How to heal with sweet honey

There is archaeological evidence that humans have been harvesting honey for at least 10,000 years. Honey was treasured by the ancient Egyptians as a medicine and as an ingredient in cosmetics. It was also frequently given as an offering to the gods and was used in the embalming of the pharaohs. A 3300-year-old jar of honey was reportedly discovered by an American archaeologist in an Egyptian tomb. To his surprise, the honey had not turned bad.

Traditionally, people would have harvested honey from the hives of bees found in the wild. The Adivasi, or indigenous people of southern India, still harvest wild honey from the rainforest to sell to local villages and towns. However, most honey produced in the world today is done using beekeeping techniques that utilise manmade hives, which mimic the natural living conditions of the bees while allowing easy collection of the honey inside.

Honey in your body

Honey is the only sweetener that contains any nutritional value and is also set apart from sugar by its many desirable health properties. Composed predominantly of the sugars fructose and glucose, and water, honey contains no fat and virtually no protein. The glycaemic index (GI) of honey is surprisingly low (35–60), depending on the amount of fructose it contains — the higher the fructose content, the lower the GI.

The nutritional and medicinal components of honey differ greatly, depending on the types of flowers from which the bees collect nectar. There are hundreds of different types of honey available, each with a unique taste and aroma. Not all honey is the same, so when choosing a honey for medicinal use it’s essential to choose a type that has been shown to be beneficial for the treatment of the condition you are trying to remedy.

Antibacterial properties

There is growing awareness of the antibacterial and healing properties of honey among medical professionals and its use in the treatment of infections that are resistant to conventional antibiotics is growing. As honey speeds up healing, as well as providing antibacterial protection, it’s often used to treat burns, pressure sores, deep cuts and infected wounds.

The antiseptic and antibacterial properties of honey have been the focus of a lot of research in Australia and New Zealand for the past two decades. Honey made by bees that collect nectar predominantly from tea-trees, including New Zealand manuka and Australian jelly bush, has been found to have the strongest antibacterial properties.

The potent antibacterial actions (also known as the unique manuka factor, or UMF) of tea-tree honey varieties are thought to be due to the presence of antibacterial compounds, which have not yet been identified. Tea-tree honeys are extracted and processed under controlled conditions to maintain the full therapeutic benefit of the honey and the antibacterial properties are graded in strength from 10+ to 20+ UMF.

There has been a large number of clinical trials published in recent years demonstrating the benefits of using honey to promote the healing of wounds and burns. In one study, 91 per cent of the infected wounds treated with honey were sterile after seven days, compared with 7 per cent of the wounds treated with standard anti-bacterial treatments. Although uptake by the medical profession has been slow, there are now several topical honey products on the market for the treatment of wounds.

Ulcers and wounds

The infection-fighting ability of honey may involve more than the direct antibacterial properties, as research has demonstrated that honey also has immune-stimulating effects. As most of your immune system resides in the tissues lining the gut, taking honey orally may be effective at stimulating immune response to infections.

Honey has been used traditionally to treat throat and chest infections and the soothing, antibacterial and immune-stimulating properties combined with the happy compliance by anyone taking honey medicinally makes it an ideal home remedy to keep in the pantry. The healing and soothing properties of honey can also be of use in treating infections in the mouth and soothing inflamed gums.

Taken internally, tea-tree honey may be effective in reducing the stomach ulcer-causing Helicobacter pylori bacteria found in the stomach, although research in this area has produced mixed results. It’s more likely that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of honey are responsible for its ability to speed up the healing of stomach ulcers.

Research has shown that honey can reduce disease-causing free radicals in the body through powerful antioxidant effects. Varieties of honey with a dark colour and strong aroma are more likely to contain higher levels of antioxidants.

Honey at a glance

  • Antibacterial

  • Promotes wound healing
  • Stimulates immune system
  • Treats throat infections
  • Soothes inflamed gums
  • Speeds healing of stomach ulcers

Using honey

As honey is a sweetener high in simple carbohydrates, it should be used sparingly, however it can improve the palatability of foods while also increasing the antioxidant content of your diet. If using honey for its health benefits, it’s best to take one teaspoon of a good-quality dark-coloured undiluted honey each day and you should not eat or drink for 20 minutes after.

When applying honey to a wound, it’s important to use tea-tree honey that carries a UMF rating of over 18+ and one that has been produced for the specific treatment of wounds. Honey with a lower UMF may be used to treat stomach, throat, mouth and digestive problems.

Gerard Elms is a naturopath and nutritionist with a practice in Surry Hills, Sydney. He specialises in men’s health, weight loss and digestive problems. T: (02) 9211 3811, E: gerard@theelmtree.com.au

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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