October 20, 2014 By Dr. Mercola
Honey has been valued as a natural sweetener long before sugar became widely available in the 16th century. Honey production flourished in ancient Greece and Sicily, for instance, while animals other than humans – bears, badgers, and more – have long raided honeybee hives, risking stings for the sweet reward.1
Honey is truly a remarkable substance, made even more extraordinary by the process with which it is made. This blend of sugar, trace enzymes, minerals, vitamins, and amino acids is quite unlike any other sweetener on the planet.
And while honey is high in fructose, it has many health benefits when used in moderation (assuming you’re healthy). Before I delve into those, here’s a brief “lesson” on how honey is made…
How Honey Is Made (Fascinating!)
It takes about 60,000 bees, collectively traveling up to 55,000 miles and visiting more than 2 million flowers, to gather enough nectar to make one pound of honey.2
Once the nectar is gathered, the bee stores it in its extra stomach where it mixes with enzymes, and then passes it (via regurgitation) to another bee’s mouth. This process is repeated until the nectar becomes partially digested and is then deposited into a honeycomb.
Once there, the honeybees fan the liquid nectar with their wings, helping the water to evaporate and create the thick substance you know as “honey.” This honeycomb is then sealed with a liquid secretion from the bee’s abdomen, which hardens into beeswax. As Live Science reported:3
“Away from air and water, honey can be stored indefinitely, providing bees with the perfect food source for cold winter months.”
There are more than 300 kinds of honey in the US, each with a unique color and flavor that is dependent upon the nectar source. Lighter colored honeys, such as those made from orange blossoms, tend to be milder in flavor while darker-colored honeys, like those made from wildflowers, tend to have a more robust flavor.4
5 Honey Facts You Might Not Know
Honey, particularly in its raw form, offers unique health benefits that you might not be aware of. Among them…
1. Honey Makes Excellent Cough “Medicine”
The World Health Organization (WHO) lists honey as a demulcent, which is a substance that relieves irritation in your mouth or throat by forming a protective film.5
Research shows honey works as well as dextromethorphan, a common ingredient in over the counter cough medications, to soothe cough and related sleeping difficulties due to upper respiratory tract infections in children.6
2. Honey Can Treat Wounds
Honey was a conventional therapy in fighting infection up until the early 20th century, at which time its use slowly vanished with the advent of penicillin. Now the use of honey in wound care is regaining popularity, as researchers are determining exactly how honey can help fight serious skin infections.
Honey has antibacterial, antifungal, and antioxidants activities that make it ideal for treating wounds. In the US, Derma Sciences uses Manuka honey for their Medihoney wound and burn dressings.
Manuka honey is made with pollen gathered from the flowers of the Manuka bush (a medicinal plant), and clinical trials have found this type of honey can effectively eradicate more than 250 clinical strains of bacteria, including resistant varieties such as:
- MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus)
- MSSA (methicillin-sensitive Staphylococcus aureus)
- VRE (vancomycin-resistant enterococci)
Compared to other types of honey, Manuka has an extra ingredient with antimicrobial qualities, called the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF). It is so called because no one has yet been able to discover the unique substance involved that gives it its extraordinary antibacterial activity.
Honey releases hydrogen peroxide through an enzymatic process, which explains its general antiseptic qualities, but active Manuka honey contains “something else” that makes it far superior to other types of honey when it comes to killing off bacteria.7
That being said, research shows that any type of unprocessed honey helped wounds and ulcers heal. In one study, 58 of 59 wounds showed “remarkable improvement following topical application of honey.”8
3. Honey Improves Your Scalp
Honey diluted with a bit of warm water was shown to significantly improve seborrheic dermatitis, which is a scalp condition that causes dandruff and itching. After applying the solution every other day for four weeks, “all of the patients responded markedly.” According to the researchers:9
“Itching was relieved and scaling was disappeared within one week. Skin lesions were healed and disappeared completely within 2 weeks. In addition, patients showed subjective improvement in hair loss.”
