National Honey Week runs from the 4th to the 10th of May and is organised by the Honey Association. Honeybees are the most important producers of honey. They gather nectar from flowers and plants and carry it to the hive or nest. Other worker bees then take over, preparing it for storing by adding enzymes. Water evaporates away and this, together with the action of the enzyme, turns the nectar to honey.
Honey has been used therapeutically for many thousands of years. It contains some hydrogen peroxide (which has a lot of antibacterial activity) as well as flavonoids and polyphenols (bioactive plant nutrients) and these components contribute to the anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties of honey. Honey can be effective against fungal infections, bacteria, viruses and worms as well as a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori which is a significant cause of stomach ulcers.
As a child my mum would always give me hot lemon and honey to ease a sore throat, cough or cold and the sweet warm liquid always felt comforting and soothing. A couple of years ago a study (1) discovered that there was something behind the folk tales, the scientists found that honey is an effective cough suppressant.
The research(1) involved over a hundred children aged 2-18 years who were suffering with upper respiratory tract infections with night time symptoms. The aim was to compare the effects of a night-time dose of buckwheat honey or honey flavoured dextromethorphan, an ingredient found in over the counter cough medicines, on night time cough and sleep difficulty associated with childhood upper respiratory tract infections. Treatment with either honey or medicine were compared to no treatment at all.
On the first evening no medication was given to the children. On the second evening the children were given either honey or the honey flavoured medicine 30 minutes prior to their normal bed time. The parents then filled in a questionnaire to record: Cough frequency, cough severity, bothersome nature of cough, and child and parent sleep quality. There were significant differences in symptom improvement between the different treatment groups. Honey consistently scored best and was significantly better than no treatment for cough frequency and a combined score for all measured outcomes. The medicine containing dextromethorphan did not score better than ‘no treatment’ for any outcome measured! Parents rated the honey most favourably for symptom relief of their child’s night time cough and sleep difficulty due to their respiratory tract infection. More studies in this area would be very interesting. It is not clear which particular property in honey was responsible for its favourable action, indeed it could be many reasons working together. If you decide to try a warm honey drink for a cough or cold then do not use boiling water as this kills off some of the beneficial properties in the honey (let the boiled water cool a little before mixing in the honey).
Honey for healing wounds
Honey has been used for many years in wound care e.g. on cuts, grazes, skin ulcers and burns. A recent review (2) of many studies concluded that honey may “improve healing times in mild to moderate superficial and partial thickness burns compared with some conventional dressings”. Another trial (3) that took place in South Africa found that honey was very useful for treating shallow wounds and grazes. The trial compared aloe honey with a conventional healing gel and it was found that honey was equally as effective. Healing creams and gels containing active honey ingredients are now available to buy for use on cuts and burns, for example comvita Comvita Manukacare 18+ – Natural Skin Care
Honey for cold sores
In December I wrote about natural remedies for cold sore sufferers (herpes infection). A study(4) in 2005 investigated the effect of topical honey application on recurrent attacks of herpes lesions on the mouth/lips and also on the genitals and compared the treatment with honey to the treatment with acyclovir cream, the active pharmaceutical ingredient of cold sore creams. The study was small involving only 16 adults with a history of herpes lesions. The adults treated one attack with honey and a subsequent attack with conventional acyclovir cream.
For attacks of herpes on the mouth/lips treated with honey the average duration of attacks was 35% shorter than when treated with acyclovir, pain was 39% better, occurrence of crusting was 28% less and healing time was 43% better. For genital herpes, the mean duration of attacks was 53% shorter with honey than with acyclovir cream, pain was 50% better, occurrence of crusting was 49% better and healing time was 59% with honey treatment. Two cases of cold sore (mouth) herpes and one case of genital herpes remitted completely with the use of honey. With acyclovir treatment, none of the attacks remitted. No side effects were observed with repeated applications of honey, whereas 3 patients developed local itching with acyclovir. The authors conclude that topical honey application is safe and effective in the management of the signs and symptoms of recurrent lesions from labial and genital herpes. The lesions were firmly pressed with gauze soaked with honey for 15 minutes, four times per day day, until complete healing. As mentioned above natural honey creams are available to buy and may be worth a try if you are a cold sore sufferer. ‘Comvita Lipclear Cream – Maintain Healthy Lips’ contains honey, propolis (another bee product that I will be writing about later in the week) and various vitamins which may also be useful in the healing of cold sores.
What kind of honey is best?
There are hundreds of varieties and brands of honey available to buy. Some types seem to be more effective, in terms of healing properties, than others. One of the most researched honeys is Manuka honey which is widely available from health food stores and on the internet and is being used in creams and supplements. The Honey Association say:
“Manuka honey is produced by honeybees which gather nectar from the flowers of wild Manuka bushes that are indigenous to New Zealand. This particular honey is distinctively flavoured, with a rich taste and dark appearance. Although all types of honey contain hydrogen peroxide (particularly known for its antibacterial properties), Professor Peter Molan of the Honey Research Centre at Waikato University in New Zealand has undertaken extensive research into maunka honey and believes it contains unique properties which provide additional support to the body’s natural healing process. Molan’s research has shown that manuka honey has a high antibacterial potency which heals a range of conditions, from external skin infections to aiding digestion. Molan has also shown that manuka honey can help to fight throat infections and reduce gum disease. When eaten regularly it can aid memory, increase energy levels, improve well-being and reduce feelings of anxiety”
So why not sweeten up your week with a little honey?!
(1)Paul IM et al. 2007. 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.
(2) Jull AB et al. 2008. Honey as a topical treatment for wounds. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. Oct 8;(4):CD005083.
(3) Ingle R. et al. 2006. Wound healing with honey–a randomised controlled trial. S Afr Med J. 96(9):831-5.
(4)Al-Waili NS et al. 2005. Topical honey application vs. acyclovir for the treatment of recurrent herpes simplex lesions. Med Sci Monit. 10(8):MT94-98.
Written by Ani Kowal