Honey has a long and illustrious history as a remedy. From the Ancient Egyptians – highly skilled beekeepers – to indigenous Australians, it has been used to treat a variety of diseases. Aristotle recommended the use of honey to treat particular ailments based precisely on the honey’s district and season of origin. Moreover, he observed that pale honey is “good as a salve for sore eyes and wounds”. While most people acknowledge the benefits of a brew of honey and lemon to ease a sore throat, we don’t normally associate honey’s curative powers with wounds, burns and skin ulcers. What factors account for honey’s incredible anti-bacterial properties?
Recent studies have shown that there are a number of factors that account for honey’s antibacterial efficacy. Honey has a very high sugar content which is bad news for micro-organisms but good news for wound healing. Microbes, like all living things, need moisture to grow and proliferate. The sugar molecules in honey bind to any water molecules therein, creating a hostile environment for microbial growth. Honey draws pus and dead tissue from wounds by osmosis while simultaneously stimulating tissue growth and deodorising wounds. Discomfort is further diminished by honey’s anti-inflammatory properties which reduce swelling; dressings can be changed with ease as the protective barrier between the wound and bandage protects loss of newly grown tissue.
Honey’s high acidity – ranging from a pH of 3.2 to 4.5 – is another element responsible for its antibacterial prowess. The acidic environment is tantamount to a desert that most pathogens find intolerable. Acidification generates oxygenation, fostering growth of tissue and increasing circulation. In addition, honey contains an impressive range of vitamins – A, B, C, D, E and K – minerals, flavonoids and amino acids, which further facilitate and support the healing process.
Honey’s antibacterial efficacy is primarily due to the production of hydrogen peroxide. Though most of us associate bleach with a trip to the coiffure, hydrogen peroxide is a known antibacterial agent. But how do you get hydrogen peroxide from honey? The bees have an enzyme in their saliva – glucose oxidase – which they add to the nectar to produce honey. When water is added to honey, the enzyme reacts with the glucose present, producing hydrogen peroxide. While hydrogen peroxide is an inflammatory substance, the amounts generated in honey are too small to cause tissue damage – 1,000 times lower than that traditionally applied to wounds. As Shona Blair from the Department of Microbiology, University of Sydney, observes, “this property accounts for most of the reported antibacterial activity of honeys from around the world”.
Most people accept that a honey and lemon “hot toddy” will ease a sore throat. Advertisements espousing the medicinal value of honey abound: “honey … to soothe the throat”. However, honey has significant applications that take it beyond the realm of a “sniffle and bark”. But not all honeys are the same.
Research has yielded the scientific discovery that a most potent form of antibacterial honey – Australian jelly-bush and New Zealand manuka – retains its remarkable properties despite the elimination of the aforesaid factors. Scientists found that the antibacterial activity of some honeys was preserved despite being subjected to heat and light; nullifying hydrogen peroxide by adding the enzyme catalase (found in human tissue); neutralizing the low pH of honey; and eliminating sugars.
The puzzle of this “mystery factor”, as yet unsolved, is the “Holy Grail” of medicinal honey research. Dr. Peter Molan, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Director of the Honey Research Unit at the University of Waikato, is a leading world expert on the healing properties of honey. Dr. Molan has termed this mystery manuka ingredient an “active phytochemical agent”. Research suggests that a plant component may be responsible. Both Australian jelly-bush and New Zealand manuka honey are derived from the Leptospermum species – the tea tree. But for Dr. Molan and his team, the search continues. “We have not completely purified the active component of manuka honey, and until we do we cannot work out its chemical structure. What is special is that it is a very broad spectrum antimicrobial agent that is able to penetrate body tissues”, says Molan.
Pioneering work is being undertaken at the Honey Research Unit at the University of Waikato in collaboration with the University of Wales Institute. Laboratory research is yielding impressive results particularly with regard to honey’s therapeutic applications for wounds, ulcers and burns. Moreover, bacterium including Staphylococcus aureus (the multi-resistant strain is the hospital super-bug MRSA), E. coli, Salmonella, Helicobacter and other antibiotic resistant microbes are rendered innocuous. A teenage boy suffering from bacterial meningitis had both legs and fingertips amputated in a desperate attempt to thwart the effects of septicemia; blood poisoning. Following nine months of numerous skin grafts and infected lesions, his nurse contacted the University of Wales Institute where experiments using honey in wound management were underway. The bacterial infections were nullified, inflammation and hence pain were reduced and new tissue growth became a reality. “The honey healed my legs enough to start wearing artificial limbs”, said the young man.
Although honey has a long and fruitful history of medicinal use, it remains somewhat on the periphery of orthodox medical practice. However, clinical trials, research and published case studies are consolidating honey’s claims and its position as a powerful, complementary ally to mainstream medicine. “It is generally accepted that honey is a respectable therapeutic agent, and there is a rapidly increasing use by clinicians, as well as the general public,” says Dr. Molan. So how do consumers choose the appropriate type for therapeutic purposes? What is the difference between commercially available and cold-pressed? What does “UMF” denote in terms of antibacterial potency?