4. Help Boost Your Energy
A healthy, whole-food diet and proper sleep is the best recipe for boundless energy, but if you’re looking for a quick energy boost, such as before or after a workout, honey can suffice. This is particularly true for athletes looking for a “time-released fuel” to provide energy over a longer duration.10
5. Reduce Allergy Symptoms
Locally produced honey, which will contain pollen spores picked up by the bees from local plants, introduces a small amount of allergen into your system. Theoretically, this can activate your immune system and over time can build up your natural immunity against it.
The typical recommendation is to take about a teaspoon-full of locally produced honey per day, starting a few months PRIOR to the pollen season, to allow your system to build up immunity. And the key here is local.
This approach only works because it has pollen of local plants you may be allergic to. Honey from other parts of the country simply won’t work. While research on this has yielded conflicting results, one study found that, during birch pollen season, compared to the control group, the patients using birch pollen honey experienced:11
- 60 percent reduction in symptoms
- Twice as many asymptomatic days
- 70 percent fewer days with severe symptoms
- 50 percent decrease in usage of antihistamines
Interestingly enough, there were few differences between the two honey groups (those who took regular honey, versus those who took honey that contained birch pollen.) However, the birch pollen honey group used less histamines than those who used regular honey. The authors concluded:
“Patients who pre-seasonally used birch pollen honey had significantly better control of their symptoms than did those on conventional medication only, and they had marginally better control compared to those on regular honey. The results should be regarded as preliminary, but they indicate that birch pollen honey could serve as a complementary therapy for birch pollen allergy.”
Honey for Herpes
Good-quality honey offers several topical wound-care benefits that can explain some of its success as a remedy for herpes sores:
- It draws fluid away from your wound
- The high sugar content suppresses microorganism growth
- Worker bees secrete an enzyme (glucose oxidase) into the nectar, which then releases low levels of hydrogen peroxide when the honey makes contact with your wound
In one study, 16 adult subjects with a history of recurrent labial and genital herpes attacks used honey to treat one attack, and a commonly prescribed antiviral drug, Acyclovir cream, during another. (It’s important to realize that neither the drug nor the honey will actually cure genital herpes. They only treat the symptoms.)
Interestingly, honey provided significantly better treatment results. For labial herpes, the mean healing time was 43 percent better, and for genital herpes, 59 percent better than acyclovir. Pain and crusting was also significantly reduced with the honey, compared to the drug. Two cases of labial herpes and one case of genital herpes remitted completely with the honey treatment, whereas none remitted while using acyclovir.12
3 DIY Honey Home Remedies
Honey is a humectant, which means it attracts and retains moisture, making it an ideal addition to moisturizers, shampoos, and conditioners. Along with its antimicrobial properties, honey makes a wonderful addition to homemade personal care products. The National Honey Board has a few you can try out for yourself:13
- Honey Hair Conditioner: Mix ½ cup honey with ¼ cup olive oil. Work a small amount through your hair until coated. Cover your hair with a shower cap and let sit for 30 minutes. Shampoo as normal and rinse.
- Honey Body Moisturizer: Mix 5 tablespoons honey, 2 tablespoons rose oil, and 2 cups almond oil in a medium-sized bottle. Apply as needed onto wet skin.
- Honey Almond Scrub: Mix 3 teaspoons honey, 1 teaspoon olive oil, and 6 ½ tablespoons of finely crushed almonds. Rub the exfoliating scrub onto your face gently and rinse with warm water.
The Organic Consumers Association has also published this simple honey lemon cough syrup that’s useful to keep on hand during the winter months:14
Honey Lemon Cough Syrup
Lemon helps promote health by quickly alkalinizing your body, and honey will kill most bacteria while soothing your throat. This is a perfect choice for a quick cough remedy.
- Put a pint of raw honey in a pan on the stove on VERY low heat (Do not boil honey as this changes its medicinal properties).
