The Top Health Benefits of Honey - Advice from Our In-house Naturopath
Honey is the sweet, syrupy liquid produced by honeybees. As humans, we may take for granted the availability of this delicious, therapeutic food. However, it is one of the most important and versatile medicines in your pantry. Honey is primarily made up of sugar and water but it contains so much more. The host to over 200 compounds including enzymes, amino acids, vitamins and minerals, honey has had an important place in traditional medicine for over 5000 years.
Honeybees are vital to our food supply but sadly the existence of the honeybee is being threatened by the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. You see, our honeybees are more than the creators of the thick and sweet liquid that you enjoy in your tea and oatmeal. In this blog, let’s explore the health benefits, controversies and DIY uses of honey.
Where Does Honey Come From?
Honey is a by-product of the pollination process. It’s made from the flower nectar that bees collect. Stored in the bees extra stomach or crop, this nectar gets broken down into sugars and eventually stored in honeycombs. From there, bees fan their wings repeatedly to encourage the evaporation of excess water which eventually yields, honey. The colour of the honey produced varies depending on the type of flower nectar collected and in the end, the taste of the honey will depend on the types of flowers the bees visited.
Manuka honey is made from bees in Australia and New Zealand from the pollination of the Manuka bush. It has all the same characteristics of honey from flower nectars around the world. However, it has been shown to contain four times the concentration of nutrients compared to honey harvested from other flowers. Furthermore, Manuka honey has been specifically shown to kill staphylococcus bacteria and H pylori, the bacteria responsible for causing stomach ulcers.You can find Manuka honey in throat lozenges, creams for eczema, and packaged to enjoy on its own.
In one particular study, Manuka honey was shown to reduce gingivitis in the study participants. For this study, the researchers used Manuka honey with an activity rating of UMF15. The UMF15 corresponds to a type of Manuka rating system. UMF or Unique Manuka Factor is a widely accepted system around the world. Volunteers were split up into two groups. One group consumed sugar-free gum and the other group were provided with chewable leathers made from Manuka honey. After 21 days, the results were in and showed that plaque and bleeding were significantly reduced in the group that consumed the honey compared to the control group. This is counterintuitive; the idea that a sugary substance may have a therapeutic effect on oral health and hygiene is against what we accept as common knowledge. However, it demonstrates that honey is a substance that contains more than sugar and perhaps the antimicrobials, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that make up the composition of honey, have a greater role in the delivery of its therapeutic effect.
Raw honey comes almost directly from the beehive and onto your spoon. It is first strained to remove wax, honeycomb, and dead bees. However, it doesn’t go through a pasteurization or filtration process. Pasteurized honey is subjected to heat to kill bacteria. However, along with any bacteria, it destroys some nutrients and antioxidants, reducing the health benefits substantially. During filtration, the honey is processed to remove any debris and bubbles. It may also remove pollens and antioxidants that contribute to the health benefits of the honey. The main result of the filtration process is clearer and smoother honey that is more appealing to consumers.
I’ve always encouraged my patients to use Manuka honey and raw local honey over pasteurized. Both types are more nutritionally dense.
A Word on Fake Honey
Be careful of adulterated honey in the marketplace. Fake honey has been diluted to contain high fructose corn syrup, sugar and other ingredients that have no place in honey. According to an investigation published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, 27% of honey tested from around the world is mislabeled and contains sugar and corn syrup. To arrive at this conclusion, researchers took 100 honey samples from Australia, New Zealand, Africa, Europe, and North America.
The adulteration of honey is an illegal practice that is banned in most countries, however, it is still a widespread problem, worldwide. To avoid fake honey, I tell patients to get to know where the honey you purchase comes from. Stick to locally made honey when possible and when purchasing Manuka honey or multi-floral honey from New Zealand, ensure that your brand follows the Ministry for Primary Industries labeling guidelines. This may seem like a lot of work for honey; however, consuming fake honey with added sugar and other potential additives may actually be detrimental to your health.
Honey is known for its Antibacterial Activity
Honey can be kept in your pantry or kitchen cabinet for years without spoilage, thanks in part to its chemical composition. Honey is low in water and high in sugar, a difficult environment for bacteria to survive in. It naturally contains hydrogen peroxide which increases in concentration when honey is mixed with water. Together, these characteristics help inhibit the growth of microbes.
