Looking for a healthier alternative to replace sugar? Well, your search ends here with the golden delight called honey. The good news is honey is not only a natural sweetener but is also viewed as a health food with a lot of medicinal value attached to it.
Raw, unprocessed honey offers long-term health benefits that date back to ancient times. It has been traditionally used in Greek, Egypt, Romanian and Indian cultures as a natural remedy for cough and sore throat, infections, wound healing, burns, and gastrointestinal problems. For example, in Ayurvedic practice, honey is believed to be an excellent remedy for poor digestion, gum disease, irritating cough, burns, anemia and eye disorders like cataracts.
Are these claims proven by modern studies? Well, studies indeed back the potential role of raw honey in the prevention or management of certain diseases and infections. It has been found to be extremely useful in healing of wounds and treating bacterial infections. Research reveals that honey is also an excellent cough suppressant which may even work better that some over the counter medication, and without any of the unpleasant side effects.
Honey contains carbohydrates, sugars, trace minerals, vitamins, organic acids, enzymes, and a variety of polyphenolic compounds. Most of the therapeutic value of raw, unprocessed honey comes from its phenolic compounds, such as flavonoids and phenolic acids, which are known to be highly anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory in nature. Phenolic compounds are known to scavenge free radicals, that cause oxidative damage to cells and their sub-structures, resulting in inflammation.
However, not all honey is created equal. The amount and type of antioxidants raw honey contains will depend on the flower source, geography and seasonal factors. Generally, it is believed that the darker variety of honey packs more antioxidant punch.
A word of caution before we continue exploring the medicinal benefits of honey. Never give honey to children below one year of age as it may cause infant botulism, a rare illness that can even cause death.
1. Soothes sore throat and suppresses irritating cough
Warm water laced with honey and lemon is believed to be the best thing to treat sore throat and improve cough symptoms caused by upper respiratory infection (URI). Persistent cough at night impacts the sleep and quality of life for children and their parents.
It is a well-known fact that antibiotics and popular over the counter medications are of little help. If anything, these drugs are associated with a lot of side effects, including the risk of developing resistance to antibiotics.
Is honey a better option? With its strong anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and soothing properties, honey appears to be very effective in treating sore throat and stubborn cough that is not easy to get rid of. It coats and soothes the inner lining of the throat and fights bacteria that causes infection. What does science say on this?
This 2017 study found that honey may be a better option than Diphenhydramine in providing nocturnal cough relief in children.  Another 2012 study found that children who received 2 teaspoons of honey 3 minutes before going to sleep coughed less during the night. It concluded, “Honey may be a preferable treatment of cough and sleep difficulties associated with childhood URI. In light of this study, honey can be considered an effective and safe treatment of children >1 year of age.” 
This 2010 study showed that taking 2.5 ml honey before sleep has a better effect in improving night-time cough symptoms than dextromethorphan (DM) and diphenhydramine (DPH), two of the most common drugs used worldwide. 
Can it also reduce seasonal allergy symptoms?
Experts believe that honey works like a vaccine. It contains pollen, that activates the immune system to make antibodies. When you keep taking honey, the continuous exposure to bee pollen prevents mast cells (type of immune cells) to release histamine, the main chemical involved in allergic responses like cough, sneezing, watery eyes, hives and rashes.
In fact, bee pollen has many other medicinal benefits  and contains about 250 substances such as amino acids, vitamins, macro and micro-nutrients, and flavonoids. It works through “a series of actions such as antifungal, antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, anticancer immunostimulating, and local analgesic.” It is also helpful in the healing of burn wounds. 
Simply put, bee pollen present in raw honey boosts your immune system and helps ward off infections and allergies, including allergic rhinitis (AR).
2. Good for heart health
Oxidation of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) is one of the key events that cause inflammation and atherosclerosis – increasing your risk of heart disease. Raw, unprocessed honey is loaded with antioxidant substances such as flavonoids and polyphenols which are great in their ability to fight free radicals that cause oxidation in LDL cholesterol. 
