Health effects of honey

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Jars of honey

The health effects of honey have long been noted. The nutritional and medicinal qualities of honey have been documented in Vedic, Greek, Roman, Christian, Islamic and other texts. Physicians of ancient times, such as Aristotle (384–322 BC), Aristoxenus (320 BC) Hippocrates, Porphyry, Cornelius Celsus (early first century AD) and Dioscorides (c. 50 AD), and Arab physicians have referred to the healing qualities of honey.

Though scientific arguments have been made for use of honey in modern times, its use is still considered part of alternative medicine.[1]


In the earliest Hindu Vedic texts, honey and its evolution are described elaborately. It is used as a metaphor to describe the Sun as honeycomb. The honeybees incubate in the cells to form honey, which is called “the nectar of the Sun”.[2] Another metaphor states that the four Vedas, the Hindu scriptures, are represented by the honeycomb which is stated to be "sweet, beautiful, golden like the Sun". It is also described as a "blend of all the Nectars of many flowers." The knowledge of honey represents "oneness of everything." In Hindu rituals, honey is one of the five ingredients of Panchamrit "the five Nectars", the other four are the ghee, milk, sugar and buttermilk.[3] Honey has been used in Ayurveda medicine in India for at least 4000 years and is considered to affect positively in all three primitive material imbalances of the body. In the Ayurvedic system of medicine, within specific bee species, curative honey is categorised under eight distinct types. Overall, more than 634 remedies with honey as an ingredient have been propounded to tackle a wide range of health problems and many of them are said to be of complex formulation. A popular concoction to cure intestinal worms is that of honey with juice of Parrot Tree (Butea monosperma) fruit (called palash in Sanskrit).[4]

Honey has also been used by humans since pre-Ancient Egyptian times[5] to treat a variety of ailments through topical application, but only recently have the antiseptic and antibacterial properties of honey been chemically explained. Ancient Egyptian physicians used honey in medicinal compounds 5,000 years ago and the ancient Greeks believed that honey could promote virility and longevity.[6] Honey has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years and is still important today.[6] Ancient Russian manuscripts attributed great importance to honey as a medicine.

From Biblical times, "milk and honey" have been said to denote fertility.[7] Honey has been part of baptismal ritual traced to about 100 AD.[8]

In ancient Islamic literature, honey bees have been extolled for their "intelligence, industry and creativity." The Quran mentions it as medicine to cure human illness. It says "And thy Lord taught the Bee to build its cells in hills, on trees, and in (men's) habitations; Then to eat of all the produce (of the earth), and find with skill the spacious paths of its Lord: there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colours, wherein is healing for men: verily in this is a Sign for those who give thought" [Al-Quran 16:68-69].[9] Prophet Mohammad himself spoke of the healing power of honey as a cure for all mental illness.[4] In the later part of the 12th century, a Muslim physician described the healing powers of honey to disperse body fluids, soothing the bowels, curing dropsy, checking facial twitches, improving appetite, preventing the breakdown of muscles and preserving them.[4]

Juice of Parrot tree and honey an Ayurvedic curative

Honey can be traced to the Xin dynasty period of 2000 BC. One of the five medicinal qualities of honey was as a curative for insomnia, practiced from the time of Li Zzen, Ming dynasty physician.[4] In 1000 BC, it was a Saxon herbal treatment for wounds, sties and amputated limbs. In 1446, it was used as a therapeutic drug, in combination with alum, to treat ulcers. And in 1623, it was used as an antiseptic and a mouthwash. The use of honey as a therapeutic cure in various combinations was popularised in Medieval Europe, in particularly in England, Germany, Finland, and Ireland. It was also extended to Ghana, USA, Nepal, Nigeria, Russia, and Brazil.

Modern times

It was a gourmet medicine during the Second Balkan War in 1913, healing the wounds of soldiers. Honey from several species of sting-less bees was consumed to cure flu, to cure cataract, glaucoma and cough.[10] In modern times, its use as a healing agent is equally popular. In 2007, in the Manchester Evening News in England, the use of “manuka honey” in a large hospital in New Zealand to control methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and other bacterial infections was noted; its antibacterial property to kill or inhibit is supported by many scientific studies in recent years.[11]


Scientists[weasel words] have revealed that honey has powerful anti-bacterial properties on at least sixty species of bacteria, and unlike antibiotics, which are often useless against certain types of bacteria, honey is non-toxic and has strong effects.[5]

The composition of honey includes sugars such as glucose and fructose and also minerals such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, sodium chloride, sulphur, iron and phosphate. Depending on the quality of the nectar and pollen, the vitamins contained in honey are B1, B2, C, B6, B5 and B3.[12]

