Sweet Treats: The Medicinal Benefits of Honey

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WholeFoods Magazine Staff
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Did you know that honey has been used for thousands of years for its nutritional and medicinal properties? Apiculture, the practice of beekeeping, dates back to 700 B.C., proving that honey was an established confectionary way before refined sugar came onto the scene. Honey was a prized and expensive commodity for its sweetness and rarity. Today, cute bear-shaped honey bottles contain a versatile product with confectionary, nutritious and medicinal uses.

Reading Labels, Learning Names

First, as with any product, reading labels is key when buying honey. Some honeys found in traditional stores contain additives such as water or refined sugars. These products are not considered “pure honeys,” although some people prefer them as sweeteners.

Your natural products store likely sells pure, organic and raw honeys. Raw honey refers to honey as it appears in the hive from which the honey is collected. This unpasteurized honey contains phytonutrients beneficial for human health.

Honeys also vary greatly in terms of flavor. Typically, darker honeys have richer flavors and the particular flower the bees pollinate affects the flavor of a honey. For example, some specialty honeys include thyme and lavender. Be sure to check with your natural products retailer for information regarding the best honey for your particular needs. With so many varieties, you have decisions to make about which type of honey works best for you!

Sweet Treatments

Anti-bacterial benefits. One way to use raw honey is as a topical ointment for skin wounds, burns and cuts (with your healthcare provider’s approval). Raw honey has antibacterial properties that work in a few ways. First, the glucose and fructose absorb excess water from wounds, which thwarts bacteria reproduction. This may benefit wound healing. Second, raw honey contains the enzyme glucose oxidase that reacts with water to produce the antiseptic hydrogen peroxide.

In addition to the medicinal effects of honey’s sugars, bees contribute to honey a protein called defensin-1, which is present in the bees’ immune systems (1). Another study also found that manuka honey, a honey derived by the manuka bush native to New Zealand, broke down essential developmental proteins in antibiotic-resistant MRSA (2). Scientists are now linking honey’s anti-bacterial properties to these newly discovered protein activities.

Cough suppressant. Research shows that honey helps nocturnal coughing in children with upper respiratory infections (3). Ian M. Paul, licensed pediatrician and researcher who worked on the study, explains four reasons that honey works to suppress coughing (4). First, honey’s thick consistency coats and relieves irritated cough receptors. Also, its sugars cause salivation upon consumption, which can help clear out mucous in the upper airway. Third, honey is rich in antioxidants, which help to fight the infection causing the symptoms, and, finally, honey has a very low water content, which may inhibit the growth of microorganisms. Paul recommends, “Any person with cough and cold symptoms over the age of one year could try using honey for symptomatic relief” (4).

Antioxidants. Research has long indicated that darker honeys are rich in antioxidants, which may help prevent free raadical damage. One study found that the amount of antioxidants in buckwheat honey (a dark honey) was 20 times greater than that found in sage honey. The most commonly purchased flavor of honey is clover honey, and this flavor ranked mid-range in terms of antioxidant content (5). Antioxidants are also great for supporting a healthy immune system, and as a sugar alternative for those looking to avoid spikes in blood sugar.

Bee Byproducts

The benefits of honey don’t only come in the jarred form. Propolis is a resinous substance collected from tree buds or sap that bees use to seal off their hives. Propolis has been found to have antimicrobial properties (6) and anti-inflammatory properties through immune system modulation (7). So, bee propolis is found in everything from natural toothpastes to herbal supplements (capsules and tinctures) for its antimicrobial benefits.

Royal jelly is a byproduct of the honey bee itself. It has been found to provide cognitive benefits at the cellular level, stimulating neural stem and glial cells in the brain (8). Some evidence suggests it may help lower cholesterol, heal wounds and have anti-inflammatory and antibiotic effects (9). It has been demonstrated to increase fertility in men and women, and is included in some cosmetics (10). Royal jelly may cause serious allergic reactions in certain people, so make sure it is safe for you before you try it. WF

References

1. “Honey as an Antibiotic: Scientists Identify a Secret Ingredient in Honey That Kills Bacteria,” July 12, 2010, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100630111037. htm, accessed Sept. 24, 2010.

2. “How Manuka Honey Helps Fight Infection,” Sept. 10, 2009, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090907013759.htm, accessed September 24, 2010.

3. I.M. Paul, et al., “Effect of Honey, Dextromethorphan, and No Treatment on Nocturnal Cough and Sleep Quality for Coughing Children and Their Parents,” Arch. Pediatr. Adolesc. Med. 161 (12), 1140-6 (2007).

4. “Cough (nocturnal), Sleep, Children and Honey,” Interview with Ian M. Paul, M.D., M.Sc., www.vitasearch.com/CP/experts/IMPaulAT01-07-08.pdf, accessed Sept. 24, 2010.

5. “Dark Honey Has More Illness-Fighting Agents Than Light Honey,” Jul. 8, 1998, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1998/07/980708085352.htm, accessed Sept. 24, 2010.

6. R.O. Orsi, et al., “Susceptibility Profile of Salmonella against the Antibacterial Activity of Propolis Produced in Two Regions of Brazil,” J. Venom Animals Toxins incl Trop. Dis. 11(2), 109-116 (2005).

7. S. Ansorge, et al., “Propolis and Some of its Constituents Down-Regulate DNA Synthesis and Inflammatory Cytokine Production but Induce TGF-beta1 Production of Human Immune Cells,” Z Naturforsch C. 58 (7-8), 580-589 (2003).

8. N Hattori, et al., “Royal Jelly and its Unique Fatty Acid, 10-hydroxy-trans-2-decenoic Acid, Promote Neurogenesis by Neural Stem/Progenitor Cells In Vitro,” Biomed Res. 28 (5), 261-266 (2007).

9. CL Orsatti, et al., “Propolis Immunomodulatory Action In Vivo on Toll-like Receptors 2 and 4 Expression and on Pro-Inflammatory Cytokines Production in mice,” Phytother. Res. 24(8), 1141-1146 (2010).

10. Ali AFM, Awadallah A, “Bee Propolis versus Placebo in the Treatment of Infertility Associated with Minimal or Mild Endometriosis: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial,” Fertil. Steril. 80 (Suppl 3), S32 (2003).

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, November 2010