Most of us know that honey is processed by bees from nectar they draw from plants. The changes that happen in the aero-digestive tract of bees produce liquid honey, which is concentrated by dehydration in the inner chambers of the beehive. Honey comprises primarily of sugars and small amounts of vitamins, enzymes, and protein. The color and the flavor depends on the botanical source of the nectar. Even the antioxidant property of honey is influenced by the point of source of the nectar. Many researchers have found that dark honey has a higher phenolic content, which improves its antioxidant properties.
Honey has been utilized as food and medicine since ancient times, even as far back as the Stone age, as seen by cave paintings of that era. Download the 6 Health Benefits of Honey Infographic. Use of honey as a traditional medicine dates back to 8000 years. Now, modern-day scientists and researchers are investigating its use in modern medicines.
It has been reported that honey has inhibitory effects on 60 species of bacteria, fungi and viruses. The antioxidant capacity is also important for various disease conditions as it contains a wide range of compounds including phenolics, peptides, organic acids, enzymes, and Maillard reaction products. Honey has also been used in some gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, inflammatory and neoplastic states. Honey has had a valued place in traditional medicine for centuries. However, it has a limited use in modern medicine due to lack of scientific support. For a long time, it has been observed that honey can be used to overcome liver, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems. Ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Chinese, Greeks and Romans employed honey for wounds and diseases of the intestine. (source)In this article, we cover the composition, physiochemical properties, and important uses of natural honey in human diseases.
More Facts on Natural Honey
- Composition of honey depends on the plant from which the bees source their nectar. However, all of them contain flavonoids such as apigenin, pinocembrin, kaempferol, quercetin, galangin, hesperetin, and chrysin. And, Phenolic acids, such as caffeic, and ferulic acids, ellagic, and p-coumaric. All these compounds work collectively to deliver an antioxidant effect.
- Natural honey displays bacterial activity against micro-organisms such as Salmonella, Shigella, Escherichia coli, and Helicobacter pylori
- According to research conducted by Al-Waili and Boni (2003), to demonstrate the anti-inflammatory activities of honey in humans, honey possesses anti-inflammatory properties that stimulate immune responses within a wound.
Chemical composition of Natural honeyNatural honey consists of 200 substances that include vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, and minerals. But, primarily it contains sugar and water. The sugar content in honey accounts for 90 to 99% of the dry matter and the main carbohydrates are glucose and fructose.
Honey contains 4 to 5% fructooligosaccharides, which serve as probiotic agents. Water is another vital component of honey and it also contains 0.57% of organic acids such as gluconic acid which is an end-product of enzymatic break down of glucose. The organic acid is responsible for the acidity of honey and thus contribute to the characteristic taste of honey.The main enzymes that are responsible for the formation of honey are invertase, diastase, and glucose oxidase. These enzymes produce hydrogen peroxide, an antimicrobial agent that helps honey in calcium absorption and converts complex sucrose to simple forms of sugar, such as fructose and glucose. Catalase enzyme is responsible for producing oxygen and water from hydrogen peroxide.
Honey also consist of elements such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium, sulfur and phosphorus, iron, copper, zinc, and manganese. Nitrogenous compounds, vitamins C, B1 (thiamine) and B2 complex vitamins like riboflavin, nicotinic acid, B6 and pantothenic acid are also found. A variety of enzymes such as oxidase, invertase, amylase, catalase, etc. are present in honey. (source)
Physical composition of Natural HoneyNatural honey has several qualities, other than its composition and taste. When fresh, just after honey is extracted from bee-hives, it is in its purest form or viscous liquid state. The viscosity of honey depends on a variety of factors, particularly its water content. The hygroscopic factor of honey is also a factor that describes the ability of honey to absorb and hold the moisture content at room temperature. The water content in natural honey is 18.8% or less and honey absorbs moisture/humidity from the atmosphere.
The color of the honey varies from clear or colorless, to dark, or amber and yellow shade. It mainly depends on the flowers bees feed on. Factors such as the age of honey and storage conditions also play a role in the color of honey. The transparency of honey depends on the amount of pollen suspended in the honey. Honey undergoes crystallization depending on its storage conditions. The lower the water content, and higher the glucose content, the faster is the crystallization process.
History and Traditional uses of Natural Honey
- Uses of honey in ancient Ayurveda (India): The Vedic civilization considered natural honey as Nature’s boon and it was utilized traditional for curing digestive ailments, for treating cough, for keeping the teeth and gums healthy, and for the treatment of insomnia. It was also used for the treatment of wounds and burns.
