In traditional medicine, there are many compounds that have been used for centuries to procure health benefits. Many of them are still eaten today, although the health benefits are not always recognized.
Honey is one such compound. Not just has honey been eaten for over 8,000 years, since the 19th century, it has been recognized as an antibacterial compound. For wound healing, that has some significant advantages.
The Backstory – It’s All About the Bees
Honey is now available in a variety of forms – from pasteurized to flavored. However, it is only the honey that comes straight from the hive – the small hexagonal cups that store honey produced by honeybees – that has healthful benefits.
Part of the reason for the difference between raw and processed honey is that bees travel from flower to flower collecting nectar and pollen. The nectar and pollen are then taken back to the beehive, placed in the honeycomb and used as a food source for the bees.
Bee pollen contains over 250 substances, including vitamins, amino acids, essential fatty acids, micronutrients and antioxidants. For this reason, the German Federal Ministry of Health recognizes bee pollen as a medicine. Moreover, studies have found that raw honey may help fight inflammation and improve liver function.
Processing honey effectively removes bee pollen from the honey, and along with it, many of the health benefits. One study, which analyzed 60 samples of commercial honey brands in the U.S., discovered that over 75% of all samples contained no pollen. Even minimally processed honeys were found to have significantly fewer enzymes than raw honey.
Lastly, processed honey typically has added sweeteners and sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup.
Why It Works
Raw honey is a nutritional powerhouse. It contains 22 amino acids, 30 bioactive plant compounds, and 31 minerals, including zinc and magnesium. Manuka honey, which comes from bees in New Zealand, also contains a compound called methylglyoxal (MG). This substance comes from the conversion of another compound, dihydroxyacetone, that is found in high concentration in the nectar of manuka flowers and has a strong antibiotic effect.
For this reason, honey producers have a scale for rating the potency of manuka honey. The rating is called UMF, which stands for Unique Manuka Factor. To be considered potent enough to be therapeutic, manuka honey needs a minimum rating of 10 UMF. Honey at or above that level is marketed as “UMF Manuka Honey” or “Active Manuka Honey.”
Raw honey also has a pH of 3.5-4.5, 0.5% gluconic acid, as well as glucose oxidase, which produces hydrogen peroxide and gluconic acid when water is added to honey, or when applied to a wound in the presence of water. Honey also protects against damage caused by bacteria, and may boost production of special cells that can repair tissue damaged by infection.
For wound healing honey is effective for a variety of reasons including:
- Acidic pH promotes healing. With an acidic pH of between 3.2 and 4.5, honey applied to wounds encourages the release of oxygen, which is important to wound healing.
- Sugar has an osmotic effect. An osmotic effect refers to the drawing of water out of damaged tissue. The result is that swelling is reduced, encouraging the flow of lymph to heal the wound. Further, sugar draws water out of bacterial cells, which can help keep them from multiplying.
- Antibacterial effect. Honey has been shown to have an antibacterial effect on bacteria commonly present in wounds. Because bacteria delays the wound healing process, honey can help protect the wound from cell damage and promote wound healing.
For the reasons noted above, the Cochrane Review found that honey may shorten healing times in mild burns and surgical wounds, when compared with traditional dressings.
Hitting the Sweet Spot
The first step to using honey as an effective wound dressing is to start with the right type of honey. Manuka honey has specific antibacterial activity not found in the same concentration in other forms of honey. Without using the right type of honey, the potential benefits could be lost entirely. Medical grade honey is also available under many trade names such as Gelam, Tualang, and MediHoney.
Next, the honey should be applied with clean hands and applicators, such as sterile gauze of cotton tips. Honey should then be applied to the dressing first and then to the skin, as this cuts down on spillage. Honey impregnated dressings, such as MediHoney can also be used. One exception to this rule is in the case of a deep wound bed, where the honey should fill the wound bed before a dressing is applied.
After applying the honey to the wound, a clean, dry dressing should be placed over the honey. This can be sterile gauze pads, an adhesive bandage, or an occlusive dressing, which helps to keep the honey from seeping out.
Lastly, the dressing should be replaced when drainage from the wound saturates the dressing. Once the wound begins to heal, the dressing changes will likely be less frequent.
Used for centuries as a healing compound, honey has many antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and nutritional benefits. For wound healing, honey offers a promising remedy that combines the wisdom of traditional medicine with practical application.
Dr. Japa Volchok DO is a General and Vascular Surgeon and the VP Operations at Vohra Wound Physicians. Dr. Volchok trained in General Surgery at Berkshire Medical Center, a University of Massachusetts Affiliate. After residency, Dr. Volchok pursed vascular surgery training at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, VA. His vascular surgery training provided a strong base in wound care and the management of wound comorbidities which later lead him to work with Vohra Wound Physicians as a physician in long-term care.