Health Benefits of Honey – Introduction
Look, the thing I want to do now we’re talking about health benefits of honey is to give you some plain facts and get rid of all that hype you will see all over the internet, usually on web sites that are trying to sell you honey. If you buy some honey as a result of the information here – great! But actually the real reason for this web site is that I want to share with you my real fascination with bees and honey.
One of the problems with honey is that it is a very complex substance. According to the Nursing Times in 2008, a paper by Stefan Bogdanov of the Swiss Bee Research Center estimates that it contains some 600 components. Even today, research hasn’t solved all of its mysteries. We have a whole history of stories going back literally thousands of years about how people have used honey to cure a wide range of ailments – but not all of these cures have so far been backed up by scientific research. At least not so far. New research is being carried out all the time.
What this means is that some of the health claims made for honey, although not proven scientifically today, may be proven tomorrow. But of course there are many claims that will no doubt be discredited aswell. So what I’m going to do on this page is to take a look at some of the (as yet) unproven claims that people make for what honey can do, and then look at the health-giving properties of honey that for which we have some solid scientific evidence. First of all, though, let’s take a look at how we humans have used honey through the ages:
A Short History of Honey
The first recorded use of honey that we know of is on a fragment of clay tablet found in Sumeria (now an area of southern Iraq), dating from about 2500BC. They had no paper in those days and used clay slabs instead to record just about everything, which is just as well because paper would have been long gone by now and we would never have known about this important civilization. Anyway, the text on this tablet describes an ointment for wounds where one of the ingredients was, you guessed it, honey.
By the time we reached 1500BC, the old clay tablets had gone the way of the steam engine and the Egyptians recorded everything on the world’s earliest paper, or papyrus. Miraculously, some of these records survived until modern times, don’t as me how, and one of them, known as the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus mentions the use of honey to heal wounds.
Between 460 and 377BC the ancient Greek Hippocrates, known as the “father of medicine” described in his extensvie journals how he used honey combined with other natural ingredients for treating wounds, ulcers and even hemorrhoids.
roman soldiers used to carry honey in their medical kits for dealing with wounds, and the use of honey in this way was common in India and China in ancient times.
The Bible mentions honey many times, mainly as an essential food rather than a medicine, but the Koran, dating from about 650AD, mentions honey’s healing properties.
Now we go to England – the year is 1403 and we are in a field just to the North of the medieval town of Shrewsbury where the infamous Battle of Shrewsbury battle is taking place. The Royal surgeon John Bradmore, in his diaries known as the Philomena, tells us what happened to Prince Hal during this bloody battle. The prince received an arrow wound to the face and the arrowhead remained embedded in the wound (ouch). The surgeon had a special pair of iron tongs made which he planned to insert into the wound and screw into the socket at the back of the arrowhead, allowing it to be pulled out. To get the tongs in, he needed to enlarge the hole, which he did by carefully forcing in wooden rods of increasing diameter infused with rose honey (double ouch!). Anyway, the plan worked, and the arrowhead was removed! The surgeon then applied an ointment of flour, barley, honey and oil to what you can imagine would have been a nasty wound. Soon, Prince Hal made a full recovery, and later went on to become King Henry V.
Honey’s use in this way fell out of fashion in the Western world when alternative antibiotics were developed after World War II, but its use for treating wounds and burns in Africa, India and the Middle East has continued to this today.
More recently, there has been a revival of interest in the West, mainly because of the growing demand for natural remedies, but also because honey has been shown to kill bacteria that are resistant to other drugs – but more on that later. First, let’s take a quick look at some of the wild and wacky claims about honey:
Some Health-giving Powers of Honey – Yet to be Proven!
Well, as far as I can tell, although there is anecdotal evidence of the following claims, I can’t find any hard evidence. If you know of any scientific evidence for any of these claims, please let me know straight away so I can update the information and keep this page accurate.
In 1995, the supermarket tabloid Weekly World News published what was (I hope) intended as a humorous article making many wild claims about honey and cinnamon. (This is the newspaper that reported in 1999 how a Japanese woman had been living in wedded bliss for six years with a gravity-defying alien.) Anyway, these are some of the claims, none of which was backed by any evidence:
- strengthens the heartbeat and prevents heart attacks
- cures arthritis within a week
- cures toothache
- increases life-span and allows a 100-year-old to perform the chores of a 20-year-old
- causes weight loss because it does not allow fat to accumulate even if a high-calorie diet is eaten
- makes the elderly more alert and flexible
- cures deafness
- cures bone and stomach cancer within one month
What’s really funny about the claims from this one satirical article is that you will find them quoted word-for-word as FACT on literally thousands of web sites – many of which are trying to sell you honey. Unfortunately, I can offer you no evidence to back up these claims, so without further delay I think we’d better return to planet earth and take a look at some of the benefits of honey that are supported by hard evidence from the scientific community:
Honey as a Treatment – The Facts
I have a whole separate article on the subject of if you are looking for information on honey as part of your diet, but here I want to look at its healing properties when it’s used as a treatment:
Healer of cuts and wounds: a trial on 59 patients with wounds and ulcers was conducted by S. Efem in 1988 and reported in the British Journal of Surgery. Honey straight from the hive was applied to the wounds daily, and 58 out of 59 cases showed “remarkable improvement”, with any infections cleared within a week. The one patient who did not respond had an ulcer infected with mycobacteria for which the honey was found to be ineffective. Professor Peter Molan of the University of Waikato in New Zealand, the proclaimed researcher into honey and its effects, has published many papers on the subject. He has shown that honey has several properties that help wounds to heal. Wounds heal faster when they are kept moist. This often causes ideas conditions for bacteria to grow. Honey attracts water and makes a moist pool over the wound, which is idea for healing, but this moisture does not cause bacteria to grow as it usually would, because the honey kills the bacteria. Also, when honey is used between a dressing and the wound, it stops the healing wound from sticking to the dressing, so when the dressing is changed, there is less risk of damaging the healing wound.
