Which is the best kind to use for good health?
I grew up on a working organic farm in New England that included a small orchard with apple, pear, peach, and cherry trees. By working the land and following nature’s seasonal cycles, I learned the importance of pollination early in life. After the cold, long winters, fruit trees blossomed and honeybees went to work. From an early age, I developed a fondness for bees and later, when living in California, kept my own backyard apiary.
Honeybees are amazing. During the darkest hours of the new moon, I would get up in the middle of the night and put my ear against the wooden sides of a bee box to hear the symphony of thousands of bees humming together. I also learned the value of propolis, pollen, and honey for health and healing.
- Propolis is a resin with powerful antibiotic properties that bees collect from plants.
- Honey is the sweet, sticky fluid made by bees from the nectar of flowers.
- Pollen is made of proteins and is considered a super food for health enthusiasts. However, since collecting pollen involves abusing the bees, including the death of large numbers of honeybees, I am not an advocate of consuming pollen except as a medicine to treat allergies.
Let’s take a closer look at the amazing honeybee and how honey heals.
Not Native to the U.S.
We take pollinating bees, like the honeybee (Apis mellifera), for granted. In the New World, stingless bees pollinated vast tracks of forest and grasslands, and still do in the Amazonian rainforests of Peru and Brazil.
But honeybees are not native to the Americas. Colonists brought the first bees to Virginia in the early 1600s. The pristine native environment was perfect for them. Two hundred years later, they had spread across the continent and south to Latin America.
What can we learn from these amazing creatures?
Nutritional Value of Honey
Honey made from flower nectar, the sweet liquid secreted by plant glands, is called blossom honey. The flavor of honey varies depending on the type of nectar collected by honeybees. Wild forest honey has the strongest flavor, and by some experts is considered the most medicinal. Clover and fruit tree blossom honey is sweet and mild, and the type most commonly sold in grocery and health food stores.
Regional differences in types of pollinating plants make for specialty honeys. In Florida, Tupelo honey is produced from the White Ogeechee Tupelo trees that grow along rivers in northwest Florida and is the only place in the world where Tupelo Honey is produced commercially. Pure Tupelo honey has a light amber golden color with a slight greenish cast. Due to its high laevulose (44.3%) and low dextrose (29.98%) ratio, diabetic patients can consume Tupelo Honey.
However, honey is high is fructose, so don’t use it as a sugar substitute. Honey also contains oligosaccharides, a type of complex sugar that acts as a prebiotic to support friendly probiotic bacteria populations in the gut. The nutrient content of honey is very low, but it has many easily assumable trace minerals and other nutrients. Darker colored honey has more minerals.
Sugar Composition of Honey Per 100 Grams
- Fructose 38.5 grams
- Glucose 31 grams
- Maltose 7.2 grams
- Sucrose 1 gram
Pure honey in the U.S. cannot be sold with added sugar or any food additive. Honey from other countries, however, including China, is often blended with sugar syrups. Be sure to read labels and, when you can, buy locally. Over-consuming fructose, even from health giving honey is bad for your health. Moderate use is healthy for you.
What Makes Honey Magic?
The antibacterial action of honey is thought to be from hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). A powerful antimicrobial, H2O2 can kill nearly all germs, as well as some cancer cells, on contact. When honey comes in contact with a wound, an enzyme called glucose oxidase—a gift from the bees—activates the release of H2O2. There are likely undiscovered interactions that occur when honey is used to treat wounds, but from what we know, medicinal honey can even kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA.
Honey is hydroscopic. It pulls water away from an infected wound by osmosis. Dryer wounds heal faster. But there’s more to it: honey also pulls lymph fluid to the wound, making for a balanced healing environment.
It also has a low pH of between 3 and 4, making it acidic. Bacteria thrive in neutral or slightly alkaline environments. I know this may be contrary to the pro-alkaline theory, but scientifically true and clinically proven understanding trumps trendy ideas. If you have a non-healing wound, try honey. It’s a “good” acid.
In addition, honey contains phytochemicals important for health. Carotenoids, phytosterols, phenolics, peptides, and other plant chemicals are found in honey. All of these are important for human health and many have healing properties. Many also signal the body’s immune cells to release active immune regulating substances called cytokines. Certain cytokines have anti-inflammatory activity.
Some wild honeys have been tested for anti-tumor activity. Honey can also induce detoxification enzymes that protect against cancer and cardiovascular disease. Many honey phytochemicals exert a synergistic antioxidant effect.
Why Honey Heals
- Hydrogen peroxide activity
- Slightly acidic to restore tissue environment
- Hydroscopic helps remove toxic fluid
- Contains phytochemicals that support immunity
Medicinal Properties of Honey
- Autoimmune protection
- Eye health
- Prebiotic effect promotes healthy gut
- Promotes calcium and selenium absorption
- Wound healing
Manuka honey is made in New Zealand from the nectar of Manuka flowers (Leptospermum scoparium). It’s the basis of Medihoney, which the FDA approved in 2007 for use in treating wounds and skin ulcers. This kind of honey is famous because it stimulates tissue healing and is sometimes used to treat chronic leg ulcers and pressure sores.
