Is Honey Antibacterial?
It's True! Honey Kills Bacteria
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Is honey antibacterial? Rumor has it that honey has supposed antimicrobial properties. These properties are purported to help heal wounds, combat disease, and lessen the healing time for burn victims. How much of it is true? Fortunately, there have been several research studies looking into this.
Honey has been used for thousands of years not only for food purposes but also as medicine. In Greece, Hippocrates recommended a mixture of honey, water, and various medicinal substances to treat fevers. In Egypt, people used honey to help heal infected wounds and used it in the embalming process. Honey has a great place in Ayurvedic medicine from India, especially to help digestion. Many other civilizations employed honey in treating various ailments. Wound healing was a common use among most if not all these ancient civilizations, and for a good reason.
In more modern times, studies have been conducted regarding the properties of honey and its supposed antimicrobial benefits. In these studies, researchers found many components of honey to have antibacterial qualities, but together they worked synergistically to create a much higher antimicrobial effect. There are four most significant properties, but many others also contribute. Of the four main components: first, honey naturally pulls moisture from its surroundings, dehydrating bacteria and killing it. Second, honey is acidic with a pH of 3.2-4.5, which is low enough to keep most microorganisms from reproducing. Third, the glucose oxidase in honey tends to make hydrogen peroxide via glucose oxidation when diluted. Fourth, there are multiple phytochemicals (plant-specific chemicals) that are antibacterial.
The solid matter in honey is almost all sugar. Not counting the water content, 95-99% of honey is pure sugar, mostly fructose and glucose. This contributes to the inhibition of bacterial growth but does not account for how effective honey can be. While the organic acids, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and enzymes may be as little as 1% of the solid matter in honey, they are vital. They act as probiotic agents, including some antimicrobial factors, and give honey its characteristic taste. Honey’s color comes mainly from the flowers which produced the nectar but is affected by age and storage conditions. It can range from colorless to dark amber.
It is important to note that not all honey is equal. The antimicrobial quality of honey depends on the health of the bees, what plants produced the nectar, where it was produced, and what time of the year it was produced. Manuka honey is well-known for being remarkably high quality and high in its antimicrobial properties. Manuka honey must be produced with only flowers of the Manuka tree available to the bees. However, other regional honeys have been studied with several compared to Manuka, such as Tualang and Ulmo honeys.
Honey has been shown to be effective against 60 strains of bacteria and some fungi and viruses. Some of the more well-known bacteria that honey can fight include E. coli, Salmonella, H. pylori, anthrax, diphtheria, listeria, tuberculosis, Staph. aureus, and Strep. mutans. The ability to either inhibit or kill these bacterial strains depends on how much the honey is diluted. Greater dilutions will only inhibit, while higher concentrations are better for killing the bacteria. Some preliminary studies have found honey to be effective against community-associated MRSA, at least in lab conditions.
Wound healing is another great use for honey not only because of its antimicrobial properties. Honey is also anti-inflammatory, promotes healing, and reduces scar formation. In studies where medical-grade honey was compared with other topical wound treatments such as silver sulfadiazine, honey was more effective. It promotes skin regrowth and keeps the area moist, so bandages will not stick to the wound. Studies have not yet found exactly why honey helps wounds heal faster, but it is undeniable. Honey on wound dressings has been found to sterilize the wound, ease pain, and combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Scientists have some clues about how honey assists in wound healing, such as the tissues using the high nutrient content of the honey. The acidity helps keep the area free from bacteria that hinder healing, and the hydrogen peroxide stimulates macrophages (a type of white blood cell that “eats” foreign bacteria).
Even though honey has been shown to be effective in inhibiting or killing many strains of bacteria, it does not affect many beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Strep. thermophilus, Lacto delbrueckii, and Bifidobacterium bifidum. These are among the bacteria that have been identified as vital to a healthy gastrointestinal tract. This makes honey a good option for sweetening fermented dairy products as it inhibits detrimental bacteria while allowing beneficial bacteria to grow.
Honey can still contain botulism spores, even though it is effective against many types of bacteria. This is not a concern to most people as a healthy mature digestive tract does not allow spores to activate and reproduce. However, the digestive tract of infants has not developed all the protective features to keep botulism spores from reproducing. Botulism in honey is a major concern to infants and should be avoided.
The antimicrobial properties of honey are widely discussed and, in many cases, supported by studies. That does not mean that it is the answer to every illness or injury or for every person, especially infants. However, quality honey can be quite effective against many types of harmful bacteria. The effectiveness is dependent upon where the honey is from and what plants went into its making. However, at the medical-grade, it is phenomenal in its potency.
Have you used honey as medicine?
Almasaudi, S. (2021). The antibacterial activities of honey. Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences, 2188-2196.
Eteraf-Oskouei, T., & Najafi, M. (2013). Traditional and Modern Uses of Natural Honey in Human Diseases: A Review. Iran Journal of Basic Medical Sciences, 731-742.
Israili, Z. H. (2014). Antimicrobial Properties of Honey. American Journal of Therapeutics, 304-323.
Mandal, M. D., & Mandal, S. (2011). Honey: its medicinal property and antibacterial activity. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine, 154-160.
Oryan, A., Alemzadeh, E., & Moshiri, A. (2016). Biological properties and therapeutic activities of honey in wound healing: A narrative review and meta-analysis. Journal of Tissue Viability, 98-118.
Originally published in Backyard Beekeeping October/November 2021 and regularly vetted for accuracy.