Most commercially available honeys, occupying store shelves, are pasteurised. These honeys are heat treated to destroy any possible spores which can cause botulism. However, the antibacterial activity is also eliminated as the enzyme that produces hydrogen peroxide is destroyed. Cold-pressed and raw honeys retain their antibacterial potency as they are not subjected to heat or light. Australian jelly-bush and New Zealand manuka are widely available and can be used for a variety of ailments including eczema, cracked nipples, diarrhoea and sore throats. As Shona Blair asserts, “use any raw honey, best bought from a health food shop in a drum as some commercial honeys are heated to make them easier to pour, and sunlight affects honey’s anti-bacterial properties”.
The designation – “UMF” – represents the “Unique Manuka Factor” of a particular honey and was devised by Dr. Peter Molan as a testing method to gauge the potency of a honey’s antibacterial activity. Honeys that carry the “UMF” logo are assigned a number which allows consumers to determine its antibacterial strength. This numbering system is based upon a standard laboratory test of antibacterial activity in the antiseptic, phenol. Dr. Molan explains: “New Zealand manuka honey is sold with the activity of its phytochemical antibacterial component rated on a “UMF” scale, with the “UMF” number being the equivalent concentration of phenol with the same antibacterial activity against Staphylococcus aureus (i.e. UMF 15 = 15% phenol)”.
Consumers should look for honey with a minimum UMF rating of 10 for best results.
Honey has myriad therapeutic applications ranging from minor to chronic conditions; acne to burns. Medical professionals advocate the former but caution against the latter. Whilst honey can be effectively utilised for minor ailments, chronic conditions require medical diagnosis and supervision. Indeed, Dr. Molan qualifies this fundamental distinction, endorsing self-care “straight off for minor problems and for first aid, and for any condition not responding to professional therapy, where possible, continuing the professional therapy as well as using honey”.
Honey has been successfully utilised across a range of medical contexts. It has been effectively used in the management of wounds and burns including infected caesarian sections; persistent diabetic ulcers and gangrenous tissue. Multi-strain, antibiotic resistant pathogens have met their match in a jar of amber fluid. In a clinical study Shona Blair discovered that a solution containing only 6% jelly-bush honey destroyed Golden Staph specimens collected from a Sydney hospital. Further, honey’s antibacterial efficacy has led to clinical research into wound management in veterinarian medicine and animal health.
Contraindications for babies, diabetics and the possibility of allergic reaction must be acknowledged. Nevertheless, infants are advised not to consume honey due to the risk of botulism from spores. Commercial honey is now available whereby spores are destroyed by steam sterilisation or gamma-irradiation, preserving honey’s antibacterial activity. Diabetics need to take into account the sugar content of honey, which is about 30% glucose. As Dr. Molan notes, “allergic reactions to anything are always a possibility, but allergy to honey is rare. Diabetics should monitor their blood glucose levels to ensure that the glucose in honey is not being absorbed and causing an increase”.
Adverse reactions to honey have been attributed to pollen or bee proteins therein. Honey manufactured specifically for wound care is carefully processed through fine filters, removing any residual pollen. In over 500 published cases of honey’s clinical application in wound healing, no adverse reactions were reported other than a mild stinging sensation, ascribed to honey’s acidity.
Fortunately for consumers, Australia is home to a wide range of “UMF” approved honey and honey products. “Capilano”, in conjunction with Dr. Molan and the Honey Research team, produced the “Medihoney” range of products for oral health and wound care plus a specific formulation for eczema and dermatitis. “Medihoney” is the first food to be registered in Australia by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), an unprecedented instance of such worldwide. “Comvita” also stock an extensive range of “UMF” approved honey products including Woundcare 18+, Active 10+ Manuka Honey, Herbal Cough Elixir, Children’s Natural Cough Elixir – even Children’s Natural Lollipops.
The sticky business of applying honey to wounds led Dr. Molan and the University of Waikato to patent a rubbery dressing for this very purpose. Though not currently available in Australia, sterilised dressings impregnated with active manuka honey are available by mail order.
So how do you apply honey to minor cuts, scrapes and burns effectively? The trick is to place the honey on the band-aid or dressing prior to applying to the wound. You may need a secondary dressing as the honey, normally viscous, turns decidedly runny at body temperature. Shona Blair suggests changing dressings “as necessary: about once or twice a day”. For chronic conditions including persistent ulcers, abscesses and infected wounds, do not hesitate to seek medical advice. The beauty of honey is that it can be used synergistically while undergoing orthodox treatment.
The future of this fascinating field of scientific enquiry is bright. Dr. Rose Cooper of the University of Wales Institute hopes that honey inhalers will be a reality in the foreseeable future. In clinical tests, Dr. Cooper used honey to eradicate an antibiotic resistant bacterium that attacks the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients. Moreover, honey inhalers have already been used to treat chronic bronchitis in Eastern Europe. Currently, Dr. Molan is trialling a honey nasal spray for the treatment of sinusitis, “with good results”.
Honey is experiencing a welcome renaissance in the face of escalating numbers of antibiotic-resistant microbes. Honey is not only an alternative remedy, relegated to the periphery of mainstream medicine, but a useful adjunct to orthodox treatment. In 1989, the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine asserted that “the therapeutic potential of uncontaminated, pure honey is grossly underutilized … the time has now come for conventional medicine to lift the blinds off this ‘traditional remedy’ and give it its due recognition”.
Whether it’s for yourself, your partner, kids or even the family pet, sweet healing is but a teaspoon away. The amazing properties of honey – antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant – make it the bee’s knees of complementary medicine. So next time you’re dipping into a pot of the sweet stuff, remember, that silly old bear wasn’t so silly after all.
Share this post