The first-ever International Symposium on Honey and Human Health took place at the 2008 National Beekeeping Conference in Sacramento, CA. It was sponsored by The Committee for the Promotion of Honey and Health, Inc., which has the following goals:
Create and promote a positive Honey and Health agenda that will result in greater consumer appreciation and demand for honey nationwide and enhance the already favorable image of honey by advancing sound scientific information that underscores its healthful benefits
Support and promote the development of quality standards from within the industry, and promote an educational campaign that reinforces the need for good science to be applied in the promulgation and establishment of standards, including realistic tolerance and testing limits
The Committee has established a non-profit association, featuring press releases and relevant links, and is soliciting memberships. There is scheduled to be a “members only” area in the near future. This seminar was supported by a long list of organizations, including The National Honey Board, California State Beekeepers Association, Saskatchewan Beekeepers Association, and the Western States and National Honey Packers and Dealers Associations as well as CPNA International.
The first of 12 sessions was a comprehensive review of honey use in nutrition and health by Dr. Stephan Bogdanov, who recently retired from the Swiss Bee Research Centre, where he was chair of the International Honey Commission. His summary revealed what many beekeepers already know, that honey differs greatly in appearance, sensory perception and composition based on botanical origin. The major nutritional elements are carbohydrates, mainly the simple sugars, glucose and fructose, but also honey can contain 25 complex sugars, known as oligosaccharides. These are compounds made up of three to ten simple sugars and their consumption can have wide-ranging health implications.
Although a high energy carbohydrate, honey can have a widely variable glycemic index (ranging from 32 to 85) according to Dr. Bogdanov. The glycemic index or GI is a ranking system for carbohydrates based on their effect on blood glucose levels. It was invented by Dr. David J. Jenkins and colleagues in 1981 at the University of Toronto. The higher the GI the faster food is processed. The relationship between the GI of different foods has been implicated in many human health concerns from diabetes to athletic performance.
Honey also contains small amounts of proteins, enzymes, amino acids, minerals, trace elements, vitamins, aroma compounds and poly-phenols. Dr. Bodanov’s presentation elaborated on some of the positive nutritional and health benefits thought to be derived from the complex makeup of honey. Thus the sweet has been shown to have antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-parasitory, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-mutagenic, and anti-tumor properties.
Many of the above benefits of honey are controversial and are now only being looked at critically by the modern medical community. I will address two of them here.
The first is the vision of Mike Mcinnis, MRPS, a Scottish pharmacist. He sees glucose metabolism as central in humans and described the reverse glucose-fatty acid cycle, which is complicated by “chronic cortical driven stress.” Specifically, this stress often blocks fat metabolism, something many nutritionists over look. The concepts are that honey taken at night recharges the liver’s glycogen level relieving day-time stress, while at the same time the fructose in honey encourages fat metabolism. He states in no uncertain terms that the current mind set, eating before bedtime promotes weight gain, is incorrect, especially when it comes to consuming honey.
Honey also helps restorative sleep, Mr. Mcinnis says, when consumed before bed by ensuring adequate liver glycogen stores, limiting early morning stress hormone levels (cortisol and adrenalin), stabilizing blood sugar, and contributing to the release of the hormone melatonin, required for rebuilding body tissues during rest. The public health concerns over short or poor quality sleep are enormous, according to Mr. Mcinnis, and are associated with many conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, Alzheimer’s and other neuro-degenerative diseases.
During the conference, the new U.S. Edition of Mr. Mcinnis’ book, The Hibernation Diet was on display. First published in the United Kingdom, the U.S. edition was just recently published in the U.S. in 2007 and includes an added section on nutritional supplements. In his foreward to this volume, Dr. Ron Fessenden (MPH) (a Co-Chairman of the sponsoring Committee) writes that truly revolutionary discovery in medicine is measured in years, if not decades. Even more rarely do revolutionary nutritional discoveries gain acceptance among the medical community. Most physicians have little training in nutrition and are focused on disease treatment rather than wellness. The discovery that the human body consumes stored fuel (fat) differently during an approximate eight-hour sleep cycle than it does during the balance of our awake-time is, according to Dr. Fessenden, truly revolutionary. Expect plenty of skepticism, he concludes, concerning the principle that the human body burns more fat during sleep than it does during vigorous aerobic exercise, even though there is plenty of documentation in the literature outside the U.S.
Perhaps the best researched area using honey for human medical purposes is in burn and wound therapy. Dr. Shona Blair and colleagues at the University of Sydney, Australia reported on their work focusing on generic honey (botanical source not relevant). The research represents a broader approach and confirms many of the beneficial and antimicrobial uses of honey that Mr. Bodanov referred to in his presentation.
Dr. Blair’s team concludes that traditional use of honey has largely been forgotten in western medicine mainly due to the rise of antibiotics. The resistance that many organisms are now showing to these wonder drugs is one of the “most urgent issues facing modern medicine.” Fortunately, honey still works as an alternative therapy. In study after study, the sweet has been found to be effective for severe, problematic infections, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (“Golden Staph” or simply MRSA), Enterobacteriaceae in wound infections, Propionibacterium acnes found in acne and wounds, and pathogenic yeast Candida. A book published in the United Kingdom by R.J. White and colleagues in 2005 entitled Honey: A Modern Wound Management Product is a fitting exclamation point.
Of special interest is honey’s effectiveness against what are called biofilms. These are often extremely resistant to standard medications and human immune response. Dr. Blair concludes that honey should more and more become the first treatment of choice in a wide range of medical situations, not the last as is so often the case.
I recently was cat scratched and immediately applied some local honey. There was no infection and the holes and minor trauma healed far quicker than those I had some time ago when I used standard topical antibiotic ointment. I am also taking a spoonful of honey before I go to bed each night. I sleep better it seems to me, but have yet to lose much weight. Many people counsel that alternative treatments are often not “quick fixes,” and one should take a long-term view. In addition, in some studies up to 30 percent of the benefit can be applied to what is known as the “placebo affect” – that if you think it does you good, it really does.