September 12, 2018

What’s All the Hype About Honey?

This Sunday evening marks the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It will be the start of 5779. We will take time as this year comes to a close to appreciate the good things in our lives and to extend heartfelt wishes that the next year brings goodness to all of you.

There are some foods specific to this holiday that are eaten for their symbolism; we eat pomegranates and apples that are dipped in honey. In particular we eat honey in the hope that the coming year will be sweet.

I am in the habit each year at this time of doing a review of the scientific literature to see what new information has been published regarding honey and health. It looks like I started the practice in 2005.

The number of articles being published about honey seems to have grown over the years: 689 articles have been published in the first 9 months of 2018; 873 in 2017. Back in 2006 my PubMed search for honey yielded only 248 citations for 2005.

Let’s start by looking at the interesting clinical trials with humans. Last February, TT Poovelikunnel and colleagues compared manuka honey against the heavy duty antibiotic mupirocin to treat patients who had methicillin-resistant Staphyloccus aureus living in their nasal passages. These MRSA bugs like to hide out in the nose, a kind of reservoir from where infection then spreads to the skin. Both treatments worked: the treatments were equally effective, neither significantly better than the other. The honey cleared the infection in 43% of the patients treated and the drug in 57% of the patients treated, statistically no different.1

Going back to October 2017, manuka honey made up as a gel and eye drops was used to treat 114 patients with dry eye. After 8 weeks there was significant improvement in a range of symptoms.2 Another trial, this one published in December 2017 reported that honey was useful for dry eye conditions caused by contact lenses.3

Speaking of honey and drug comparisons, honey was compared against phenytoin in women who had received episiotomies: 120 women divided into three groups were given topical honey, phenytoin or placebo. Women receiving either treatment healed faster than the placebo group but neither treatment changed pain.4 Oral doses of honey given to female athletes significantly affected their antioxidant status after exercise. The reduction in oxidative stress peaked 1-2 hours after consuming the honey.5 A study published August 5, 2018 reported that topical honey reduced oral mucositis caused by chemotherapy in 100 children. The honey-treated kids had less severe mucositis which healed faster.6

When we suggest honey to cancer patients they often flinch at the idea as they think of honey as sugar and worry that “sugar feeds cancer.” I’m not going to address that idea at the moment. Safe to say it is an oversimplification. It looks more and more though that honey does not feed cancer. Why exactly isn’t clear. It seems to often discourage tumor cell growth.

Combined with the chemo drug 5-FU, honey enhances the drug’s effect at preventing colon cancer cells from spreading and encouraging them to drop dead, well undergo apoptosis, but that’s essentially the same thing.7 Prostate cancer cells treated with honey lose their ability to metastasize.8 Something else people worry about is that honey will cause dental cavities. It doesn’t appear to.9 A mixture of honey, saffron, astragalus and sedge may prove useful for cognitive problems. At least it may have helped in a randomized trial with 60 people.10

Another benefit that some will find surprising is that honey appears to protect against metabolic syndrome. On a multiple-choice test, I bet most doctors would guess that one wrong. If you think of the characteristics of metabolic syndrome (MetS), honey appears to correct most of them. Honey has a low glycemic index, reduces blood sugar levels, prevents weight gain, “… improves lipid metabolism by reducing total cholesterol (TC), triglyceride (TG), low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and increasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which leads to decreased risk of atherogenesis. In addition, honey enhances insulin sensitivity that further stabilizes blood glucose levels and protects the pancreas from overstimulation brought on by insulin resistance. Furthermore, antioxidative properties of honey help in reducing oxidative stress, which is one of the central mechanisms in MetS. Lastly, honey protects the vasculature from endothelial dysfunction and remodeling.”11

For rats being fed too many NSAIDs who end up with gastric ulcers, honey may be a helpful treatment.12 A new rat study reports that adding black cumin aka black seed (Nigella sativa) to the honey as it is traditionally taken, has a synergistic effect on the rate of healing, speeding it up.13

We have seen plenty of evidence over the years that honey helps wounds heal. From the ever-expanding amount of research being done with honey, it appears it does much more!

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