Sore throat soother: honey has been used to soothe coughs and sore throats for a very long time, and may come back into favor for children following advice in 2007 from the US Food and Drug Agency that over-the-counter cough medicines should not be given to children under two because it is to easy to give an overdose in such tiny bodies. This was followed in 2008 by advice from the regulatory body for medicines in the UK, the MHRA, that honey and lemon should be used instead of these medicines for this age group. Having said all that, you should know that current FDA advice is that you don’t give honey to a child under 12 months old, so what you are supposed to do to soothe a cough in that agegroup?
Now, ask 100 people what natural remedy you would use for a cough, and I bet you at least 75 will say “honey and lemon”. That’s why it pains me to have to tell you that despite all the research into honey, I can’t find hard evidence that honey is better than over-the-counter medicine on coughs and sore throats. There is a 2007 study by the U.S. National Honey Board, comparing honey, dextromethorphan (the active ingredient in many cough medicines) and no treatment at all. This study was picked up by the press and you will find it mis-reported all over the internet as evidence that honey is more effective than dextromethorphan in treating coughs.
I am here to tell you that this study found no such thing. The difference between the results for the honey and for the conventional medicine were statistically insignificant. The study DID find that honey produced better results than “no treatment” – BUT this study was seriously flawed because those receiving “no treatment” knew they were getting no treatment as they were not given any dummy medicine, and the rating of improvement in the cough was by parents completing a survey. Now I’m not against honey – as you know, I love it! I would like nothing more than to tell you all how good honey is for coughs. But I’ve built a reputation for straight-talking when it comes to the health benefits of honey, so I’m taking great pains here not to mislead you.
What we certainly do have is hard evidence that honey is anti-inflammatory and antibacterial, but that’s not quite the same thing as proving it will sooth a cough or sore throat.
Look – all I can say is this: people have been taking honey for coughs and sore throats all over the world for centuries, and many say it works for them. FDA advice is not to give honey to babies under 12 months, and those with a honey allergy should avoid it – but if you’re not in these groups, it’s not going to harm you, so you can always give it a try and make your own mind up.
Healer of burns: a study carried out over the six-year period from 1987 to 1993 on 450 patients, by M.Subrahmanyam at the Solapur Medical College, India, claimed that burns healed faster and with less scarring than with conventional treatments.
Antibactierial agent: A 1998 report for the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (the equivalent of the US Food and Drug Administration) noted the four antibacterial attributes of honey: low water content, acidity, hydrogen peroxide content, and other “uncharacterised” antibacterial compounds. In 1999 the same Administration approved honey for medical use. Medical honey is now sold as a wound dressing in pharmacies there.
Immune system booster: It was reported in the journal “Medical Oncology” in 2006 that a trial on 30 cancer patients had been carried out using a brand of honey called “Life Mel”. Chemotherapy often causes a low white blood cell count, leading to higher possibility of catching infections, and this is usually combatted with conventional drugs. All 30 patients had suffered with low white blood cell counts during previous batches of chemotherapy, but when honey was taken during the trial chemotherapy period, 12 of these patients did not develop abnormally low white blood cell counts and therefore did not need any drug-based treatment for this condition. This is of course a very small trial.
Killer of drug-resistant bacteria: In 2008 the journal “Clinical Infectious Diseases” reported a study by the University of Amsterdam in which medical-grade honey was shown to be extremely effective in killing bacteria on the skin. This study concluded that honey would be effective in killing even drug-resistant bacteria. This was confirmed by a Northern Ireland study by Yasunori Maeda and others, reported in 2008 in the “Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice” journal. This new testtube-based study applied several types of honey to CA-MRSA organisms (a known drug-resistant bacteria). In all cases the MRSA was destroyed by the honey within 24 hours.
Cancer preventative: In 2004 the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) reported a trial at the University of Zagreb in which mice were injected with cancerous cells and fed honey. Some of the mice were fed honey for 10 days before they were injected with the cancer, and some were fed after they were injected with the cancer. The cancer was shown to be less likely to spread in the mice that had been fed with honey before the cancer was introduced. Unfortunately, when the honey was given after the cancer had been introduced, secondary cancer growth was more likely to occur. So we have a mixed message here and those involved in this trial recommended more thorough and widespread research into honey and cancer.
So there you have it. There have been enough studies and trials to establish beyond all doubt that honey has some important health benefits. But remember, if you find yourself reading some wild claim or other about honey, take a look to see if it’s backed up by reputable scientific research.
The whole of this page is about using honey externally. You’ll find a lot more information on using honey in your diet on my page about honey and nutrition so please go ahead and take a look.