Its healing action is largely attributed to what is called “Unique Manuka Factor,” or UMF. Official Manuka honey displays the trademark UMF on the label. Ultraviolet light, rather than heat, is used for purification, so all healing properties are preserved.
A UMF rating of 0 to 4 means undetectable. Look for a rating of greater than 5, and over 10 is acceptable for clinical use. Those with ratings of 15 and higher are considered superior grade. Medical grade honey, like Medihoney, is Manuka honey processed into a gel for easy application.
Manuka honey can be use to treat nearly all ulcers, fistulas, post-surgical wounds, and abscesses. It is also used to treat non-healing wounds in cancer patients, including those induced by radiation therapy. You can also apply honey to herpes blisters.
This is the form of honey that’s closest to the way the bees make it. Raw honey is extracted by spinning the honeycomb in a centrifuge. When taken directly from the hive, the honey is still warm and flows easily. When I kept bees, I used an old-fashioned honey extractor that required hand cranking. It was a lot of work, but the results were well worth the effort.
Raw honey is amber colored and has traces of pollen and wax. By consuming local raw honey, you get a homeopathic dose of pollens from your area that helps immunize against allergies.
Certified organic raw, unfiltered honey is the form I recommend for health.
In the Peruvian rainforest, a thin liquid wild honey is prized for its healing abilities. It’s sold in the open markets in Iquitos along the Amazon River, and fetches top price. Unlike commercial honey made by honeybees, wild honey is not so sweet. It is dark amber in color and because it is unfiltered, can contain particles from bees, wax, as well as twigs and bark.
There are a 300-400 different species of bees in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon. Most of these species are non-stinging. The local shamans use it for a wide variety of conditions. Scientists have found it to help stabilize irregular heart rate.
Common Cold and Cough
Honey has been used as a cold and cough remedy for thousands of years. It is considered a demulcent, a medicine that sooths inflamed mucous membranes. Buckwheat honey is considered that best for treating cough. It is especially good for children.
Drinking herbal tea or warm lemon water mixed with honey is a time-honored way to soothe a sore throat. Honey may be an effective cough suppressant, too.
In one study, children age 2 and older with upper respiratory tract infections—common cold—were given up to 2 teaspoons of honey at bedtime. The honey seemed to reduce nighttime coughing and improve sleep. In fact, honey appeared to be as effective as a common cough suppressant ingredient, dextromethorphan, used in typical over-the-counter doses.
The Honey and Sugar Connection
We all know that consuming refined sugar is unhealthy. But, using honey as a sugar substitute is not wise. In a previous blog, I wrote about the toxic effects of high fructose corn syrup. But even too much natural fructose from fruits and natural sweeteners is also not healthy. Since honey is mainly composed of fructose, it may have unhealthy effects on blood sugar metabolism. Best to not sweeten your morning cereal with commercial honey.
Commercial pasteurized ultra-filtered honey—the kind that is a rich golden color and remains liquid when stored at room temperature—has no medical value. It’s all sugar, mainly fructose. Even too much natural sugar, like in honey or fruits, can be harmful to your health.
The glycemic index of different types of honey range widely. In general, however, honey has a higher glycemic index than sugar. Those with diabetes should avoid commercial honey.
There’s no advantage to substituting honey for sugar in a diet plan for diabetes. Both honey and sugar make your blood sugar level rise. Because of the complex nature of raw honey, however, in small amounts it may help lower glucose levels. In one study, honey compared with dextrose and sucrose lowered glucose in diabetics. It also reduced LDL cholesterol, homocysteine, and C-reactive protein. Remember that it can raise insulin and hemoglobin A1c. For diabetics, best to hold off on use of all commercial honey and only use raw organic honey occasionally.
Best Ways to Use Honey
Treat honey as a super food. Buy only the best quality. Don’t buy commercial pasteurized honey. Raw organic honey turns opaque and hardens at room temperature. Use it in small quantities. Treat it as a medicine for sore throat and coughs. Use it along with probiotics for repairing your gut. Consider it as a wound dressing. Try a little on a herpes lesion.
- Buy organic or wild, non-pasteurized honey.
- Choose locally grown.
- Do not use it as a sugar substitute.
- Use in small amounts as a super food in water or herbal tea.
- Store away from sunlight at room temperature.
- Use is as a topical medicine for burns and wound healing.
During the many years that I kept bees, I would visit them in the morning and around sun down. Every night before I went to bed, I would walk the garden and stop by the beehives, and wish my little beauties, nature’s flying pharmacy, a safe and peaceful night.