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Buzz about this: There's strong evidence that the sweet sticky stuff has antibacterial properties that can speed up the healing process.
It soothes sore throats and tastes great in tea. But honey is more than a sweet addition to your diet — it's also a powerful way to help wounds heal.
In a new British Journal of Surgery report, researchers looked at 44 reviews of wound treatment strategies for a variety of injuries. Among the most interesting findings: There was strong evidence showing that honey can cut healing time when applied to mild to moderate burns.
That's something our ancestors may have already known, since honey has been used for healing since ancient times. Between 50 A.D. and 70 A.D., the Greek physician Dioscorides wrote in his medical treatise De Materia Medica that honey was good for treating ulcers. The Edwin Smith Papyrus, an Egyptian medical manual written around 1600 B.C., recommends using honey, usually combined with oil, to treat everything from head wounds to a broken nose to a dislocated jawbone.
"Honey has antibacterial properties, although ancient peoples didn't understand that," says Arlene Shaner, reference librarian for historical collections at the New York Academy of Medicine, which holds the Edwin Smith Papyrus. "But they understood that honey was soothing or healing."
Honey: A Natural Way to Fight Infection
How does honey help wounds heal? A 2010 study published in the FASEB Journal found that bees add an antibacterial protein called defensin-1, a natural part of their immune system, to honey during the production process. And when honey is applied to skin or an open wound, an enzyme called glucose oxidase breaks down, naturally releasing the first-aid staple hydrogen peroxide. Experts say that the high sugar content, low water content, and natural acidity of honey also prevents microbial growth.
Besides burns, honey has also been studied in the treatment of leg ulcers, diabetic foot ulcers, and surgical wounds. In some studies, honey has even been shown to work against antibiotic-resistant bugs like MRSA and vancomycin-resistant enterococci.
Honey From the Pharmacy, Not the Supermarket
But honey produced for medicinal purposes is different from the stuff you may buy in a cute bear-shaped bottle. For one thing, honey sold for use as food may contain pollen, bacterial spores, and other impurities, while medical-grade honey is filtered and sterilized. A 2009 report compared 18 table honeys (those you might buy at the supermarket) with a sample of medicinal-grade Manuka honey, which is particularly high in anti-inflammatory properties. Researchers found a wide variety of bacteria in the table honey and less antimicrobial activity compared with the Manuka honey.
If you want to try the healing power of honey yourself — and stay safe — one commercially available product is the wound dressing Medihoney, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2009 and contains Manuka honey.
You'll be following in some ancient footsteps. "Early people were great observers," says Shaner. "When they tried something and it worked, they kept using it. Clearly people recognized the utility of honey."
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The New York Academy of Medicine’s staff spokepersons and Fellow Ambassadors, accomplished leaders in their respective fields, are available for media interviews.