Honey has long been touted for its human health qualities, both as a food and as a wound treatment. As a food, honey provides liver glycogen according to Dr. Ron Fessenden, who has written several books on the subject, and provided a discussion of his ideas at the 2011 American Bee Research Conference. An abstract from a paper published by the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine, 2011 Apr; 1(2): 154–160 provides a laundry list of possibilities in terms of medicinal property and antibacterial activity.
Indeed, medicinal importance of honey has been documented in the world’s oldest medical literatures, and since the ancient times, it has been known to possess antimicrobial property as well as wound-healing activity. The healing property of honey is due to the fact that it offers antibacterial activity, maintains a moist wound condition, and its high viscosity helps to provide a protective barrier to prevent infection. Its immunomodulatory property is relevant to wound repair too. The antimicrobial activity in most honeys is due to the enzymatic production of hydrogen peroxide. However, another kind of honey, called non-peroxide honey (viz., manuka honey), displays significant antibacterial effects even when the hydrogen peroxide activity is blocked. Its mechanism may be related to the low pH level of honey and its high sugar content (high osmolarity) that is enough to hinder the growth of microbes. The medical grade honeys have potent in vitro bactericidal activity against antibiotic-resistant bacteria causing several life-threatening infections to humans. But, there is a large variation in the antimicrobial activity of some natural honeys, which is due to spatial and temporal variation in sources of nectar. Thus, identification and characterization of the active principle(s) may provide valuable information on the quality and possible therapeutic potential of honeys (against several health disorders of humans), and hence we discussed the medicinal property of honeys with emphasis on their antibacterial activities.
Manuka honey is becoming more sought after and this brings good news to New Zealand beekeepers. Leading the charge was Dr. Peter Molan at Waikato University.
According to Dr. Molan, manuka honey is the perfect substance to treat infections and wounds. Not only is it antibiotic (killing almost all bacteria), it also keeps the wound from dehydrating. Almost all other wound dressings either keep the wound dry (avoiding infection, but leading to scarring), or moist (avoiding the severe effects of dehydration, but making a great medium for bacteria to grow). Honey is also better than human-made antibiotics because such antibiotics actually slow down the rate of cell growth. The moisture-attracting nature of honey, on the other hand, actually pulls body fluids and nutrients to the wound surface where they help speed skin growth and healing.
According to Dr. Molan, honey has everything going for it except the acceptance by the medical fraternity. But recent discoveries about a second antibiotic substance in manuka honey may help change that. All honey gives off hydrogen peroxide, a known antibiotic. The hydrogen peroxide is produced when the glucose in honey reacts with oxygen. The problem with hydrogen peroxide as an antibiotic, however, is that in large concentrations it breaks down in the presence of a common enzyme (catalase), producing the characteristic fizz we see when we put it on a cut. Because it is produced slowly in honey, at a low level, the hydrogen peroxide doesn’t loose it’s effectiveness. Provided honey is kept away from light, the enzyme which breaks down the hydrogen peroxide won’t even activate.
Dr. Molan and his students tested the hydrogen peroxide in honey on a range of bacteria and as a control removed the hydrogen peroxide with catalase. That’s when they discovered the second antibacterial property in manuka honey. While not present in all samples, some showed a high level of non-peroxide inhibition over a whole range of bacteria, even at honey dilutions as low as 1.8%. This substance is now known as methylglyoxal.
The exciting thing about the manuka discovery is that this non-peroxide antibiotic substance works against even highly resistant bacteria such as MRSA, which is gaining a reputation for closing down hospital wards. According to Dr. Molan, doctors may soon be looking back at the last 20 years as the golden age of antibiotics. In the near future, we may have a host of bacteria resistant to synthetic antibiotics, and the need for naturally-occurring antibiotics like the one found in bioactive manuka honey will be all that more important.
There’s a lot of hype and lore about manuka honey. So it’s reasonable to be somewhat cautious, especially due to the real possibility of adulteration of the product along with the variation characteristic of most natural products. In addition, there are unknowns about the interactions of other substances in mauka honey with methylglyoxal.