- Uses of honey in ancient Egypt: The Egyptians used honey in more than 900 remedies and its uses have been recorded in the Smith papyrus (this is an Egyptian text that dates from 2600 and 2200 B.C). Almost all the Egyptian medicines contain honey, which was used together with wine and milk. They also offered honey to their deities. Honey was utilized for embalming the dead and its anti-microbial properties were used for healing infected wounds.
Uses of honey in ancient Greece: The ancient Greeks used honey in a beverage called “Oenomel”, which consisted of honey and unfermented grape juice. It was used as a traditional remedy for certain neurological disorders. The ancient Greek scientist Hippocrates would usually prescribe a simple diet that included oxymel (vinegar and honey) for treating pain, hydromel (water and honey) for thirst and a mixture of honey, water and other medicinal substances for treating acute fever.
The role of honey in modern medicine has been a subject of research for scientists. For the past many decades, medicinal properties of honey and their potential in modern medicine are being much researched.
Natural Honey in Modern Medicine
Here are a few instances:
Antimicrobial properties of honey: The antimicrobial property of honey was first recognized in the year 1892 by van Ketal.
Pathogens are sensitive to honey: It has been reported that honey has an inhibitory effect on 60 species of bacteria that includes both aerobes and anaerobes. There are numerous pathogens that are sensitive to the anti-infective properties of honey. The minimum inhibitory concentration of honey ranges from 1.8% to 10.8% (v/v). This suggests that honey has the capability to stop bacterial growth, even if honey is diluted with water up to 9 times.
The most common pathogens that cause infection are found sensitive to the antimicrobial properties of honey. Unlike most other conventional antibiotics, consumption or topical use of honey will not lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Thus, it can be used continuously.
It has been indicated that diluted honey treated urinary tract infections because certain bacteria causing urinary tract infections, e.g. E. coli, Proteus species and Strep. faecalis, were found to be sensitive to the antibacterial activity of honey. (source)
Wound healing properties of honey: This is one of the most studied properties of honey and is also the most effective use of honey. Its use in wounds dates back to World War I when the Russians used honey to avoid wound contamination and to hasten to heal.
The Germans also used it, by combining it with cod liver oil to treat ulcers, burns, and boils. Almost all types of abrasion, amputation, burns, abscess, etc. are found to be responsive to honey. Topical application of honey, as a wound dressing, leads to improved healing.
However, one should know that it also depends on the type and the degree of severity of the wound. Better still is when honey is applied on the dressing rather than the wound. Honey, when applied on burns, has an initial soothing experience and later a rapid healing effect. It also sterilizes the wound, reduces pain and reduces scars.
Why use honey for wound dressing? This remarkable and effective property of honey, in cleaning up a wound, is due to the combination of osmotic outflow and bio-active effect of honey. The glucose oxidase enzyme present in honey stimulates the production of hydrogen peroxide leading to the antibacterial activity of white blood cells (WBC’s).
The acidity of honey also aids in the antibacterial activities of honey. The wide range of amino acids, vitamins, and trace elements have a direct influence on the regenerating tissue. The osmotic outflow of honey assists in lifting the dirt and debris from the wound. The dressing is thus non-sticky and enables pain-free change, some people may feel a slight sting, this is because of the slightly acidic nature of honey.
Anti-inflammatory properties of honeyAccording to recent studies, it has been reported that honey reduces the activity of cyclooxygenase-1 and cyclooxygenase-2. Both these isozymes are responsible for causing pain and inflammation. Thus, it shows anti-inflammatory effects by reducing inflammation and exudation. It also promotes healing, diminishing the scar size and helps in stimulating tissue regeneration.
Conventional anti-inflammatory drugs have serious limitations as they suppress tissue growth, by suppressing the immune response. They are also harmful to cells, especially the stomach tissues. But, the anti-inflammatory properties of honey are free from such adverse effects.
Antioxidant properties of honey According to recent studies, we know for a fact that free radicals are known to cause molecular transformation and gene mutation in various organisms. The oxidative stress caused by free radicals is the root cause of many diseases. This is the reason why many scientists are now interested in natural sources that can provide active components to prevent and reduce the impact of free radicals on cells.
As mentioned in the above sections, honey contains various flavonoids and phenolic acids that work together for a synergistic antioxidant effect. Thus, from all these factors and studies we can conclude that honey has a natural and therapeutic effect in comparison to most synthetic drugs. Does it not look like honey is an effective medicine, both as traditional and modern, for various kinds of diseases?
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