There is something undeniably enchanting about honey; the product of flower nectar transformed by bees, as if by alchemy – but in fact through the far less-poetic act of regurgitation – into a sweet, golden elixir. Honey has held sway over humans since ancient times.
But aside from honey’s seductive color and flavor, it has some scientific superpowers that add to its appeal. Honey has an unusual chemical composition, one which makes it keep indefinitely without spoiling; as is seen whenever ancient pots of honey, still perfectly preserved, are found during excavations of early Egyptian tombs. It is uniquely low in moisture and extremely acidic, making it a forbidding environment for bacteria and microorganisms. On top of that, bees add an enzyme, glucose oxidase, to it that creates hydrogen peroxide as a byproduct. According to the National Institutes of Health, honey is hygroscopic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and has remarkable debriding action. Who knew?
With this bonanza of properties, honey has been used for millennia as a medicinal remedy. As Smithsonian.com reports, the earliest recorded use of honey as a curative comes from Sumerian clay tablets, which convey that honey was used in 30 percent of prescriptions at the time. The ancient Egyptians used honey regularly to treat skin and eye problems; as did the Greeks, Romans, and a number of other cultures.
And ever since — along with being a favored gift to the gods and employed for sweetening cakes and drinks — honey has been used to treat that which ails us. It has been hailed as a fix for everything from scrapes to cancer. The following are some of honey’s best-known health benefits; whether confirmed by science or passed down through folk tradition, they prove honey to be as efficacious as it is delicious.
1. Soothes coughs
A 2007 study from Penn State College of Medicine that involved 139 children, found that buckwheat honey outperformed the cough suppressant, dextromethorphan (DM), in calming nighttime coughs in children and improving their sleep. Another study published in Pediatrics included 270 children aged one to five with nighttime cough due to simple colds; in this study, the children who received two teaspoons of honey 30 minutes before bed, coughed less frequently, less severely and were less likely to lose sleep due to the cough when compared to those who didn't get honey. (For more ideas on fighting coughs, see 10 natural cough remedies.)
2. Boosts memory
According to research reported by Reuters, 102 healthy women of menopausal age were assigned to consume 20 grams of honey a day, take hormone-replacement therapy containing estrogen and progesterone or do nothing. After four months, those who took honey or hormone pills recalled about one extra word out of 15 presented on a short-term memory test. That said, some critics of the study say that it wasn’t scientifically sound because it was small and didn’t last long. But still...
3. Treats wounds
In numerous studies, honey has been found effective in treating wounds. In a Norwegian study, a therapeutic honey called Medihoney (a New Zealand honey that undergoes a special purification process) and Norwegian Forest Honey were found to kill all strains of bacteria in wounds. In another study, 59 patients suffering from wounds and leg ulcers – of which 80 percent had failed to heal with conventional treatment – were treated with unprocessed honey. All but one of the cases showed remarkable improvement following topical application of honey. Wounds that were sterile at the outset, remained sterile until healed, while infected wounds and ulcers became sterile within one week of applying honey.
For the treatment of burns and wounds, WebMD notes: Honey is applied directly or in a dressing which is usually changed every 24 to 48 hours. When used directly, 15 mL to 30 mL of honey has been applied every 12 to 48 hours, and covered with sterile gauze and bandages or a polyurethane dressing.
4. Provides nutrients
According to the National Honey Board, honey contains “small amounts of a wide array of vitamins and minerals, including niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.” Thus, using honey instead of sugar provides you with more nutrients for your calories.
5. Potentially prevents low white blood cell count
The Mayo Clinic notes that honey may be a promising and inexpensive way to prevent low white blood cell count caused by chemotherapy. In one small trial, 40 percent of cancer patients who were known to be at risk of neutropenia (very low blood count) had no further episodes of the condition after taking two teaspoons daily of therapeutic honey during chemotherapy. More research is needed, but the remedy could hold great potential.
6. May relieve seasonal allergies
Many people swear by honey’s ability to lessen symptoms of seasonal allergy. As honey has anti-inflammatory effects and is known to soothe coughs, it may not seem like much of a stretch; but honey’s efficacy for treating allergy hasn’t been proven in clinical studies. That said, some experts say that honey can contain traces of flower pollen, and exposure to small amounts of allergens works as good treatment to combat reactions. Whether it can be proven by science or not is one thing; but at its worst, it makes for a delicious placebo. (And don’t knock the healing power of placebos!)
7. Kills antibiotic-resistant bacteria
In clinical studies, medical grade honey has been shown to kill food-borne illness pathogens like E. coli and salmonella, as well as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, both of which are common in hospitals and doctors' offices.
8. May help metabolize alcohol
This one's for you cocktail swillers, The NYU Langone Medical Center reveals that honey taken orally might, "increase the body's ability to metabolize alcohol, thereby limiting intoxication and more rapidly reducing alcohol blood levels." Honey shots all around.
9. Makes great workout fuel
Many athletes rely on sugar-laden sports drinks and gels for carbohydrates to fuel their bodies before and during endurance events, and afterwards to help muscle recovery. At 17 grams of carbohydrates per tablespoon, honey makes an excellent source of all-natural energy that is superior to other conventional sources since it comes with added nutrients. The National Honey Board recommends adding honey to your bottle of water for an energy boost during workouts. Snacks with honey can be eaten before and after, and honey sticks can be used during endurance events.
10. Resolves scalp problems and dandruff
In a study involving patients with chronic seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff, the participants were asked to apply honey diluted with 10 percent warm water to their problem areas and leave it on for three hours before rinsing with warm water. In all of the patients, itching was relieved and scaling disappeared within one week. Skin lesions were completely healed within two weeks, and patients showed subjective improvement in hair loss as well. And when applied weekly thereafter for six months, patients showed no sign of relapse.
All of that said, there are two important things to remember about honey: One, just because it proffers numerous health benefits doesn't mean it's not caloric; one tablespoon yields 64 calories. Also, it's crucial to remember that honey is not appropriate for children younger than 12 months because it can contain the bacteria that causes infant botulism.