The history of honey used as a medicine

Conway McLEAN, DPM

Regular readers will know of my interest in nutrition. Obviously, I have a certain preoccupation with health, given my profession, but shouldn’t the two intermingle in a fashion, nutrition and medicine? Why is it, in our culture, the two are seen as separate entities? Many cultures use food as medicine, whether it is in the various ways that spices are used, or different food types. The importance of good food sources, combining a healthy mix of vegetables, carbs and proteins, is a concept accepted by all, but how much does Western science know about the effects of nutrition and disease?

Over time, more people in our culture have come to realize the answer to this question is “Not enough!” Nutrition is a matter of the big picture, where a person’s overall intake of foods acts to aid in maintaining health. All the foods consumed represent the combined effects of many different foods, and the countless substances they contain. In nutrition, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Western system of medicine seeks to identify one specific remedy applied to a given symptom, regardless of the individual. But perhaps specific causes can be different for each person. Some see this as encouraging a certain insensitivity to our bodies, to ignore the first signs of discomfort and imbalance. And then we set ourselves up for the over-reaction of many Western-style drugs.

Modern medicine does not worry about food, and nutrition is rarely part of the conversation about treatment. It concerns itself mainly with pathogens such as bacteria and viruses, although when you kill the microbe, you also often harm the host. Bacteria, which are subdued by a drug, mutate and change, to return to infect us again in a more virulent manner than before. In the end, chronic diseases increase, and the resistance of the body is lowered.

In ages past, the approach to health was to make the body strong by purging it of debris and toxins, then feeding it with nutritious food to promote health. There are still many foods that are considered “medicinal,” even in our culture. Some readers may recall the fungal growth called chaga. Perhaps you have heard of a tea, produced by a colony of microbes, known as kombucha. And various “hot” spices are used to help boost immunity.

Perhaps the oldest food recognized and appreciated for its medicinal qualities would be honey. Long recognized as one of nature’s wonders, honey has apparently been used by mankind for at least 8,000 years, as depicted by Stone Age paintings. It has been appreciated as both a food and a medicine since ancient times. Honey is a byproduct of flower nectar and the upper digestive tract of the honeybee, concentrated through a dehydration process inside the beehive. Honey has a very complex chemical composition that varies depending on the botanical source.

Honey has been used by many ancient cultures to treat a variety of conditions. Ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Romans all employed honey for various conditions, including wounds, intestinal disorders and more. The Greeks used honey for pain (mixed with vinegar), as a laxative or for treating a sore throat. Ayurvedic medicine is the term describing the Indian system of traditional medicine. This ancient civilization considered honey one of nature’s most remarkable gifts to mankind, as an aid to digestion, for oral and even eye health.

Honey has had limited use in modern medicine due to inadequate scientific support. In the late 19th century, researchers discovered that honey has natural antibacterial qualities. During the past few decades, it has been subjected to laboratory and clinical investigations which have proven various demonstrable medicinal qualities. A remarkable discovery was its antibacterial activity, mentioned in numerous studies. Natural honey exhibits bactericidal activity against many organisms including Salmonella, E. coli, H. pylori and others. It has finally found a place in modern medicine, with the promise of further scientifically-recognized benefits to come.

Honey is a natural product that has been widely used for its therapeutic effects. It has been reported to contain about 200 different substances, although the exact composition varies widely. It’s composed primarily of two naturally occurring sugar molecules (fructose and glucose), but also contains amino acids, vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Honey varies significantly depending on which plants the bee feeds on.

Honey protects against damage caused by bacteria. Some honey stimulates production of special cells that can repair tissue damaged by infection. Hydrogen peroxide is produced by honey, which gives honey some of its antibiotic quality. But some types, including manuka honey, also have other components with antibacterial qualities, specifically a compound termed MG (which stands for methylglyoxal). MG is found in most types of honey, but usually only in quantities too small to provide much benefit. Higher concentrations of MG seem to account for stronger antibiotic effects, although there may be other compounds involved in the medicinal effect of manuka honey.

Other medicinal characteristics of honey include an ability to reduce inflammation and promote healing. Honey appears to be able to diminish scar size, and stimulate tissue regeneration. Honey has been used to treat eczema, psoriasis and dandruff. For treating certain forms of inflammation, honey was as effective as a commonly used steroid. Drugs for treating inflammation have serious limitations: corticosteroids suppress tissue growth and also the immune response; and the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are harmful to cells, especially in the stomach. But honey has an anti-inflammatory action free from adverse side effects.

One of the most studied and most effective uses of honey is found in healing of wounds. The Russians used honey in World War I to prevent wound infection and to accelerate wound healing. The Germans combined cod liver oil and honey to treat ulcers, burns, fistulas and boils. Nearly all types of wounds, including abrasions, abscesses, bed sores, burns, and various types of ulcers (diabetic, malignant, traumatic, venous), have been found to be responsive to honey therapy. Application of honey as a wound dressing leads to stimulation of the healing process and rapidly clears the infection. Honey has a cleansing action on wounds and stimulates tissue regeneration.

Honey has long had a valued place in traditional medicine. However, it has a limited use in the modern era due to a lack of scientific support. Ongoing research has elucidated some of the mechanisms that imbues honey with such wonderful abilities. Are these kinds of complex scientific studies required for the average individual to benefit from this amazing natural substance? That is a personal question. But clearly honey has a long and successful track record of improving people’s health. Not for a moment am I suggesting you treat a serious infection with honey alone, or some other susceptible medical condition, but as an adjunct to antibiotic therapy, it may have an important place. At the very least, it’s certainly a healthy way to satisfy your sweet tooth!

Editor’s note: Dr. Conway McLean is a podiatric physician now practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula, having assumed the practice of Dr. Ken Tabor. McLean has lectured internationally on surgery and wound care, and is board certified in both, with a sub-specialty in foot orthotic therapy. Dr. McLean welcomes questions, comments and suggestions at drcmclean@penmed.com.