Honey is a gift from nature. Over thousands of years, in countless cultures, in ritual and religion, it has remained a symbol of plenty, health, and prosperity. It’s a term of endearment, an expression of joy, and a symbol of abundance. Many of us know this almost instinctively.
It is less well known that honey is an ingredient in many traditional healing remedies, not simply as a bribe to the taste buds to make the medicine go down, but also as an active healing ingredient. This use for honey has not only stood the test of time, but it has also stood the tests of science.
Bees do It
Most of us have learned at school or from our parents that bees make honey from flower nectar. Monofloral honeys are derived from a single nectar source or plant. Commercial honey is usually a mixture of monofloral honeys.
All honeys have some level of antibacterial ability in that they kill bacteria and prevent bacteria from re-establishing themselves. One of the main reasons for this is that like sugar, honeys are hygroscopic, which means that they absorb moisture. On an open infected wound, both will draw moisture from tissue and bacteria, incapacitating the latter. Unlike sugar, though, many monofloral varieties of honey also generate low levels of hydrogen peroxide, which is a mild, natural antiseptic. This antiseptic quality is thought to be derived from the nectar or plant source.
Some monofloral honeys also exhibit antibacterial activity that can’t be explained by either hygroscopic mechanisms or hydrogen peroxide production. There seems to be one or more additional intrinsic factors at work for these special monofloral honeys. One example is New Zealand’s manuka honey. It is a monofloral variety derived from the nectar of the manuka bush (leptospermum scoparium), which grows wild throughout New Zealand. Its Australian counterpart, leptospermum polygalifolium, has similar intrinsic antibacterial characteristics.
H. Pylori and Other Digestive Disorders
Most studies of the applications of manuka honey have been done at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. Researchers there have shown that manuka honey can be an effective antiseptic with the ability to combat many common forms of bacteria that infect wounds. When taken internally, it may also be useful in treating dyspepsia, gastroenteritis, and diarrhea. What’s more important are indications that manuka honey might be effective against Helicobacter pylori bacteria (H. pylori). This bacteria causes a persistent and common stomach infection which is linked to gastric cancer, duodenal ulcer, and gastrointestinal esophageal reflux disease (GERD). Although there is evidence to support health claims associated with manuka honey, some critics aren’t that convinced. These critics, primarily from British universities, contend that study results on honey are often inconsistent, especially the results from studies about the manuka variety.
Active Manuka Honey
The Honey Research Unit at the University of Waikato New Zealand was set up in 1995 to recognize the university’s expertise in the composition of honey and its antimicrobial activity. Part of the research unit’s mandate was and is to address the problem of inconsistent study results. In their opinion, the inconsistencies are attributable to the fact that honey is a natural substance, and therefore its composition may vary unpredictably. Although the exact nature of manuka honey’s intrinsic antibacterial activity has so far eluded researchers, the research unit has succeeded in developing a testing and grading system that accurately relates a honey sample’s antibacterial activity based on its Unique Manuka Factor or UMF. Honey with a UMF of 10 (UMF10+) or more is considered to be an effective antibacterial agent.
If you’re looking for a safe alternative or complementary treatment to augment existing therapy for an infection of the digestive tract, there’s certainly sufficient data to suggest that manuka honey is a reasonable choice. For the best results, make sure it’s UMF10+ or greater. If you want to know more about manuka honey, visit the Honey Research Unit website at bio.waikato.ac.nz/honey. It’s a great site, but beware–they do like to sell honey!
To paraphrase Mary Poppins, a spoonful of honey doesn’t simply make the medicine go down. It is, in fact, sweet medicine itself.