- Take a whole lemon and boil in some water in a separate pan for 2-3 minutes to both soften the lemon and kill any bacteria that may be on the lemon skin.
- Let the lemon cool enough to handle then cut it in slices and add it to the pint of honey on the stove.
- Let mixture cook on warm heat for about an hour.
- Then strain the lemon from the honey making sure all lemon seeds are removed.
- Let cool, then bottle in a jar with a lid and store in the refrigerator.
This syrup will keep for 2 months in the refrigerator. To soothe a cough, take 1/2 teaspoon for a 25 lb. child and 1 teaspoon for a 50 lb. child, about 4 times a day, or as often as needed. Adults can take 1-tablespoon doses.
Is Honey a Healthy Natural Sweetener? How to Avoid Fake Honey
As far as natural sweeteners go, honey does have a place. The main thing to remember when it comes to honey is that not all honey is created equal. The antibacterial activity in some honeys is 100 times more potent than in others, while processed refined honey will lack many of these beneficial properties altogether. Your average domestic “Grade A” type honey found in the grocery store is likely highly processed.
It’s also been found that more than 75 percent of the honey on American supermarket shelves may be ultra-processed—to the point that all inherent medicinal properties are completely gone—and then smuggled into the country by the barrel drum. Nearly all of this “fake” honey is made in China. Some of these brokers will even create bogus country of origin papers. All 60 jars of “honey” tested by Food Safety News (FSN) came back negative for pollen, which is a clear sign of ultra-processing.15 According to FSN:
“The removal of these microscopic particles from deep within a flower would make the nectar flunk the quality standards set by most of the world’s food safety agencies. The food safety divisions of the World Health Organization, the European Commission and dozens of others have also ruled that without pollen, there is no way to determine whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources.”
In their investigation, FSN discovered the following:
- 76 percent of honey samples bought at grocery stores (such as TOP Food, Safeway, QFC, Kroger, Harris Teeter, etc.) were absent of pollen
- 77 percent of the honey from big box stores (like Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart, and Target) were absent of pollen
- 100 percent of the honey sampled from drug stores (like Walgreens, Rite-Aid, and CVS Pharmacy) were absent of pollen
The good news is all of the samples from farmers markets, co-ops, and natural stores like Trader Joe’s had the full, proper compliment of pollen, as did organic brands from common grocery stores. When choosing honey, be sure it is raw, unfiltered, and 100% pure, from a trusted source.
Honey Should Be Consumed Only in Moderation
Honey has many healthy attributes, but it is also high in fructose, averaging around 53 percent. Each teaspoon of honey has nearly four grams of fructose, which means it can exacerbate pre-existing insulin resistance and wreak havoc on your body if consumed in excess. So when consuming honey, carefully add the total grams of fructose (including fruits) that you consume each day, and stay below 25 grams of total fructose per day.
Keep in mind, though, that if you have insulin resistance (i.e. if you are taking drugs for high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, or if you’re overweight) you’d be better off avoiding all sweeteners, including honey, since any sweetener can decrease your insulin sensitivity and worsen your insulin resistance. If you’re healthy, however, eating raw honey in moderation could provide many of the benefits listed above.
Sources and References
TIME October 4, 2014
1 LiveScience June 20, 2013
2 National Honey Board, Learn About Honey
3 LiveScience June 20, 2013
4 National Honey Board, How Honey is Made
5 TIME October 4, 2014
6 Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161(12):1140-1146.
7 Microbiology January 31, 2012
8 Br J Surg. 1988 Jul;75(7):679-81.
9 Eur J Med Res. 2001 Jul 30;6(7):306-8.
10 TIME October 4, 2014
11 Int Arch Allergy Immunol 2011;155:160–166
12 Medical Science Monitor 10(8):MT94-98; August 2004
13 The National Honey Board Skin Care Recipes
14 Organic Consumers Association December 12, 2007
15 Food Safety News November 7, 2011