As if there weren’t enough reasons to love honey, it’s also showing a staggering array of health benefits, in fact honey for health might just be this years new buzzword (shameless pun, I know.) Seriously honey is kind of a miracle anyway; the awesomeness of bees flying 55,000 miles and visiting two million flowers per pound of honey is pretty staggering, but as it turns out every day we have more and more reasons to be amazed by honey health benefits as well. Today’s amazement includes a fully stocked arsenal of weapons against against antibiotic resistant bacteria.
One of the most immediate problems modern medicine is facing right now is the epidemic of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Of course MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is all over the news, but equally distressing are the antibiotic resistant strains of tuberculosis, syphilis, gonorrhea, and Clostridium difficile that are popping up all over the world and the U.S. We’re calling these new big bads the “Superbugs” and really, we’re at a bit of a loss trying to figure out how to kill them. The whole concept of antibiotic resistance is distressing because it is the evolution of organisms into newer, more dangerous, better adapted pathogens. These bacteria create conditions that we thought we knew how to treat, except the old treatments aren’t working anymore because the bacteria have become “smarter” in their own way. Seems kind of astounding that something as simple as honey might be the answer, but the way it’s looking now, honey could be a big part of the solution.
How bacteria become antibiotic resistant
This is a complex process that has happened partially because of the way we hand out antibiotics like candy for humans, and partly because we use antibiotics in our livestock’s food – not just to keep them from getting diseases in unhealthy living conditions, but also because antibiotics are proven to help fatten animals faster (humans too. Sigh.) Mechanisms for antibiotic resistance include:
- Genetic resistance – Some bacteria have mutated (or evolved) to resist antibiotics, and bacteria have a very free and easy swapping of genes, so gene segments can jump from one bacteria to another in a slightly scary form of information sharing. Bacterial genetics can change very quickly, which makes them highly adaptable (and makes the human error of antibiotic overuse that much more serious).
- Evolution – Darwin would be gleefully saying “I told you so” if he were here to see this. We have unintentionally created an experiment in natural selection. If you blast a person who is sick with antibiotics and they don’t quite get better, the bacteria which have survived are naturally the strongest members of that colony. Quite literally the ones best adapted to survive that harsh environment. They then go on to breed happily with each other enhancing those survival traits so that in the future that harsh environment is just another walk in the park for that particular bacteria. Essentially we’re breeding and cultivating better pathogens.
- Antibiotic overuse in humans – Obviously medicine has been on a bit of a field-day with antibiotics. Doctors have given them for everything from ear infections (usually viral -which antibiotics won’t help) to acne (really? We should put teenagers on systemic antibiotics for months? Really?) The more we use them the more likely it is that our bacteria evolve to avoid them. Plain and simple.
- Antibiotic overuse in livestock – In the effort to make fatter farm animals (which is clearly what this culture needs) we feed them antibiotics. The good news is that it works – they fatten right up. The bad news is that they become factories for drug-resistant bugs. The other bad news is that the humans consuming those animals get exposure to the antibiotic resistant bacteria, and also low doses of the antibiotics themselves, thereby nudging their own internal bacteria towards drug resistance.
- Biofilms – one of the things bacteria have learned to do to avoid dying in an antibiotic-rich environment is to create what is called a biofilm. It is exactly what it sounds like, a sticky, gooey mass of bacteria that literally cement themselves together to make it harder for you to kill them.
How honey helps fight antibiotic resistance in bacteria
Outside of being utterly amazing and yummy and rich in minerals, polyphenols, antioxidants and bioflavenoids, honey is also a pretty amazing bacterial killer (not to mention wound healer – honey is used in hospitals on severe burns and wounds that won’t heal). Honey has many overlapping mechanisms for killing bacteria, which makes it much harder for bacteria to develop resistance – honey really is a miracle health food. Here’s what it does to bacteria:
- Kills them with kindness – The high sugar concentration in honey actually does kill bacteria through osmotic effects. Essentially it’s like pouring salt on slugs – it just draws all the water out of the bacteria and dries them up. Incidentally, this is a big part of what happens to human cells in diabetes – think about that the next time you buy a giant bucket of soda.
