MIchael Hunter, MD, Column

Honey — 3 Reasons You Might Try It

DID YOU KNOW THAT WE HAVE HIGH-LEVEL EVIDENCE pointing to the medical benefits of consuming honey? For example, a randomized clinical trial of 300 children revealed these findings: Children with a cold who received honey had improved cough frequency and severity?

As I focus on nutrition, one of my critical pillars of health (along with rest, movement, and mindfulness), I have been slowly reducing my added sugar intake.

I have always been less concerned about sugar per se and more centered on how it is delivered: Fast delivery (think soda or orange juice) spikes markers of inflammation; slow delivery (my beloved grapes) delivers the sugar more slowly and healthily.

One of the ways I have been better about not adding lots of sugar to things is that my slow reduction has not left me craving more sweetness. I used to add two teaspoons of sugar to my Earl Grey tea; now, I put in a tiny bit of honey, and I am good to go.

1. Honey is a natural antimicrobial

Let’s look at the goodness of honey. Did you know that honey can fight bacteria and fungi? Even as we recognize the variability in effectiveness among honey types, we have evidence of honey’s pathogen-fighting capabilities.

Honey as a medicinal agent dates back to ancient times. Ancient Egyptians frequently used honey as a natural antibiotic and skin protectant. Professor Gene Kritsky, in his book Tears of Re, reports the Egyptian myth that the sun god Ra’s tears fell to earth and transformed into honey bees.

Why does honey have anti-pathogen properties? You may be surprised to learn that it contains hydrogen peroxide. In addition, the high sugar content of honey may inhibit bacterial growth.

“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”
― A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Honey has a low pH of approximately 3.5. As a result, the food pulls moisture away from bacteria and causes the microorganism to become dehydrated and die. Honey also has bee defensin, an antimicrobial peptide (AMP).

To use honey as an antibiotic, Healthline.com offers this advice: Apply it directly to the wound or infected area. If possible, opt for raw Manuka honey from New Zealand. The antibacterial substance methylglyoxal (MGO) is only present in certain natural kinds of honey, such as the Manuka type.

I probably wouldn’t go as far as this headline from Scientific American suggests: “You should rub honey on your everywhere.” And one more thing — the honey we use in hospital settings is medical grade; it is sterile and inspected. Don’t treat your wounds with the usual honey that you buy from the local store.

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

2. Honey contains phytonutrients

Phytonutrients are compounds in plants that help protect the plant from harm. Some phytonutrients keep insects away, while others shield against ultraviolet radiation.

Phytonutrients also contribute to the antioxidant properties of honey and its antimicrobial characteristics. Scientists are investigating whether honey may boost our immune systems or even fight cancer. Let’s not overstate the case: There have been very few clinical studies despite its purported anti-cancer activity.

3. Honey may help with digestion

I have heard that consuming honey can help with gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea. Let’s take a quick look at irritable bowel syndrome. Mouse studies suggest honey is a natural laxative.

But what about human irritable bowel syndrome? There is not much good research. On the other hand, we have limited evidence that honey may help control a bacteria known as Helicobacter pylori.

H. pylori are bacteria that infect the stomach’s lining. These bacteria can lead to peptic ulcer diseases and duodenal (the first part of the small intestine; it connects to the stomach) ulcers. While natural treatments such as Manuka honey may not eradicate the bacteria, they might help maintain them at low levels. My take? I think we have little high-level evidence.

Honey has some risks

Raw honey can carry harmful bacteria, including Clostridium botulinum. This microbe is especially hazardous for babies. You should never give raw honey to an infant less than a year old.

Healthline.com reminds us of some of the symptoms of botulism poisoning in infants:

  • constipation
  • slow breathing
  • drooping eyelids
  • no gag reflex
  • head control loss
  • downward-spreading paralysis
  • poor feeding
  • lethargy
  • a weak cry

In adults, symptoms may include a brief time of vomiting and diarrhea, followed by constipation and more severe symptoms (for example, blurred vision and muscle weakness). Please consult a doctor if you experience these symptoms after eating raw honey.

Oh, the big reason I use honey? My Manuka honey tastes good. It is sweet enough that I use remarkably little of it in my tea. Do you use honey? If yes, why?

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Medika Life has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by Medika Life

Michael Hunter, MD
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

Michael Hunter, MD

I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

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