By: Amy Pongrass, Nutritionist
Honey has been known for its healing properties for hundreds of years, with its use dating back to the ancient civilizations of Greece and Egypt. Honey was in fact the most common medicine in Egypt, with 500 ancient remedies incorporating honey as a main ingredient. Possessing antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties, honey is useful for a wide variety of conditions, not merely to sweeten foods.
Some varieties of honey contain beneficial bacteria of the lactobacilli and bifidobacteria species, which may explain why honey is so therapeutic and diverse in its uses. These "friendly" bacteria provide protection for the digestive systems of not only humans, but the honeybees as well. Always choose a quality raw honey to get the full benefits, however, as research found that bees fed on sucrose (sugar), contained no trace of lactobacilli in their stomachs. This highlights the fact that certain bee-feeding practices may have unwanted and harmful effects on the bees, and in turn the honey they produce is unlikely to provide the same therapeutic effects for humans.
Controlling blood sugar
Compared to other sweeteners honey is a good choice, especially when it comes to controlling blood sugar levels. Researchers discovered that people with impaired glucose tolerance, such as diabetics, showed an improved response to honey than to sucrose (common table sugar), with blood sugar levels rising more slowly than when tested against the sugar.
If you have high blood sugar it's important to choose wisely though, as the glycaemic index value of honey differs between various types and brands. The web site www.gylcemicindex.com lists several types of honey, with yellow box honey having the lowest GI value of Australian honeys, with a ranking of 35, and commercially blended honey the highest with a GI value of 72. The reason for a lower GI value is due to the fructose content, which in yellow box honey is nearly 46% and the commercial honey only 28%.
Honey can also help improve cholesterol levels, with a recent study examining a range of patients to determine how natural honey affected their health. The study compared three groups; healthy subjects, diabetics and those with high cholesterol and high C-reactive protein (a risk factor for cardiovascular disease), who were each given solutions, for 15 days, containing either natural honey, artificial honey or regular sugar (sucrose). The results showed that natural honey decreased levels of blood sugar, LDL (bad) cholesterol, C-reactive protein, homocysteine and triglycerides (further risk factors for cardiovascular disease) in both healthy subjects and those with high cholesterol. Levels of total cholesterol decreased by about 8% and LDL cholesterol by 11%, with C-reactive protein reducing by a whopping 75 %. In addition, HDL (good) cholesterol was raised by 2%.
The high antioxidant content of honey provides extra benefits to diabetics, as they may help improve the function of endothelial cells that line the blood vessels. Due to its antioxidant content, honey can help enhance the body's immune response. Several hospitals in Israel reported a decrease in the incidence of acute febrile neutropenia (when high temperature causes white blood cell count to drop) in 64 per cent of patients, giving patients a beneficial immune boost.
Antimicrobial and Antibacterial
Dr Shona Blair from Sydney University researched the antimicrobial effects of honey when used in hospital settings, stating that "honey dressings should be used as a 'first choice', not as a 'last resort'[as they] stimulate healing and possess ideal dressing properties", while at the same time being cost effective and free from side effects. Before you spread honey on a cut, however, think twice - better benefits come from using Medihoney, a more specific wound-healing honey found in chemists.
Honey has been shown to be a more effective cough suppressant for children ages 2-18 than medicinal cough syrups, which have recently been warned against children younger than six years old. Taking a teaspoon of warm honey may soothe the respiratory tract and prevent persistent coughing.
In addition to being antimicrobial, all types of honey are also antibacterial, "because the bees add an enzyme that makes hydrogen peroxide," said Peter Molan, director of the Honey Research Unit at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. "But we still haven't managed to identify the active components. All we know is (the honey) works on an extremely broad spectrum." In West Africa honey was used on non-healing ulcers to prevent amputation due to the strong anti-bacterial effects.
Manuka honey, produced in New Zealand may possess stronger healing properties than everyday honey, with scientists branding the unique ingredient UMF, which stands for Unique Manuka Factor. The UMF is calculated by comparing the honey's antibacterial strength against basic antiseptic formulas - the higher the UMF rating, the stronger the honey's healing properties. Look for a rating of ten or higher for the best benefits.
Whatever your use for honey - whether on a piece of wholegrain toast at breakfast, in your tea or on your children's cuts and scrapes, it's a household staple and deserves pride of place in the pantry!
Note: Honey should not be given to children under one year of age, as infants are susceptible to Infant Botulism, caused by spores of Clostridium botulinum found in honey, which may secrete toxins harmful to their immature immune systems.
References: First International Symposium on Honey and Human Health, http://www.prohoneyandhealth.com/UserFiles/Image/Symposium%20Report.pdf, South African medical Journal, PubMed, World's Healthiest Foods
Amy Pongrass is a clinical nutritionist with a passion for writing and researching the latest in health and nutrition. To contact her for an appointment, phone W: (02) 9021 4550 or M: 0414 251 211
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