Honey could very possibly be the earliest sweetener known to humankind and it has endured as a medicine in healing traditions from Slovenia to India. Honey is a go-to folk remedy for dyspepsia and was widely used for preventing infection and healing wounds before modern antibiotics were discovered in bread mold (not nearly as delicious a source of antibacterial goodness!). Now, with antibiotic resistance on the rise globally, lay people and scientists are interested in knowing everything that honey can do for them.
Bees produce honey from the nectar of floral plants, and the variety of the botanical source and its geographic origin affect the phytochemical markers in the final product. Finding honey with entirely unifloral origin (one type of flower) is rare, but since the flower used affects the presence and distribution of important compounds, different regions of the world have cultivated unifloral honeys with distinct physiochemical characteristics such as bactericidal activity, phenolic and amino acids, oligosaccharides, trace elements, colour, organoleptic properties (like aroma) and texture.
In 2007, one such specially cultivated unifloral honey, manuka honey, was launched into the limelight when the FDA approved it as an option for hospital wound treatment. Studies were showing that manuka honey could help hospitals deal with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as Staph (Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA). (Note: Just because hospitals are treating with honey does NOT mean that you should try this at home. Always contact a health professional for serious wounds and infections.)
Researchers were showing that unifloral New Zealand manuka honey helped against the pathogen Helicobacter pylori. It was discovered that the antibacterial effect of the manuka honey could be attributed to high levels of methylglyoxal, leptosin and other bioactive components and mechanisms that are not yet fully identified.
Soon the strength of manuka honey was being gauged and represented by strength rating such as the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF), and concentration of methylglyoxal (MGO), essentially using its ability to inhibit growth of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria as the measure. The higher the MGO or UMF number, the stronger the concentration of the “M” compound that made the manuka, manuka.
Surprisingly perhaps, the science does not support the idea that manuka honey is strictly antibacterial, however. The Institute for Functional Medicine recommends honey as a prebiotic food to encourage a healthy gut environment, and in 2008 Rosendale et al demonstrated beneficial synergistic effects of manuka honey with probiotics. They showed that manuka honey improved the growth of helpful strains of Lactobacillus reuteri and rhamnosus, and Bifidobacterium lactis, while inhibiting the pathogenic strains of E. coli, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus.
Much of this interest in manuka honey began because of an interest in its potential to help digestive issues. Honey has long been a folk remedy for dyspepsia, or indigestion, which is often caused by H. pylori. Researchers wanted to discover if it was the antibacterial properties of honey that were causing the resolution. In 1994, Professor Molan and his team suggested taking a teaspoon of manuka honey three times a day to relieve digestive issues such as acid reflux, indigestion and gastritis. They concluded that manuka’s anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties help reduce the pain of these stomach complaints.
In 2001, a research team at the British Medical Journal did some of their own experiments to see if honey could help with esophageal reflux. They hypothesized that the thick viscous nature of honey could coat the throat and protect it (much as many medications for reflux do), and their experiment showed that it did do a great job at coating or adhering to a slick tube surface. In a clinical review published by the British Medical Journal, they reported that one member of their team got relief from his heartburn symptoms. It stands to reason that the thicker and more viscous the honey, the better this might work.
Because manuka honey has proven effective in killing Helicobacter pylori, manuka honey may have potential gut soothing benefits. Helicobacter pylori or H. pylori can cause a potentially painful bacterial infection that can inflame and damage the tissue in your stomach and upper small intestine. If left untreated it can even trigger stomach ulcers and inflammation of the stomach lining. This inflammation can occur suddenly (known as acute gastritis) or gradually (chronic gastritis).
Digestive discomforts are incredibly common. There are some issues, such as IBS and Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), that go together. These are often found together with low stomach acid or acid reflux and Clostridium difficile, or C.dif, bacteria. Because of the natural antibiotic and antibacterial properties found in manuka honey, bacteria-related digestive disorders like SIBO are destined for further clinical manuka research. In fact, a 2013 study found manuka honey’s bactericidal effects extend to C.dif, a bacteria often implicated in cases of diarrhea, acid reflux, SIBO and low stomach acid.
It is truly amazing that modern science is increasingly discovering the inner working of long used folk remedies and validating what healing traditions have believed for so long. Whatever your reasons for eating a spoonful of manuka honey today, one thing is certain, you are sure to enjoy it!
This week only, use the code ‘gutsy15’ for 15% off all Manuka Honey at www.florahealth.com.
Antibacterial components of honey https://iubmb.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/iub.578
Methylglyoxal in Manuka Honey – Correlation with Antibacterial Properties https://www.agriculturejournals.cz/web/cjfs/volumes/27/pages/S163/
Susceptibility of Helicobacter pylori to the antibacterial activity of manuka honey https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8308841/
Oesophagus heartburn and honey. https://www.bmj.com/rapid-response/2011/10/28/oesophagus-heartburn-and-honey
Effect of honey in improving the gut microbial balance https://academic.oup.com/fqs/article/1/2/107/3860141
Antibacterial effect of Manuka honey on Clostridium difficile