Honey medicinal use

Includes inserts from
Jack Challem, The Nutrition Reporter
and C. Leigh Broadhurst, Ph.D

Six medical journal articles over the past three years have described the antibiotic properties of honey. A physician at the medical college in Maharashtra, India, recently explored the use of honey-soaked gauze to treat burn patients. The 40 patients treated with honey healed in about half the time - and with half the scar tissue - compared with patients treated by other means. (Subrahmanyam M, Burns, Aug. 1994;20:331-3).

A team of researchers from the department of surgery, University Teaching Hospital, Nigeria, reported that unprocessed honey "inhibited most of the fungi and bacteria" causing surgical and wound infections. In a remarkable conclusion in the journal Infection (Jul.- Aug. 1992;20:227-9),Dr. S. E. Efem and his colleagues wrote, "Honey is thus an ideal topical wound dressing agent in surgical infections, burns and wound infections."

Perhaps most remarkable is the effect of honey on Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium now known to cause gastric ulcers. Because honey has long been a folk remedy for dyspepsia, or stomach upset, a team of researchers from the University of Waikato, New Zealand, tested whether honey would have any benefit. Within three days, honey stopped the growth of H. pylori colonies obtained from patients.

Honey is a by-product of bees concentrating plant nectars. It is mainly food for bees, bears and humans. The characteristic flowery taste of raw honey comes from the pollen it contains. Honey's ability to heal wounds and treat infections is quite notable. It also is known for its antioxidant, antibiotic and antiviral capabilities.

Honey is 18 to 20 percent water and is comprised of the monosaccharides glucose and fructose; vitamins A, B-complex, C, D, E, K and beta-carotene, as well as minerals and enzymes. Raw, unprocessed honey has the most medicinal and nutritional value. In a study of 104 patients with first-degree burns, researchers in Maharashtra, India, compared honey's effectiveness to gauze soaked in silver sulfadiazine (SS), the conventional treatment. After seven days, 91 percent of honey-treated burns were infection-free compared with 7 percent of those treated with SS. After 15 days, 87 percent of honey-treated burns were healed compared with 10 percent of the SS-treated burns.
The raw wildflower honey formed a flexible protective barrier which prevented infection, absorbed pus, and reduced pain, irritation and odor.1

Researchers in Sanaa, Yemen, treated 50 patients with wound infections following cesarean section or hysterectomy twice daily with either raw wildflower honey or a standard antiseptic solution of alcohol and iodine (AI). The 26 treated with honey were infection-free after six days compared with 15 days for the 24 treated with AI. Eighty-four percent of honey patients healed cleanly compared with 50 percent of AI patients. Honey treatment reduced the average postoperative scar width by nearly two-thirds, and hospitalisation duration by half.2

Four mechanisms are proposed for honey's healing properties :

  1. Honey is mostly glucose and fructose. These sugars are strongly attracted to water, forming a viscous syrup. When spread on a wound, honey absorbs water and body fluids, thus dessicating bacteria and fungi and inhibiting their growth.3
  2. Raw Honey contains glucose oxidase, an enzyme that, in the presence of a little water, produces hydrogen peroxide, a mild antiseptic. Glucose oxidase is destroyed by bright light, heat and pasteurization, so it is absent from most commercial honeys.3
  3. Raw Honey contains bee pollen, enzymes and propolis, all of which can stimulate new tissue growth.3
  4. Honey can contain additional medicinal compounds, including essential oils, flavonoids, terpenes and polyphenols, depending on the plant from which the pollen was taken.3

In a laboratory study of 345 unpasteurized honey samples, the majority exhibited antibacterial action against Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause food poisoning. When honey's natural hydrogen peroxide effects were removed, only honey from Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) and Viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare) were still active.4 New Zealand's dark, aromatic Manuka honey also inhibited Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria that can cause ulcers.5 In general, stronger, darker honeys, such as buckwheat, sagebrush and tupelo, have greater antimicrobial and antioxidant activity--enough to act as food preservatives.6



  1. Subrahmanyam M. Topical application of honey in treatment of burns. Br J Surg 1991;78:497-8.
  2. Al-Waili NS, Saloom KY. Effects of topical honey on post-operative wound infections due to gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria following caesarean sections and hysterectomies. Eur J Med Res 1999;4:126-30.
  3. Molan PC. The antibacterial activity of honey, Part 1 and Part 2. Bee World 1992;73:5-76.
  4. Allen K, et al. A survey of the antibacterial activity of some New Zealand honeys. J Pharm Pharmacol 1991;43:817-22.
  5. Somal NA, et al. Susceptibility of Helicobacter pylori to the antibacterial activity of manuka honey. J Royal Soc Med 1994;87:9-12.
  6. Frankel S, et al. Antioxidant capacity and correlated characteristics of 14 unifloral honeys. J Apic Res 1998;37:27-31
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