Humans have been using honey as both food and medicine for at least 9,000 years, which makes honey one of the oldest foods known. And though you’ll find references to the use of honey as medicine as far back as the ancient Sumerian civilization, it’s only been in recent years that the term medicinal honey has been tossed about. But what is medicinal honey, and is it the same as regular honey? Let’s find out.
Raw Honey: Nature’s Super Sugar
Did you know that honey that’s been properly stored has an almost infinite shelf life? Well, believe it or not, a recent archaeological excavation of an Egyptian tomb unearthed perfectly preserved—and perfectly edible—jars of 3,000-year-old honey!
What is it about honey that makes this sticky goodness such a wonder of nature? It all boils down to three properties:
- Lack of water
- Hydrogen peroxide
Honey is basically a type of sugar, and its high sugar content means it also contains very little water. And bacteria need water to survive. In addition, honey has a pH of between 3 and 4.5, which is extremely acidic, so anything that comes in contact with it tends to die.
Finally, honey contains hydrogen peroxide, which is a natural antiseptic. Hydrogen peroxide and another substance called gluconic acid are formed as byproducts of an enzyme called glucose oxidase, which mixes with nectar when honeybees regurgitate (yes, honey is actually bee vomit).
The Lowdown on Medicinal Honey
Although humans have been using raw honey—that is, honey that hasn’t been pasteurized, filtered, or otherwise altered—for thousands of years as a wound dressing and treatment for infections, medicinal honey is a label that’s only recently been given to certain types of honey that have been found to possess significant antimicrobial properties.
This so-called medical grade honey is different from the type of honey most people buy at the grocery store, in that it’s been refined through a process of gamma irradiation and filtration to ensure no potentially harmful contaminants—like botulism spores—remain.
Medical grade honey is also standardized from batch to batch to ensure similar chemical properties, such as levels of polyphenols. And it contains food-based thickeners that make it taste bad, which means you probably wouldn’t want to drizzle medicinal honey over your morning biscuits.
Because medicinal honey is produced in a lab, most types of honey sold specifically for medical purposes are sold as brand names, common examples of which include Medihoney and TheraHoney.
However, the majority of medicinal honey is created using a specific type of honey called manuka honey.
What Is Manuka Honey?
Manuka honey comes from the flowers of a shrub (Leptospermum scoparium) native to Australia and New Zealand. Manuka flowers bloom only a few weeks each year and contain potent antibacterial properties that give manuka honey its reputed health benefits.
In fact, the beneficial activity of manuka honey has been documented in numerous studies, which have found that manuka does indeed possess properties that set it apart from other types of honey.
The significant reason behind the health benefits of manuka honey is its methylglyoxal (MGO) content, which is responsible for much of its antibacterial activity. The amount of MGO in manuka honey is up to 100 times more concentrated than that found in conventional honey, which is why manuka honey is used in the creation of most brands of medical grade honey.
The amount of MGO present in manuka honey is indicated by its unique manuka factor, or UMF rating. This rating scale, which is included by manufacturers on the label of every container of manuka honey sold, indicates the level of MGO as well as its precursor, dihydroxyacetone (DHA).
In addition, while the antimicrobial activity of most types of honey is related to hydrogen peroxide, manuka honey is considered a non-peroxide honey because its antibacterial effects continue even when hydrogen peroxide activity is blocked.
The Benefits and Uses of Medicinal Honey
One of the things that makes medicinal honey so beneficial is not only its antimicrobial activity but also its ability to aid wound healing by maintaining a moist wound environment and providing a barrier against potential contaminants.
Moreover, medical grade honey has been found to be effective in eradicating a number of strains of resistant bacteria, which makes medicinal honey a potentially very useful ally against the growing scourge of antibiotic resistance.
A study in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that medical grade honey was effective in killing a range of bacteria on the skin, including resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus), Pseudomonas aeruginosa (P. aeruginosa), and Escherichia coli (E. coli)—results that indicate honey could be an effective treatment for wound infections.
In addition, a more recent study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection found that medicinal honey was just as effective as the antibiotic mupirocin in eradicating nasal colonization of methicillin-resistant staph (MRSA)—a significant finding in light of increasing bacterial resistance to mupirocin.
But the medicinal properties of honey encompass more than just its antibacterial effects, as honey possesses strong antioxidant properties that make it effective in preventing and treating inflammation and diseases related to inflammation, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Many of these healing properties can be attributed to honey’s high levels of polyphenols, including:
- Quercetin: This flavonoid antioxidant not only blocks histamine, helping to reduce allergy symptoms and inflammation, but it’s also widely recognized for its ability to inhibit various types of cancer. What’s more, quercetin has been found to increase the effectiveness of traditional cancer therapy.
- Acacetin: This flavonoid acts as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticarcinogen, and neuroprotectant. Acacetin has been found to suppress the proliferation of cancer cells and induce cell death, and it also helps reduce the buildup of proteins associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Kaempferol: This flavonoid has been found in studies to possess a number of health benefits. It acts as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antidiabetic, and anxiolytic and protects against cancer as well as damage to the heart and brain.
- Galangin: This flavonoid is a polyphenol found in both honey and propolis and has been shown to have antimicrobial properties and protect against DNA damage, cancer, and elevated blood sugar and cholesterol.
Whether it’s killing antibiotic-resistant bacteria or preventing DNA damage due to free radicals, the many medicinal properties of honey make it effective for treating a range of conditions, from skin infections, burns, and chronic wounds to allergies, sore throats, and coughs.
So the next time you have a tickle in your throat or just crave a healthier alternative to sugar, don’t look any further than pure, unadulterated raw honey. But if it’s wound care you’re after, be sure to speak with your health care provider about medicinal honey. Because the fight against superbugs is real, and medical grade honey might just save you from an unhealthy encounter with antibiotic resistance.