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.
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.
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:
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
“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.
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:
- 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.