- Kills them with cruelty – Honey is designed to prevent bacteria growth because it’s long-term storage food for bees. This means it contains substances that are toxic to bacteria like hydrogen peroxide, polyphenols, and acids that are actually directly harmful to bacteria.
- Isolates bacteria – New research shows that honey disrupts something called “quorum sensing”, which is the method bacteria use to communicate with each other. This makes the bacteria less virulent by stopping them from communicating enough to release toxins and also increases their susceptibility to conventional antibiotics.
- Prevents biofilms – Without quorum sensing, bacteria have a much harder time forming biofilms (you can’t gang up if you can’t talk with your buddies). This takes away one of the bacteria’s main defenses against drugs and toxins.
- Honey is tricky – Honey doesn’t kill bacteria by targeting the essential growth processes, it eliminates bacteria on many fronts, which makes it much harder to develop a genetic resistance to this kind of damage.
Honey for health: The best things about honey
Honey for health isn’t a new idea – it’s been used for centuries as a healing tool. Honey isn’t just antibacterial, there are a host of other great benefits as well. Here’s a quick list, but we’ll probably revisit this issue because there is always more to tell.
- Honey prevents everything – In addition to being antibacterial, honey is also antiviral and antifungal
- Honey is a tremendous antioxidant – That’s all we need to say about that.
- Honey is healing – Honey is extremely soothing to tissues and helps wounds and burns heal with less scarring. Because it’s also antibacterial and antifungal it’s being used in hospitals for this purpose.
- Honey is a cough suppressant – a mug of hot water with honey and lemon juice helps to relax your bronchial tree and loosen up a tight cough.
- Honey helps a sore throat – My grandmother (and mom too, but I remember it best at Nana’s house) used to give me honey and fresh squeezed lemon juice when I’d have a sore throat and have me eat it as slowly as I could (which was not very slowly because it tastes awesome). Worked like a charm.
- Honey makes a great mixed drink – I know in Texas we don’t have many cold nights, but if you ever need quick warming up, try a shot of spiced rum in a mug with honey and hot water. So delicious and warms you right up.
- Honey is soothing to the stomach and esophagus – honey can help to heal gastritis, ulcers and mild erosions in the upper GI tract. This effect is especially well documented with manuka honey. A teaspoon two to three times daily between meals really helps.
- Honey may help with allergies – Eating raw, seasonal, local honey gives you traces of the pollens from the local area and can help to reduce your symptoms from airborne allergens.
- Honey makes you radiant – Honey is just as nourishing to your skin as it is to the rest of you, and helps to nourish your skin from the outside. Honey in your skin care routine can help to provide antioxidants, kill harmful bacteria and rejuvenate skin cells, as well as return your skin to it’s naturally slightly acidic pH. Here’s a favorite honey mask:
1 tsp whole milk
1/2 tsp honey
1/4 tsp sea salt
Mix the ingredients together and apply to your face in gentle circular motions. Leave it on for five minutes and then rinse with warm water. The salt is gently exfoliating, the milk has lactic acid which helps to dissolve old or dead skin cells and the honey and milk proteins and fats nourish your skin to leave it soft and smooth and lovely. Once or twice a week will give you noticeable improvements in skin tone and texture and is just a lovely way to pamper yourself. Honey does tend to lighten the skin subtly, so it can also help with sun spots over time.
I’m obviously a big fan of honey, especially raw organic honey. Honey for health isn’t a new idea, but it’s easy to overlook. Your pantry is often the most useful medicine cabinet in the house, and in truth I’m not sure how I would make my life work without honey (or vinegar – we can talk about that one later.) In the interim – just give honey a try. Honey for health is simple, gentle and effective and best of all it’s one tool that does many jobs. No need for many different types of remedies and potions, just a few really great basics. If you’re looking for even more great information, here’s a great article called 13 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Honey. Totally worth a look!