James Odell, OMD, ND, L.Ac. with Addendum by Dr. Colin I. H. Perry
Humans have gathered honey for thousands of years. Rock art in Spain from 6000 B.C. shows people harvesting honey. Beeswax from around 8000 B.C. was found in cooking pots in Turkey. By 2400 B.C., the Egyptians were skilled beekeepers. When early people cleared forests into pastures, they created bee-friendly habitats where flowers and bushes grew. As farmers moved into new areas, honeybees followed. Honey is both a food and a medicine. This article describes only a few of the many miraculous qualities of honey
Chemical Properties and Composition of Honey
Honey is the sweet, viscous substance elaborated by the honeybee from the nectar of plants. This simple definition excludes honeydew honey, which is produced by the bee from honeydew excreted by various plant-sucking insects. Nectars vary considerably in quality and quantity, depending on the floral source. Similarly, honey varies; some honey is nearly colorless (like water), with a light, pleasing aroma, and some is as dark as crankcase oil, with a heavy-bodied aroma. Honey from most floral sources falls between these extremes. Bees convert nectar to honey by drying it down to a moisture content of 15 to 20 percent and by adding a salivary enzyme that changes sucrose (long-chain sugar) into glucose and fructose (two short-chain sugars). Hence, honey is composed of sugars, mainly fructose and glucose. Honey also contains trace amounts of minerals, enzymes, vitamins, and colloids. Honey is water soluble, may granulate between 10° and 18°C, and is acidic.
The high acidity of honey also plays an important role in the system that prevents bacterial growth. The pH of honey may vary from approximately 3.2 to 4.5 (average pH= 3.9). Honey acids account for less than 0.5 percent of the solids, this level not only contributes to the flavor, but is partly responsible for the excellent stability of honey against microorganisms. Several acids have been found in honey, gluconic acid being the major one. It arises from dextrose through the action of an enzyme called glucose oxidase. Other acids in honey are formic, acetic, butyric, lactic, oxalic, succinic, tartaric, maleic, pyruvic, pyroglutamic, a-ketoglutaric, glycolic, citric, malic, 2- or 3-phosphoglyceric acid, a- or B-glycerophosphate, and glucose 6-phosphate.
The amount of nitrogen in honey is low, 0.04 percent on the average, though it may range to 0.1 percent. Recent work has shown that only 40 to 65 percent of the total nitrogen in honey is in protein, and some nitrogen resides in substances other than proteins, namely the amino acids. Of the 8 to 11 proteins found in various honeys, 4 are common to all, and appear to originate in the bee, rather than the nectar. Little is known of the many proteins in honey, except that the enzymes fall into this class. The presence of proteins causes honey to have a lower surface tension than it would have otherwise, which produces a marked tendency to foam and form fine air bubbles. Beekeepers familiar with buckwheat honey know how readily it tends to foam and produce surface scum, which is largely due to its relatively high protein content.
One of the characteristics that differentiates honey from all other sweetening agents is the presence of enzymes. These conceivably arise from the bee, pollen, nectar, or even yeasts or microorganisms in the honey. Those most prominent are added by the bee during the conversion of nectar to honey. Enzymes are complex protein materials that under mild conditions bring about chemical changes, which may be exceedingly difficult to accomplish in a chemical laboratory without their aid. The changes that enzymes bring about throughout nature are essential to life. Some of the most important honey enzymes are invertase, diastase, and glucose oxidase.
Invertase, also known as sucrase, splits sucrose into its constituent simple sugars, dextrose and levulose. Recently, it was found that other more complex sugars formed in small quantities during this action and partly explained the complexity of the small sugars of honey. Although the work of invertase is completed when honey is ripened, the enzyme remains in the honey and retains its activity for some time. Even so, the sucrose content of honey never reaches zero. Since the enzyme also synthesizes sucrose, perhaps the final low value for the sucrose content of honey represents equilibrium between splitting and forming sucrose
Diastase (amylase) digests starch to simpler compounds, but no starch is found in nectar. What its function is in honey is not clear. Diastase appears to be present in varying amounts in nearly all honey, and it can be measured. It has probably had the greatest attention in the past because it has been used as a measure of honey quality in several European countries
Glucose oxidase converts dextrose to a related material, a gluconolactone, which in turn forms gluconic acid, the principal acid in honey. Since this enzyme was previously shown to be in the pharyngeal gland of the honeybee, this is the most likely source. Here, as with other enzymes, the amount varies in different honeys. In addition to gluconolactone, glucose oxidase forms hydrogen peroxide during its action on dextrose, which has been shown to be the basis of the heat-sensitive antibacterial activity of honey. Other enzymes are reported to be present in honey, including catalase and an acid phosphatase. All the honey enzymes can be destroyed or weakened by heat.