The pH of honey is commonly between 3.2 and 4.5.[13] This relatively acidic pH level prevents the growth of many bacteria. Honey is primarily a saturated mixture of two monosaccharides. This mixture has a low water activity. Most of the water molecules are associated with the sugars and few remain available for microorganisms, so it is a poor environment for their growth. If water is mixed with honey, it loses its low water activity, and therefore, no longer possesses this antimicrobial property. More importantly, its undiluted state, honey’s high osmolarity creates a hygroscopic effect on microbes, thereby interfering with growth and metabolism. Such hygroscopic activity has led some to use granulated sugar or other sugar concentrates for the same purpose. Nevertheless, the antimicrobial action of honey well exceeds a simple osmotic effect, and an equivalent osmolarity of various sugars does not match honey’s antimicrobial capability.[14] Hydrogen peroxide is formed in a slow-release manner by the enzyme glucose oxidase present in honey. It becomes active only when honey is diluted, requires oxygen to be available for the reaction, thus it may not work under wound dressings, in wound cavities or in the gut. It is active only when the acidity of honey is neutralised by body fluids, it can be destroyed by the protein-digesting enzymes present in wound fluids, and is destroyed when honey is exposed to heat and light.[15] Honey chelates and deactivates free iron, which would otherwise catalyse the formation of oxygen free radicals from hydrogen peroxide, leading to inflammation. Also, the antioxidant constituents in honey help clean up oxygen free radicals.[16]

C6H12O6 + H2O + O2C6H12O7 + H2O2 (glucose oxidase reaction)

When honey is used topically, as, for example, a wound dressing, hydrogen peroxide is produced by dilution of the honey with body fluids. As a result, hydrogen peroxide is released slowly and acts as an antiseptic.

The non-peroxide antibiotic activity is due to methylglyoxal (MGO) and an unidentified synergistic component. Most honeys contain very low levels of MGO, but manuka honey contains very high levels. The presence of the synergist in manuka honey more than doubles MGO antibacterial activity.[15]


The benefits of honey have been extolled since ancient times by many religious faiths and recorded in ancient scriptures. They can be categorised as nutritional or medicinal.[17]


Honey contains invert sugar that has the quality of providing instant energy when consumed. It is also a heart stimulant and a useful food supplement. As a food beverage, it was widely used from the times of "the Bible (both the [Old Testament] and New Testament(s)), the Talmud, the Quran, the sacred books of India, China, Persia and Egypt."


Medicinal benefits are broadly categorised under the following headings.


Topical honey has been used successfully in a treatment of diabetic ulcers when the patient cannot use topical antibiotics.[18] A review in the Cochrane Library suggests that honey could reduce the time it takes for a burn to heal – up to four days sooner in some cases. The review included 19 studies with 2,554 participants. Although the honey treatment healed moderate burns faster than traditional dressings did, the author recommends viewing the findings with caution, since a single researcher performed all of the burn studies.[19] One New Zealand researcher says that Manuka honey may be useful in treating MRSA infections.[20] Antibacterial properties of honey are the result of the low water activity causing osmosis, hydrogen peroxide effect,[21] high acidity,[13] and the antibacterial activity of methylglyoxal.[15] Some studies suggest that the topical use of honey may reduce odours, swelling, and scarring when used to treat wounds; it may also prevent the dressing from sticking to the healing wound.[13] Wound gels that contain antibacterial raw honey and have regulatory approval for wound care are now available to help medicine in the battle against drug resistant strains of bacteria MRSA. As an antimicrobial agent honey may have the potential for treating a variety of ailments.[11]


It is also stated to cure some allergies, particularly localized honey to an area could help minimize seasonal allergies as bees feed on pollen from local plants which eventually finds its way to form honey.[12] Its use for centuries is as a treatment for sore throats and coughs, and according to recent research, may in fact be as effective as many common cough medicines.[22] Unfiltered, pasteurised honey is widely believed to alleviate allergies, though neither commercially filtered nor raw honey was shown to be more effective than placebo in a controlled study of 36 participants with ocular allergies.[23] Nearly 1 in 3 of the volunteers dropped out of the study because they could not tolerate eating one tablespoon of honey every day due to the overly sweet taste.[24] The official conclusion: "This study does not confirm the widely held belief that honey relieves the symptoms of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis." A more recent study has shown pollen collected by bees to exert an anti allergenic effect, mediated by an inhibition of IgE immunoglobulin binding to mast cells. This inhibited mast cell degranulation and thus reduced allergic reaction.[25] The risk of experiencing anaphylaxis as an immune system reaction may outweigh any potential allergy relief.[24]

Other ailments[edit]

Antioxidants in honey have even been implicated in reducing damage to the colon in colitis in a study involving administering honey enemas to rats.[26] Honey appears to be effective in killing drug-resistant biofilms which are implicated in chronic rhinosinusitis.[27] In 2005, researchers at Purdue University revealed that honey was a catalyst to calcium absorption in animals.[28]


