Honey has been used medicinally for  thousands of years – Aristotle referred to pale honey as being “good as a salve for sore eyes and wounds” – but it is only more recently that significant research has been done on the different properties of honey. The use of honey in medicine has traditionally been categorised as ‘alternate medicine‘, although given the research below it could be argued in many areas it is becoming far more mainstream. 

The following article tries to highlight some of the health benefits non pasteurised (from our perspective ideally local honey) has to offer.  There has also been some new research in 2019 which summarises and links out to several bits of further research.  It can be accessed for free here.

Is all Honey the Same?

No, local honey is normally not pasteurised; that is it is honey that is sometimes called ‘Raw Honey’. Much commercial honey has been pasteurised, heated to a high temperature and flash cooled. This can remove some of the properties such as yeast found in Raw Honey.

Honey is a good source of antioxidants

Raw honey contains an array of plant chemicals that act as antioxidants. Some types of honey have as many antioxidants as fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants help to protect your body from cell damage due to free radicals. These free radicals contribute to the aging process and may also contribute to the development of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Research shows that antioxidant compounds in honey called polyphenols may play a role in preventing heart disease.

Antibacterial /Antifungal Properties & Healing Wounds

Research has shown that raw honey can kill unwanted bacteria and fungus. It naturally contains hydrogen peroxide, an antiseptic. Its effectiveness as an antibacterial or antifungal varies depending on the honey.  Research has shown it is effective against dozens of bacteria strains, including E. coli and salmonella. 

A specific type of honey from New Zealand, called manuka honey, along with Malaysian Tualang honey, has been shown to fight Staphylococcus infections and the digestive bacteria responsible for peptic ulcers, H. pylori. 

What makes honey antimicrobic?  Most bees deposit hydrogen peroxide into the honey as they synthesise flower pollen. Also because honey is naturally acidic, you have a recipe for antibacterial properties. This explains honey’s centuries-old role in speeding wound healing and treating gastric complaints. Honey has even been known to heal wounds that don’t respond to antibiotics, although care must be taken to be sure the honey itself is free of contaminants. 

Studies have also found that darker, more concentrated honey may be more potent and that the type of plants harvested by the busy bee affects the antibacterial qualities. It is also a potent probiotic, meaning it nourishes the good bacteria that live in the intestines, which are crucial not only for digestion but overall health. 

Phytonutrient powerhouse

Phytonutrients are compounds found in plants that help protect the plant from harm. For example, some keep insects away or shield the plant from ultraviolet radiation. The phytonutrients in honey are responsible for its antioxidant properties, as well as its antibacterial and antifungal power. They’re also thought to be the reason raw honey has shown immune-boosting and anticancer benefits. Heavy processing, often done by commercial producers, destroys these valuable nutrients. 

Nutrition and is Honey Better than Sugar

Research done at the sports nutrition lab at the University of Memphis found that honey was just as good or better than glucose, or sugar water in boosting the staying power of endurance athletes. 

Honey contains specific nutrients that can make it a healthful addition to the diet.The exact nutrition and chemical composition of raw honey varies between different countries and environments and depends partly upon which types of flowers the bees gather their nectar from.

One tablespoon or 21 grams (g) of raw honey (not pasteurised) contains around 64 calories and 16 g of sugar. Natural honey contains small amounts of the following vitamins and minerals:

  • niacin
  • riboflavin
  • pantothenic acid
  • calcium
  • magnesium
  • manganese
  • potassium
  • phosphorous
  • zinc

Honey naturally contains sugars. A little more than half of the sugar in honey is fructose. However, even with its fructose content, honey may be a healthier option than table sugar (sucrose). Some research suggests that honey may offer a protective effect against diabetes and some types of honey may help improve cholesterol levels

Soothe a sore throat

Honey is an often used as a sore throat remedy.   Add it to hot drinks with lemon when a cold virus hits you. It also works as a cough suppressant. Research has suggested that honey is as effective as dextromethorphan, a common ingredient in over-the-counter cough medication. Just take one or two teaspoonfuls, straight. A study  found that honey did a better job of easing night time coughs and improving sleep than both the popular cough suppressant dextromethorphan and the antihistamine diphenhydramine (Benadryl).

Another study with children showed that buckwheat honey also outperformed dextromethorphan in suppressing coughs at night. Studies in Italy, using wildflower honey, and  in Israel, using eucalyptus, citrus and Labiatae honeys, found that the gooey stuff outperformed placebos in reducing both night time coughs and sleeping troubles in children with respiratory infections.

Honey and Hay Fever

It is often said honey can help with hay fever. However there is no substantive research to support this across all hay fever types that honey can desensitise the allergic reaction.

A 2002 study at the University of Connecticut compared locally-produced, unfiltered honey, with nationally-produced, filtered honey and honey-flavoured corn syrup.  In double-blind trials, there was no difference between the three in reducing hay fever symptoms.

The pollen in honey is nearly all the heavy, flower pollen that doesn’t cause hay fever. The pollen that sets your nose running is much lighter and comes from wind-pollinated plants, such as grasses and trees, that bees don’t visit.

Dr Sarah Brewer says that “It does seem that in people with a true pollen allergy, using local honey may reduce hay fever symptoms – at least for birch pollen allergy. But local honey probably needs to be taken for at least five months before the pollen season is expected. It may also help to start at low, immunotherapy doses which are slowly increased to help the immune system tolerate them better.”

Are there any risks in taking honey?

In addition to beneficial probiotics and nutrients, raw honey can also carry harmful bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum. This is particularly dangerous for babies. Raw honey should never be given to an infant less than a year old.

Symptoms of botulism poisoning in infants may include:

  • constipation
  • slow breathing
  • sagging eyelids
  • absence of gagging
  • loss of head control
  • paralysis that spreads downward
  • poor feeding
  • lethargy
  • weak cry

In adults, symptoms can include an initial short period of diarrhea and vomiting, followed by constipation and more severe symptoms, such as blurred vision and muscle weakness. See a doctor if you experience any of these symptoms after eating raw honey.