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Honey, we all know, is a sweetener, but its medicinal use dating back to 2100-200 BC shows that it is more than that. Its composition differs depending on the type, as different parts of the world have different flowers and bees may choose certain flowers over others, even in the same region.
This sweetener has a high sugar content, low pH, vitamin C and B complex vitamins, bee-derived enzymes, bee-derived peptides and phytochemical compounds such as phenols, flavonoids and carotenoid derivatives. Because of its high sugar content, it should not be used liberally.
Honey also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and when used topically, forms a protective barrier. Importantly, it has anti-hyaluronidase properties. Hyaluronidase is an enzyme which breaks down hyaluronic acid, a substance which occurs naturally in the body as a major lubricant in eyes and joints, an important component of cartilage, and a major component of skin, to name a few functions. Anti-hyaluronidase activities slow down the breakdown of hyaluronic acid, which explains part of its use in accelerating wound healing, in ulcer treatment, for burns, for bed sores and for infections.
Various types of honey are being investigated as an alternative treatment for antibiotic-resistant infections. Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pyrogenes, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Escherichia coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Enterococcus faecalis, and C. difficile infections are increasingly difficult to treat. The complexity of this thick, golden liquid may make it a viable alternative.
It is also being investigated for various cancer treatments, shingles treatment, cough, H. pylori infection eradication, eye disease treatment, diabetes lipid dysregulation, and many other conditions.
The most famous, Manuka honey, is collected by honey bees from a shrub, Leptospermum scoparium, which is indigenous to New Zealand. This specific substance has been shown to have additional antibacterial properties beyond what "normal" honey has that are attributed specifically to a unique Manuka factor (UMF), methylglyoxal (MGO). The levels of MGO vary between batches, so when purchasing Manuka, check its MGO rating. Not all Manuka producers participate in the UMF rating program, so honey that is independently tested for total activity is not necessarily inferior to one that was tested with UMF rating. A UMF rating of 0 is low and 20 is high. The efficacy rating is meant to indicate the antibacterial potency compared to a phenol control, such that 5 UMF would imply an antimicrobial potency of 5% phenol.
Manuka is not the only one with documented beneficial properties, however. There are countless research studies validating the use of honeys worldwide. In one study epublished in January of this year, it was concluded that a Chilean Ulmo type can potentially inhibit cancer growth at least partly by modulating oxidative stress. This substance is used by indigenous inhabitants to treat infections, and indeed, it showed strong antibacterial activity against Gram-negative pathogens and antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
Recently, Saudi Arabian honey samples showed different levels of inhibition in vitro against 5 of 5 pathogens. Also recently, 4 types of US Wisconsin honeys were tested in vitro against 13 pathogens. Three of the types were ineffective at pathogen inhibition but one type, a buckwheat one, inhibited all of the pathogens, and particularly C. difficile strains. These studies further illustrate that the type is important.
Honey has a prebiotic effect due to its composition, and one study sponsored by the National Honey Board showed that a tempered Grade A type increased the growth rate of a few Bifidobacterium strains.
In a prospective, randomized, controlled trial, medical-grade honey added to milk for pre-term infants showed increased weight gain and improved microbiota composition, with less Enterobacter and more Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus.
Another extremely important property of honey that is often overlooked is that it contains beneficial bacteria. Although the species in some cases, and strains in other cases, may be different from known human probiotic bacteria, species from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium genera and Bacillus subtilis have been isolated from it. Knowledge of these beneficial bacteria is prompting research into using bee probiotics to improve bee colony health to prevent colony collapse disorders.
Bee probiotics are also being investigated for use in human health conditions. One such probiotic, Lactobacillus kunkeei, in a heat-killed form, altered human intestinal microbiota for the better and increased bowel movements in women with constipation and increased secretory IgA in healthy adults.
Caution must be used with the ingestion of raw honey in anyone who is
immune-compromised. Never give any honey to a child under one year of age
unless under the direction of a physician.
Here is an important note: without bees, there is no honey. Bee populations are declining rapidly, and while several causes are suspected, one that is highly suspect is neonicotinoid pesticides. Neonicotinoids act on insect pests' central nervous system. However, neonicotinoids also may adversely affect beneficial pollinators, such as the honey bee. These chemicals are typically sprayed on seeds of plants before planting, so the entire plant, including the pollen, contains the pesticide. These chemicals may also be applied directly to plants.
In the US, neonicotinoid pesticides (Imidacloprid, Clothianidin, Thiamethoxam, Dinotefuran, and Acetamiprid) are scheduled for review with planned completion in 2018-2019. The European Food Safety Administration implemented restrictions on the use of three neonicotinoids (Clothianidin, Thiamethoxam and Imidacloprid) in 2013, but there has been a loophole for so-called emergency authorization. HealthCanada and other nations’ food safety organizations are also considering bans on at least some of these pesticides.
Bees account for more than 30 percent world-wide of the plants that produce the foods and drinks we consume. In the US, the EPA requires that the label on packaging of plants includes the listing of commercial pesticides that could be harmful to pollinators such as bees.
Only buy honey that is raw, unfiltered, and from a supplier that does testing or has independent testing done, even though testing methods are not foolproof. To get the most benefits, a local, raw, unfiltered honey may be your best option. Manuka honey, high in phenols and tested for contaminants, is another good option.
Manuka honey options are available through:
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