The Health Benefits of Honey

Most of us are familiar with the many health benefits of bee pollen. This bee byproduct is packed with vitamins, minerals, proteins, and other nutrients; when we eat bee pollen as a food supplement, we are treating our bodies to a significant percentage of many of the nutrients we need on a daily basis.

But when we think about the primary product that is harvested from beehives — namely, honey — we tend to believe that this is just a sweetener, a sugar substitute, a flavor enhancer, an ingredient in tomato-based barbecue sauces. However, honey is packed with nutrients as well; if eaten on a regular basis, honey can provide many of the nutrients your body needs, and it can act as a healing agent in other circumstances too.

Raw honey contains calcium, magnesium, sodium, iron, phosphorous, sulfur, and potassium. These are all essential minerals that our bodies need in at least trace amounts. Honey also contains many B-complex vitamins as well as Vitamin C; the amounts of these vitamins change depending on the quality of the nectar and pollen the honey is made from. Honey also contains proteins, and the enzyme glucose oxidase, which in turn produces hydrogen peroxide when honey is diluted with water. Hydrogen peroxide is an antibacterial agent that gives certain varieties of honey their healing properties.

Because of its antibacterial character, honey can be used as a dressing for wounds; honey was in fact widely used in field dressings during both world wars in the last century. Apply honey directly to a wound and cover it with a bandage. A honey dressing reduces pain and inflammation, prevents excessive scarring, combats infection, and encourages the growth of new skin. Through osmosis, honey absorbs moisture around the wound, thus drying the wound and killing bacteria.

One of the most effective strains of honey in treating wounds has been identified by Peter Molan, a biochemist working at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. Molan has shown that honey made from the flowers of the manuka bush, which is native to New Zealand, is particularly effective as an antibiotic — because it contains an antibacterial agent other than the hydrogen peroxide that is released by all raw honey. Although this additional agent has not been precisely identified (Molan refers to it as the “unique manuka factor”), the antibacterial efficacy of manuka honey has been measured with precision over years of research. Manuka honey has been shown to counteract not only bacteria, but also fungi, protozoa, and strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.

Honey can also be used to treat various skin conditions including eczema and psoriasis; it can help calm allergic reactions and inflamed insect bites. Simply rub the honey into affected areas. Because it is readily absorbed by the digestive system, honey improves digestion and can act as a mild laxative. And because of its antimicrobial properties, honey can relieve a sore throat: sweeten some herbal tea with honey, or lemon tea, so you can benefit from the Vitamin C in the citrus at the same time.

Honey also reinforces the body’s immune system, because of its antibacterial and antioxidant properties. Honey, in fact, contains as high an antioxidant content as spinach, apples, berries, and other foods more often thought of as “healthy” foods. Dark honey has higher levels of antioxidants than light honey.

Honey also helps facilitate liver function. It contains roughly equal amounts of fructose and glucose; fructose serves to unlock an enzyme that occurs in the nuclei of liver cells, that is needed in the essential process of incorporating glucose into glycogen. The liver must store adequate quantities of glycogen, one of the body’s most important sources of energy.

Raw, unprocessed honey is the most effective in terms of healing, whether you consume honey or use it to treat a wound. Raw honey contains pollen, the source of many of honey’s essential nutrients, and pollen is destroyed during heat processing or exposure to light. When purchasing honey, make sure it is labeled “100 percent pure”; if in doubt, purchase your honey from a health food store rather than a supermarket. Store honey in an airtight container in a cool, dry place, so that it doesn’t absorb moisture from the air. If honey is kept properly, it will keep for a long time without losing its healing properties.