It is believed that flavonoids work on multiple levels to reduce your risk of coronary heart disease. One, they relax blood vessels. Two, flavonoids reduce the formation of blood clots. Three, these natural chemical compounds prevent oxidation of LDLs.
In addition, honey does not trigger the sudden increase in insulin that occurs when consuming added sugar and other refined sugars. Sharp spikes in insulin can cause insulin resistance over a period of time – leading to an increased amount of insulin and sugar circulating in the blood stream. This gives rise to inflammation in the small and large blood vessels, which means increased risk of heart disease and other complications.
3. Bacterial infections
Honey exerts strong anti-bacterial activity. Research suggests that its high sugar content, naturally low pH (high acidic levels) and enzymatic activity creates an environment that makes it tough for the bacteria to grow and survive.
Honey contains glucose oxidase, an enzyme that not only makes honey acidic but also produce hydron-peroxide, which destroys cells of the bacteria.
In addition, honey also contains a protein called defensin-1. It is a protein that bees make and add to the honey they make. Defensin-1 is highly anti-bacterial and can even fight infections that are resistant to antibiotics.
Antibiotics kill bacteria. But these drugs also destroy good bacteria, an action that disrupts the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut. Honey is known to increase the growth of healthy flora in the gut.
Let’s see how honey is an effective natural treatment in wound infections as well as gastrointestinal infections.
Honey in wound infections and wound healing
Since ancient times, honey has been used to treat burns, wounds, bed sores and various other skin aliments. These claims have been validated by modern research that suggests that honey’s antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties make it as a useful agent in wound healing. It also stimulates the generation of new tissue, an important event in the healing of wounds, burns and ulcers.
A recent 2018 study found that honey can be very effective in the treatment of infected wounds. 
A 2017 study found that Manuka honey from New Zealand, known to have high anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial activity, not only prevents bacterial growth but also enhances wound healing and tissue re-growth.  Another study also showed how Manuka honey promotes the healing of wounds through various mechanisms. 
A review of 26 randomised and quasi-randomised trials found that honey is superior to conventional treatments in healing partial thickness burns and infected wounds after a surgery. 
In addition, science proves that it is extremely effective to treat diabetic wounds due to its ability to destroy infection causing bacteria, control inflammation and heal wounds faster. Diabetic patients are more likely to suffer from vascular complications and ulcerations – that often results in diabetic foot infections. Most foot ulcerations become gangrene, and if not treated in due time these gangrenes can lead to limb amputations.
Aonother study reports that “honey is known as an “all in one” remedy for diabetic wound healing because it can combat many microorganisms that are involved in the wound process and because it possesses antioxidant activity and controls inflammation.” 
Honey in gastrointestinal infections
Studies show that honey is effective in destroying many strains of bacteria such as Escherichia coli, H. pylori. and Salmonella. These bacteria are known to cause diarrhea, gastroenteritis and peptic ulcers. Honey can also reduce the risk of acid reflux and heartburn.
In addition, honey improves the balance in the micro-biota of the gut. It is because honey is loaded with oligosaccharides that helps in the growth of prebiotic microorganisms. 
Honey in gum disease
Studies show that manuka honey fights harmful oral bacteria that is known to cause plaque, tooth decay and inflammation and bleeding in gum tissue. A 2014 study found that “Honey acts like an antibacterial against P. gingivalis.”  P. gingivalis is a bacteria that is majorly responsible for gum diseases such as gingivitis and periodontitis.
What about using honey in diabetes?
People with diabetes refrain from eating foods that contain sugar. Can they replace sugar with honey? Well, the evidence on this is not clear.
Some studies show that it may increase blood sugar levels. But these levels seem to crash down quicker than when you eat regular sugar. In addition, unlike sugars, honey is a rich source of antioxidants and to some extent micro-nutrients. This helps to control oxidative damage and inflammation that are known to cause heart disease and metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes.