Honey has the scientifically proven ability to kill bacteria and scientists believe it’s due in part by the enzyme, glucose oxidase which is responsible for producing hydrogen peroxide. One study demonstrated that honey has similar antibacterial activity to antibiotics. This is significant because antibiotic resistance is still a problem. The more honey is researched, it may soon be accepted as an antibiotic alternative for some health conditions.
Honey Contains Supportive Antioxidants
The diverse chemical composition of honey is responsible for its potent antioxidant activity. Antioxidants are still a common buzz word in health literature, but it’s not always clear what an antioxidant is. Antioxidants detect and neutralize free radicals. Free radicals are highly reactive oxygen species that your body generates on a daily basis. Free radicals have an important purpose which is to create damage. And they are generated naturally by your immune system to kill pathogenic bacteria, virus-infected cells and your own cells that have mutated. If the damage is directed at the appropriate target, it’s great. However, when free radical damage gets out of hand and begins to attack healthy tissues, there’s a major problem. Antioxidant is a broad term for a variety of compounds including minerals, vitamins, polyphenols, and enzymes that work to balance the ongoing generation of free radicals. Honey, being a nutrient-dense substance, has strong antioxidant activity which has been known by scientists for many years.
What about the Bees?
All this talk about honey is fine, however, let’s take a moment to check in with the honeybees. We have a major glaring issue happening around the world. Our bees are endangered. Plants need bees to pollinate and it’s not just a nice thing to do, it is essential to our ecosystem. According to earthday.org, there are 369,000 flowering plant species, and 90% of them are dependent on insect pollination. It’s estimated that worldwide, honeybees are responsible for 80% of all pollination activity.
The widespread use of pesticides including neonicotinoids and GMOs, climate change and the loss of biodiversity are a few reasons why our bees are in danger. Bees are having more trouble than ever surviving in cold climates and scientists believe this is happening in part because neonictinoids are weakening their immune systems. Many jurisdictions are beginning the ban on neonictinoid-type pesticides. As a consumer, you can help increase your local bee population by not using pesticides in your garden, planting flowers, herbs, and vegetables and by sponsoring a hive in your community.
DIY Health Benefits
Honey is a staple in my household like most people. Some of my favorite DIY uses and benefits of honey include wound and scar healing, skin exfoliation, sore throat soother, anti-inflammatory, and hair moisturizing. Let’s take a closer look at some of these uses here.
Honey is a great cleanser providing shine and moisture to your tresses due to its ability to absorb water. If you have darker hair, it’s important to keep in mind that honey can lighten your hair over time. If this effect is not desired, then sadly, honey— at least used in your hair, may not be for you.
To reap the benefits of honey as a hair mask, mix 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon of honey with your conditioner. Let it sit in your hair for a few minutes, rinse it out and style your hair as usual.
Natural Cough Syrup and Soothing for a Sore Throat
Honey is a natural throat soother and it can be taken by the spoonful to soothe a sore throat. I usually recommend raw or Manuka honey to ensure that you are getting the most medicinally active honey.
In some studies, it has been shown to work better for coughs than over the counter cough suppressants such as dextromethorphan. However, keep in mind that honey should not be used in children under the age of 1 due to their underdeveloped gastrointestinal tract and immune systems that are not able to process botulinum spores.
Potent Energy Source – for pre and post exercise
A great source of natural sugars, water, minerals and vitamins, honey is a natural electrolyte that can be used to help fuel your activity. It also contains a small amount, around 2% of protein. The fact that honey is easily absorbed and digested is important here, making it easy to support the building of muscle and liver glycogen. Glycogen is an important storage unit for glucose which you need for exercise.
Honey for Acne
Honey makes a great face cleanser and mask. It’s great for gently reducing the visibility of acne scars and for exfoliating the skin due to its mildly acidic pH. It can also be beneficial for dry skin, especially during cold winter months. There are a few ways you can use honey on your skin. Try mixing a teaspoon in with your cleanser. You can also mix a tablespoon with a little bit of water to help it spread, then apply it to your face. Leave it on for 15 to 30 minutes and rinse off following up with your skin care routine as usual.
Honey and Wound Healing
When applied to wounds honey can speed up healing, this is one of honey most touted benefits. For wounds, honey is typically left on for 24 to 48-hour increments of time. A study that reviewed the use of honey in wound healing concluded that it can reduce the pain and inflammation in patients suffering from superficial partial thickness burns and acute wounds.
Honey is more than simply a great condiment to add on top of your pancakes. It represents a potent medicinal substance used for centuries in ancient and modern healing practices. I hope this blog inspires you to look at honey in a different light.