Honey is used for skin conditioning using a moisturizing mask and can reduce facial redness and acne. It is also used for conditioning of hair. It is often mixed with olive oil or castor oil for both purposes.[12]


  1. ^ "History of Honey as Medicine". Manuka Honey Research. Retrieved 30 January 2011. 
  2. ^ Olivelle, Patrick (1 January 2005). Language, texts, and society: explorations in ancient Indian culture and religion. Firenze University Press. pp. 68–. ISBN 978-88-8453-395-1. Retrieved 29 January 2011. 
  3. ^ Oldroyd, Benjamin P.; Wongsiri, Siriwat (2006). Asian honey bees: biology, conservation, and human interactions. Harvard University Press. pp. 224–. ISBN 978-0-674-02194-5. Retrieved 29 January 2011. 
  4. ^ a b c d Altman, Nathaniel (9 March 2010). The Honey Prescription: The Amazing Power of Honey As Medicine. Inner Traditions / Bear & Company. pp. 60–62. ISBN 978-1-59477-346-4. Retrieved 29 January 2011. 
  5. ^ a b Altman (2010), p.3
  6. ^ a b Altman (2010), p.2
  7. ^ Malena, Sarah; Miano, David (2007). Milk and honey: essays on ancient Israel and the Bible in appreciation of the Judaic Studies Program at the University of California, San Diego. Eisenbrauns. p. ix. ISBN 978-1-57506-127-6. Retrieved 29 January 2011. 
  8. ^ Martin Derrett, John Duncan (1 December 1989). Studies in the New Testament: The Sea-Change of the Old Testament in the New. BRILL. pp. 2–. ISBN 978-90-04-09110-8. Retrieved 29 January 2011. 
  9. ^ Yusuf 'Ali, 'Abdullah. An Nahl, Al-Quran Chapter 16 (The Bee) quoted from "The Holy Qur'an: Original Arabic Text with English Translation & Selected Commentaries". Saba Islamic Media. Retrieved 20 May 2013. 
  10. ^ Altman2010, pp. 62–67
  11. ^ a b Altman2010, pp. 70–73
  12. ^ a b c "Health Benefits Of Honey". Bees-Online:An Educational web site about Honey Bees and Beekeping. Retrieved 30 January 2011. 
  13. ^ a b c Honey as an Antimicrobial Agent. Waikato Honey Research Unit. November 16, 2006. Retrieved 5 February 2007. 
  14. ^
  15. ^ a b c "Waikato Honey Research Unit:What's special about Active Manuka Honey?". The University of Waikato. Retrieved 05-02-2011. 
  16. ^ Honey as a topical antibacterial agent for treatment of infected wounds
  17. ^ "Medicinal Value of Honey". Honey Retrieved 30 January 2011. 
  18. ^ "Uw Study Tests Topical Honey As A Treatment For Diabetic Ulcer". University of Wisconsin-Madison. 5 February 2007. Retrieved 5 February 2011. 
  19. ^ "Honey Holds Some Promise for Treating Burns". Newswise. 
  20. ^ Knox, Angie (June 8, 2004). "Harnessing honey's healing power". BBC News. Retrieved 5 February 2011. 
  21. ^ Wahdan, H. (1998). "Causes of the antimicrobial activity of honey". Infection 26 (1): 26–31. doi:10.1007/BF02768748. PMID 9505176. 
  22. ^ Randerson, James (December 4, 2007). "Honey 'beats cough medicine'". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 5 February 2010. 
  23. ^ Studies of honey treatment effects on allergies. American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. May 26, 2006. Retrieved 5 February 2011. 
  24. ^ a b More, MD, Daniel (March 5, 2010). Does eating local honey help treat symptoms of allergies? (re: Curr Opin Allergy Clin Immunol. 2003 Oct;3(5):395-9.). Allergies. Retrieved 5 February 2011. 
  25. ^ Ishikawa, Yasuko et al. (2008). "Inhibitory Effect of Honeybee-Collected Pollen on Mast Cell Degranulation In Vivo and In Vitro". Journal of Medicinal Food 11 (1): 14–20. doi:10.1089/jmf.2006.163. PMID 18361733. 
  26. ^ Bilsel, Y.; D. Bugra, S. Yamaner, T. Bulut, U. Cevikbas, and U. Turkoglu (January 16, 2002). "Could Honey Have a Place in Colitis Therapy". Digestive Surgery 29: 306–312. doi:10.1159/000064580. Retrieved 5 February 2011. 
  27. ^ "Honey Effective In Killing Bacteria That Cause Chronic Sinusitis". ScienceDaily. 2008. 
  28. ^ Altman (2010), p.150

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