Tuesday, March 25, 2008



Honey has been used for centuries as a source of food, a commodity to be traded, a highly sought after luxury item, a medicinal and more.  How about an all natural remedy that requires no refrigeration, will not grow mold or bacteria and has an amazingly long shelf life.  In ancient cultures, honey was used to treat burns and wounds.  Some 4000 years ago ancient Egyptians used honey in medicine and make-up.  There are records of its use to treat wounds and open sores to prevent infection on the battlefield.  In more recent folk medicine it is used to treat coughs and bronchitis.


In a modern day “hot totty” honey is mixed with lemon juice, tea and brandy to treat the cough or viral upper respiratory infection.  Recent FDA recommendations to doctors are that they not use over-the-counter cold and cough medications on children under 2 years of age and warn that more research is needed before widespread acceptance of these medications to be used in children under six.  What is a parent to do who has a child up all night coughing?  Honey may be the answer. 


A recent study at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania, researchers found a dose of buckwheat honey before bedtime is far more effective than dextromethorpan (DM) found in most over the counter cough suppressants.


Buckwheat honey is a dark honey.  It is gathered by bees foraging for nectar from the buckwheat grain’s little white flowers.  Light honey, of which we are more familiar, has fewer of the properties of cough suppression as does this darker honey.  Pound for pound there is much more nutritional value and medicinal effect in the darker honeys.


Honey main constituent parts are levulose and dextrose.  These two sugars in near equal amounts make up almost 80% of the sugars in honey.  Levulose is a unique sugar in that it is readily assimilated by the human alimentary tract without the use of any digestive enzymes.  It also is absorbed rather slowly, not allowing for a large spike in blood sugars.  This low glycemic index property makes honey safe for use in diabetic patients.  The slow uptake of levulose allows for this sugar to reach the large colon which is most likely responsible for the laxative effect of honey.  Honey also contains polyphenols which makes it a good source of antioxidants.  These antioxidant properties play a role in cleansing the body of free radicals implicated in serious illness, such as cancer and heart disease.  Honey is said to be relaxing and taking it in the evenings can offer a natural and safe way to induce sleep.  It is also thought to have anti-inflammatory properties.  Some researchers believe that the bee may spray the comb with small amounts of venom before placing honey in them, and while this is controversial it may account for some of the healing properties of honey and its anti-inflammatory properties.


Honey contains a number of nutrients in addition to the levulose and dextrose sugars namely some proteins and enzymes.  Three important enzymes are present in honey:  invertase, diastase, and glucose oxidase.  Enzymes are most likely a result of the bee’s process of converting nectar into honey, since they are not found in the nectar.  Invertase converts sucrose into levulose and dextrose, while diastase an enzyme used to convert starch to simpler sugars (of which nectar has no starch) is a mystery.  Researchers are still not sure why this enzyme is present in honey.  In Europe diastase has its usefulness in the honey industry as it is measured to check for product quality.  Finally glucose oxidase found in the pharyngeal glands of bees and they honey they produce forms hydrogen peroxide during its action on dextrose (a lesser sugar in honey).  This peroxide is what is probably responsible for the heat-sensitive antibacterial activity of honey.  Other bacterial and yeast/fungi fighting properties of honey include the high sugar content (with the osmotic effect of literally drying out microbes) and its relative acidity (malic acid and other natural acids) that inhibit microbial growth and make honey bacteriastatic.  Honey produced exclusively for medical purposes in New Zealand and Australia have antibacterial phenol-like substances from bees that forage within the native Leptospermum species of trees.


Depending on the type of honey there can be found quite a few minerals such as potassium, sulfur, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, manganese, copper & and many more trace elements.  Very few vitamins in low amounts are also present, but not in any quantity to become a significant source.  While there is the misconception that bee venom contains formic acid (like that seen in red/fire ants) it has been scientifically proven not to exist, yet the general public is still under this impression.  Some studies have shown that the active ingredient melittin in bee venom may have curative properties in the rheumatologic and arthritic diseases.


Since the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Chest Physicians do not condone the use of dextromethorpan for childhood cough, as this medication has been implicated in accidental overdoses and in recent years been used by teenagers in order to get high, a viable alternative in dark honey.  However, it is not recommended for children under the age of one-year.  Honey can harbor the spores of Clostridium botulinnum the cause of infant botulism.  This bacterium is harmless in older children and adults.




JP Saleeby, MD is medical director of the emergency department at MPH, Bennettsville.  He maintains a blog at www.saleeby.net


© 2008











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