may be good.
1) Acid reflux
Professor Mahantayya V Math, from MGM Medical College, Kamothe, Navi Mumbai, India, explained in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) that, as it is 125.9 more viscous than distilled water at 37 celsius (body temperature), honey may be helpful in preventing GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux).3
2) Infantile gastroenteritis
E. Haffejee and A. Moosa reported in the BMJ on a clinical study in which they used honey in oral rehydration solution in children and infants with gastroenteritis. Their aim was twofold:
Determine whether honey might affect the duration of acute diarrhea
Evaluate honey as a glucose substitute in oral rehydration
They found that honey shortens the duration of bacterial diarrhea in infants and young children.4 They added that honey does not prolong non-bacterial diarrhea duration, and “may safely be used as a substitute for glucose in oral rehydration solution containing electrolytes.”
3) Healing wounds and burns
There have been some cases in which people have reported positive effects of using honey in treating wounds. Hurlburt, a borderline diabetic, with recurring cellulitis and staph infections tried taking antibiotics for months. However, they failed to alleviate the symptoms. Hulburt’s physician, Jennifer Eddy of UW Health’s Eau Claire Family Medicine Clinic, suggested that she should try topically applying honey. Soon after applying the honey, she began to feel better.
Hulburt said that she remembered thinking “holy mackerel-what a difference. It’s a lot better than having to put oral antibiotics into your system.”
A review published in The Cochrane Library indicated that honey may be able to help heal burns, the lead author of the study said that “topical honey is cheaper than other interventions, notably oral antibiotics, which are often used and may have other deleterious side effects.”
However, it should be stressed that there is a lack of evidence to fully support this claim. In fact, a study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases concluded that applying medical grade honey to wounds of patients has no advantage over normal antibiotic among patients undergoing dialysis.
4) Honey for treating allergies
There is some research to suggest that honey may be useful in minimizing seasonal allergies. The Guardian reported that honey even ‘beats cough medicine’ at alleviating and reducing the frequency of cough.
One placebo-controlled study which included 36 people with ocular allergies, found that participants responded better to treatment with honey compared to placebo. However, a third of them reported that eating a tablespoon of honey every day was hard to tolerate due to its overly sweet taste.
5) Fighting infections
In 2010, scientists from the Academic Medical Center at the University of Amsterdam reported in FASEB Journal that honey’s ability to kill bacteria lies in a protein called defensin-1. 5
A study published in the journal Microbiology revealed that Manuka honey is effective at treating chronic wound infections and may even prevent them from developing in the first place.
Dr. Rowena Jenkins and colleagues, from the University of Wales Institute, reported that Manuka honey kills bacteria by destroying key bacterial proteins.
Some studies have revealed that a certain type of honey, called “Manuka honey,” may even be effective for the treatment of MRSA infections.
Dr Jenkins concluded:
“Manuka and other honeys have been known to have wound healing and anti-bacterial properties for some time. But the way in which they act is still not known. If we can discover exactly how Manuka honey inhibits MRSA it could be used more frequently as a first-line treatment for infections with bacteria that are resistant to many currently available antibiotics.”
Manuka honey may even help reverse bacterial resistance to antibiotics, according to research presented at the Society for General Microbiology’s Spring Conference in Harrogate, UK.
A study published in the journal Pediatrics, which compared honey to placebo in helping children with cough during night time, found that honey was superior. The researchers concluded “Parents rated the honey products higher than the silan date extract for symptomatic relief of their children’s nocturnal cough and sleep difficulty due to URI (upper respiratory infection). Honey may be a preferable treatment for cough and sleep difficulty associated with childhood URI.”6
Natural honey better at killing bacteria than artificial honey – Kendall Powell wrote in the journal Nature that “natural honey kills bacteria three times more effectively” than an artificial honey solution of the same thickness and sugar concentration.7
6) Cold relief
The World Health Organization (WHO) and American Academy of Pediatrics recommend honey as a natural cough remedy.
A 2007 study by Penn State College of Medicine suggested that honey reduced nighttime coughing and improved sleep quality in children with upper respiratory infection better than the cough medicine dextromethorphan or no treatment.8
Honey’s other possible uses in medicine
New research is always finding new possible uses of honey in treating certain conditions and diseases. One study found that Manuka honey may prevent radiation-induced dermatitis in breast cancer patients.
The history of honey
Over four thousand years ago, honey was used as a traditional ayurvedic medicine, where it was thought to be effective at treating material imbalances in the body.
In pre-Ancient Egyptian times, honey was used topically to treat wounds.1.
Egyptian medicinal compounds more than five millennia ago used honey.
The ancient Greeks believed that consuming honey could help you live longer.
Even the Prophet Mohammed glorified the healing powers of honey.
The Quran also praises honey’s healing ability:
“And thy Lord taught the Bee to build its cells in hills, on trees, and in (men’s) habitations; Then to eat of all the produce (of the earth), and find with skill the spacious paths of its Lord: there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colors, wherein is healing for men: verily in this is a Sign for those who give thought.”
The beneficial properties of honey have been explored in modern times, and there is evidence to suggest that these historical claims may hold some truth.
Properties of honey
According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Nutrient Database, one tablespoon of honey (approximately 21 grams) contains 64 calories, 17.3 grams of carbohydrate (17.3 grams of sugar no fiber), 0 grams of fat and 0 grams of protein.9
Choosing honey over sugar results in a more gradual rise in blood sugar levels that is believed to help with hunger levels. Honey is also known to have antioxidant, antimicrobial and soothing effects.8
Honey is made up of glucose, fructose, and minerals such as iron, calcium, phosphate, sodium chlorine, potassium, magnesium.
Below is a typical honey profile, according to BeeSource:2
Higher sugars: 1.5%
The slightly acidic pH level of honey (between 3.2 and 4.5) is what helps prevent the growth of bacteria, while its antioxidant constituents cleans up free radicals. The physical properties of honey vary depending on the specific flora that was used to produce it, as well as its water content.
How to incorporate more honey into your diet
Experimentation is key when substituting honey for sugar. Baking with honey can cause excess browning and moisture. As a general rule, use ¾ cup of honey for every one cup of sugar, reduce the liquid in the recipe by 2 tablespoons and lower the oven temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
Use honey to sweeten your dressings or marinades
Stir honey into coffee or tea
Drizzle honey on top of toast or pancakes
Mix honey into yogurt, cereal, or oatmeal for a more natural sweetener
Spread raw honey over whole grain toast and top with peanut butter.
Potential health risks of consuming honey
It is the total diet or overall eating pattern that is most important in disease prevention and achieving good health. It is better to eat a diet with variety than to concentrate on individual foods as the key to good health.
Honey is still a form of sugar and intake should be moderate. The American Heart Association recommends that women get no more than 100 calories a day from added sugars; men no more than 150 calories a day. This is a little over two tablespoons for women and three tablespoons for men.
Honey may contain botulinum endospores that cause infant botulism, a rare but serious type of food poisoning that can result in paralysis. Even pasteurized honey has a chance of containing these spores. For this reason, it is recommended that infants under 1 year do not consume honey.