The glycemic index of honey varies from 32 to 85, depending on the botanical source which is lower than sucrose (table sugar - 60 to 110). Fructose-rich honeys such as acacia honey have an exceptionally low glycemic index. The low moisture content of honey is one of its most significant characteristics, as it affects quality, rate of granulation and body. Honey is hygroscopic (absorbs moisture) and will remove moisture from the air if the relative humidity exceeds 60 percent. Care must be taken in the handling and storage of honey to be sure that this does not happen. Hygroscopicity, however, is one of the traits making honey ideal for baking; honey-sweetened products stay moist for longer. The low moisture content of honey also forms an important part of the system that protects honey from attack by microorganisms. Because of the high concentration of solids and low moisture content honey’s hyperosmotic nature inhibits the growth of bacteria and yeasts as it extracts water from the organisms.
Medicinal Properties and Usage of Honey
Honey has had a valued place in traditional medicine for centuries. The prescription for a standard wound salve discovered in the Smith papyrus (an Egyptian text dating from between 2600 and 2200 BC) calls for a mixture of mrht (grease), byt (honey) and ftt (lint/fibre) as transliterated from hieroglyphic symbols. The ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Chinese, Greeks and Romans employed honey for wounds and diseases of the gut. Honey was the most popular Egyptian drug being mentioned in hundreds of and hundreds of remedies.
Antimicrobial Effect in Wound Healing
Honey inhibits the growth of microorganisms and fungi. The antibacterial effect of honey, mostly against gram-positive bacteria, is well documented. Both bacteriostatic and bactericidal effects have been reported for numerous strains, many of them being pathogenic. The antimicrobial effect of honey is due to various substances and depends on the botanical origin of honey. As stated above the low water activity of honey inhibits bacterial growth. Honey glucose oxidase produces the antibacterial agent hydrogen peroxide, but the peroxide production capacity depends also on honey catalase activity. There are also other non-peroxide antibacterial substances with different chemical origin, e.g. aromatic acids, unknown compounds with different chemical properties and phenolics and flavonoids. The low pH of honey can also be responsible for the antibacterial activity.
There is rapidly increasing interest in the use of honey as a wound dressing because of its properties of rapid clearance of infection (including infection with antibiotic-resistant bacteria), rapid debridement of wounds, rapid suppression of inflammation, minimization of scarring and stimulation of angiogenesis and the growth of granulation tissue and epithelium. Early Egyptians were the first to use honey as a component (along with animal fats and vegetable fibers) in the topical treatment of wounds as evidenced from their writings in the Smith papyrus (1650 BC). In the time of Aristotle, it was recommended that honey, collected in specific regions and seasons (and therefore presumably from different floral sources), be used for the treatment of ailments. Although it appears that the honey from certain plants has better antibacterial activity than that from others, little work has been done to measure these variations. Honeydew honey from the conifer forests of the mountainous regions of central Europe has been found to have particularly high antibacterial activity, likewise, honey from Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) in New Zealand has been found to have special antibacterial properties. Studies on the effectiveness against wound-infecting species of bacteria show that Manuka honey is more effective than other honeys for Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus while other honey was superior for the other 5 tested species, including Salmonella, Streptococcus, and Pseudomonas.
Honey Treatment for Wounds and Burns
For centuries honey has been used as an effective remedy for wounds and burns. Honey can be used as a topical antibacterial agent to treat infections in a wide range of wound types. These include:
Diabetic foot ulcers
Infected wound resulting from injury or surgery
Recipe for Honey Wound Dressing
All difficult to heal wounds should be seen by a medical professional. The following are general tips on how honey may be used for wound care. Always seek professional advice before embarking on any new therapy. First, it is important to understand that you cannot go around squeezing regular store-bought honey on every wound or infection encountered. Manuka honey was approved by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration in 2007 as a recommended option for wound treatment.
The amount of honey used depends on the amount of fluid exuding from the wound. Large amounts of exudate require substantial amounts of honey to be applied. The amount of honey needed depends on the amount of fluid exuding from the wound. The benefits of honey on wound tissues will be reduced if honey becomes diluted. Typically, 20 ml of honey is used on a 10 cm X 10 cm dressing. Cover the wound with absorbent secondary dressings to prevent honey oozing out from the dressing. Change the dressings more frequently if the honey is being diluted with secretions. Otherwise change the dressing every day or two.
The frequency of dressing changes depends on how rapidly the honey is being diluted by the exudate. This should become less frequent as the honey starts to work on healing the wound.
Occlusive dressings help to prevent honey oozing out from the wound. It is best to spread the honey on a dressing and apply this to the wound then apply the honey directly onto the wound. Dressing pads pre-impregnated with honey are commercially available and provide an effective and less messy alternative.