The fact is raw honey, though natural, still contains sugar and calories. It may be a healthier option than processed sugar, but we still recommend that people with diabetes should use it in moderation.
While there is no clarity if honey could be a healthier option for diabetics, it appears to be extremely effective in managing wounds and foot ulcers in diabetic people, when applied on the skin.
Overall, honey has been found useful in:
- Soothing sore throats
- Suppressing persistent cough
- Preventing bacterial growth that cause wounds, peptic ulcers and gastrointestinal infections
- Increasing healthy bacteria in the gut
- Treating gum disease
- Healing skin wounds and reducing wound inflammation
- Healing wounds and foot ulcers in diabetics, when applied on skin
Raw, natural honey may contain spores of clostridium botulinum bacteria that can cause infant botulism. Infants have an immature digestive system not yet equipped to handle the spores that can find roots in their gastrointestinal tract and germinate, releasing botulism toxin. This can cause breathing problems, muscle weakness, trouble swallowing paralysis and even death.
Though it is a rare illness, it is best to avoid feeding honey to infants until their first birthday.
Not all honey is created equal
If you want to get the maximum benefits, it is best to choose the right kind of honey. Go for raw, unprocessed honey – collected fresh from beehives and simply strained to remove impurities such as beeswax. But if it still contains bits and pieces of bee pollen, propolis and some royal jelly, that is OK as these have their own health benefits. Raw honey will never be crystal clear unlike its processed counterpart.
On the other hand, processing involves filtration and pasteurization that destroys most of its natural antioxidants, enzymes, pollen and other nutrients. Heat applied during pasteurization also makes it look golden and sparkling. Most of the regular honey found in your local supermarkets is processed and devoid of any enzymes, antioxidant compounds and nutrients.
If you are buying from local farmers, makes sure it is fresh. And most importantly, always consume honey in moderation, and probably best not to have more than one teaspoon a day. At the end of the day, it is still sugar and calories that are going to affect your blood sugars in some ways, especially if you are consuming it in large quantities. Again, don’t give honey, whether raw or processed, to children below 1 year of age.
Go ahead, spread this golden delight on to your toast or drizzle it on your pancakes. You can also use it in your teas, yogurt or morning cereal to sweeten the deal. Using honey in your salad dressings or marinades is also a wonderful idea to get some extra antioxidant kick.
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- Cohen et al. Effect of Honey on Nocturnal Cough and Sleep Quality: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study. Pediatrics. 2012.
- Shadkam MN et al. A comparison of the effect of honey, dextromethorphan, and diphenhydramine on nightly cough and sleep quality in children and their parents. J Altern Complement Med. 2010
- Kocot et al. Antioxidant Potential of Propolis, Bee Pollen, and Royal Jelly: Possible Medical Application. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2018
- Komosinska-Vassev et al. Bee Pollen: Chemical Composition and Therapeutic Application. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2015
- Khalil et al. The Potential Role of Honey and its Polyphenols in Preventing Heart Diseases: A Review. Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med. 2010.
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- Niaz et al. Health Benefits of Manuka Honey as an Essential Constituent for Tissue Regeneration. Curr Drug Metab. 2017
- Alvarez-Suarez. Activation of AMPK/Nrf2 signalling by Manuka honey protects human dermal fibroblasts against oxidative damage by improving antioxidant response and mitochondrial function promoting wound healing. Journal of Functional Foods. 2016
- Jull AB. Honey as a topical treatment for wounds. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015
- Alam et al. Honey: A Potential Therapeutic Agent for Managing Diabetic Wounds. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2014
- Mohan et al. Effect of honey in improving the gut microbial balance. Food Qual. Saf. 2017
- Eick et al. Honey - a potential agent against Porphyromonas gingivalis: an in vitro study. BMC Oral Health. 2014