Honey has been used as a therapeutic agent since ancient times for disorders ranging from baldness to gastrointestinal distress. During the early part of the 20th century, researchers began to document the wound healing properties of honey. The introduction of antibiotics in the 1940’s temporarily stymied honey’s use. Nonetheless, concerns regarding antibiotic resistance and renewed interest in “natural” remedies has promoted a resurgence of interest in the antimicrobial and wound healing properties of honey.
Historically, honey has been used as a folk remedy in cultures around the world for millennia. It has been prescribed informally as a cure for smallpox, baldness, eye diseases, and indigestion. It’s even been used as a contraceptive. As with most natural “cures” unsupported by scientific studies, I sort of chuckle and sigh when I read about things like this—honey may be a silly substitute for real medicine, but at least it’s not bloodletting. However, in this case, the bees may have the last laugh. It turns out that honey’s properties make it a surprisingly effective cure-all. Or, let’s say, cure-much.
Bee Fruitful and Multiply
Honey’s salutary effects stem primarily from its antimicrobial properties. Most bacteria and other microorganisms cannot grow or reproduce in honey. I found this quite surprising, because all things being equal, bacteria love sugar. Honey contains around 40% fructose and 30% glucose—among other sugars—making it seemingly a great treat for microbes. However, honey is also somewhat acidic, and acids prevent the growth of some bacteria. More importantly, honey does not provide the water and oxygen needed to support bacterial growth. Although honey contains a fair amount of water, it’s supersaturated with sugar—meaning the water is not available to the microorganisms.
So what happens when you dilute honey with water—the bacteria just multiply like crazy, right? Well…yes and no. Amazingly enough, diluted honey supports the growth of bacteria that are helpful to humans while killing off dangerous strains. Some microorganisms do indeed flourish in a dilute solution of honey—such as the yeast used to ferment it into mead. Also, certain types of beneficial bacteria that live in the human intestines and aid digestion do well in a mixture of honey and water. But honey also contains a substance called glucose oxidase. When combined with water and oxygen, glucose oxidase forms gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide—the very same stuff you probably have in your medicine cabinet right now. This means that diluted honey can serve as an excellent antiseptic, while being far less likely than ordinary hydrogen peroxide to harm already-damaged tissue.
Show Me the Honey
What does all this mean in practical terms? For one thing, it means that honey applied topically to a wound can promote healing just as well as, or in many cases better than, conventional ointments and dressings. Its antibacterial properties prevent infection. It also functions as an anti-inflammatory agent, reducing both swelling and pain. As if that weren’t enough, it even reduces scarring. In studies around the world, honey has been shown to be extraordinarily effective in the treatment of wounds, burns, and surgical incisions. Honey also functions as a moisturizer, making it a useful treatment for sunburn as well as a general-purpose skin softener.
But wait, there’s more! Honey is truly a head-to-toe cure. Honey has been shown to be effective in treating inflammation of the eyelid, some types of conjunctivitis, and keratitis (along with other forms of corneal damage). It can also, believe it or not, be used to treat athlete’s foot and other fungal infections.