Abscesses, cavity, or deep wounds need more honey to adequately penetrate deep into the wound tissues. The wound bed should be filled with honey before applying the honey dressing pad. Ensure that there is an even coverage of the wound surface with honey. Honey can be made fluid by stirring or warming. Cavities may be filled by pouring in fluidized honey, or more conveniently by using honey packed in squeeze-tubes. (Gamma-irradiated manuka honey in tubes is available commercially.) Spread the honey on the dressing pad rather than on the skin lesion. This is much easier to do and causes less discomfort for the patient.
Antimicrobial Effect in Peptic and Duodenal Ulcers
One of the many therapeutic effects of honey (particularly Manuka honey) is its healing effect on peptic and duodenal ulcers. Manuka honey is gathered in New Zealand from the manuka bush, Leptospermum scoparium, which grows uncultivated throughout the country. More recently, due to the systematic screening of Australian honeys, honey with the same properties is produced from Leptospermum polygalifolium, which grows uncultivated in a few parts of Australia. Manuka honey is being used to treat dyspepsia and peptic and duodenal ulcers. Not all manuka honey has this antibacterial activity, hence, Manuka honey is now laboratory tested and rated for its antibacterial effects. ‘Unique manuka factor’ (UMF) is the current rating used to indicate the levels of antibacterial properties. The UMF numbers are derived from the standard laboratory test for antibacterial activity, with honey being compared with a standard antiseptic (phenol) for potency. For example, a honey with a UMF rating of 4 would be equivalent to the antiseptic potency of 4% solution of phenol, a carbolic disinfectant; a honey with a rating of 10 would have potency equivalent to a 10% solution of phenol. In order to address any concerns about the possible risk of infection by using an unprocessed natural product on wounds, honey may be sterilized by gamma irradiation without losing any of its antibacterial activity.
However, the catalase enzyme present in body tissue and serum does not affect the unique manuka factor. This enzyme will break down the hydrogen peroxide to some degree, which is the major antibacterial factor found in other types of honey. If a honey without UMF were used to treat an infection, the potency of the honey's antibacterial activity would most likely be reduced because of the action of catalase. The enzyme that produces hydrogen peroxide in honey is destroyed when honey is exposed to heat and light. But UMF is stable, so there is no concern about manuka honey losing its activity in storage. Also, the enzyme that produces hydrogen peroxide in honey becomes active only when honey is diluted. UMF is active in full strength honey, which will provide a more potent antibacterial action diffusing into the depth of infected tissues. A UMF rating of 10 - 15+ proves effective against H. Pylori and many other pathogenic bacteria.
These are just a few examples of the healing wonders of honey. For more information or how to successfully use honey as a medicinal remedy, speak to your clinician.
An Ayurveda Perspective of Honey by Dr. Colin Perry, ND, Podiatrist
Ayurveda considers that honey is Sattvic in nature and is regarded as the finest sweetener for food. Sattvic foods are foods that are abundant in Prana - the universal life-force that gives life to all sentient beings in both plant and animal kingdoms. They are foods such as fresh organic untainted fruits, vegetables, and honey. Honey is sweet, astringent, and pungent in taste, slightly warm in energy and sweet in post-digestive effect. It takes on the properties of the flowers from which it is made. For instance, sage flower honey will have nerve calming properties. Honey tends to balance the three constitutional Doshas, but in excess it can aggravate Pitta, so like everything else, it should be consumed wisely and not excessively. When it has matured slightly, it is the finest sweetener for a Kapha constitution. Whereas fresh raw honey is better for both Pitta and Vata constitutions. Internally, honey works as a demulcent, emollient, laxative, nutritive and a tonic. It can help discharge phlegm, dissolves fat and nourishes the mind and senses. It is rejuvenating and is considered good for improving immunity. Royal jelly is considered by some to be superior in this regard. Raw honey can be used for convalescents and to build vigor in children. Cooking honey is not at all a wise thing to do. This can denature it, resulting in the loss of its medicinal properties. So please only add honey to lukewarm food after it has been cooked and allowed to cool down slightly. Honey is a good Anupana and mixes well with health giving herbs helping to facilitate their penetration into the deeper tissues of the body allowing them to assist us. Externally, one can apply it to wounds and ulcers to utilize its excellent wound healing properties.
Author of Provings: A collection of Poems
Editorial Note: Ayurvedic medicine (Ayurveda) is one of the world's oldest holistic healing systems. Ayurveda is considered by many scholars to be the oldest healing science. In Sanskrit, Ayurveda means “The Science of Life.” Ayurvedic knowledge originated in India more than 5,000 years ago and is often called the “Mother of All Healing.” It stems from the ancient Vedic culture and was taught for many thousands of years in an oral tradition from accomplished masters to their disciples. Some of this knowledge was set to print a few thousand years ago, but much of it is inaccessible. The principles of many of the natural healing systems (bioregulatory medicine) now familiar in the West have their roots in Ayurveda.
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