When you apply lashings of honey to your toast or drop a teaspoon of the sweet nectar into your tea, do you ever stop and think of its medicinal qualities?
“Honey has been used as a medicine throughout the history of the human race,” according to Liz Harry, professor of biology and director of the ithree institute (infection, immunity, innovation) at the University of Technology Sydney.
“It has been used as a topical therapy for skin infections and conditions and for sore throats.”
Professor Harry told ABC Radio Sydney that it was time to “unleash the full benefits of honey for our health”, especially amid growing concerns about antibiotic resistance.
Experts have predicted that antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people a year worldwide if action isn’t taken by 2050.
More people are expected to die from it than those who suffer from cancer or diabetes, and it already costs the Australian healthcare budget more than $250 million annually.
But Professor Harry said that unlike antibiotics, bacteria were not resistant to honey, which had revived interest in its use for skin and wound infections.
“Honey appears to kill bacteria in different ways — part of the secret to why bacteria don’t get resistant to it.”
The most common and consistent use of honey was as a wound dressing, she said.
“There is also some evidence, including case studies, that honey has wound-healing properties.
“It is thought to do this by influencing the immune system in a positive way — more research is required to explore this property of honey.
“Evidence also suggests that honey is really good for gut health — we are exploring this in more detail currently with a world-leading gastroenterologist in Sydney.”
‘We usually eat it’
The professor said when antibiotics were discovered in the 1960s, honey was dismissed as a routine treatment for infections.
While she said a clinical trial was needed to measure honey’s suitability for treating chronic wounds and gut health, getting funding to do research in this area was a challenge.
This was because there wasn’t a profit motive for companies that had newer, more expensive wound dressings and treatments, she said.
“Honey dressings are available right now in Australia and several countries around the world, but they are underutilised.
“Honey is a cheap topical treatment for skin infections and chronic wounds, the latter of which is on the rise due to the ageing population and the increase in the proportion of the Australian population with diabetes, who will suffer chronic foot ulcers.”
There were social reasons why honey wasn’t used as a topical anti-infective in mainstream medicine, Professor Harry said.
“It is considered a bit weird to use for wounds or as a prebiotic for gut health — we usually eat it.”
Not just any honey will do
Professor Dee Carter, head of microbiology at the University of Sydney, agreed that honey was being looked at as a serious alternative.
“Honey is good because it seems to help the healing process; I don’t think there’s any antibiotic out there that can do that.”
She warned, however, that not just any honey would do and people should source it from a reputable manufacturer to ensure it had been properly tested and verified.
“It can’t be stuff you buy off the supermarket shelf, and there’s increasing numbers of issues of fraudulent claims being made and tampered honey as well,” she said.
“You have to be careful where you get it from these days.
“I think there’s more Manuka honey being sold than is possible to make at the moment, and a lot of it is coming from dodgy places where they’re just labelling it.
“They haven’t really tested it, and it could be any kind of honey really that they’ve doctored and made to look like it’s Manuka honey but it’s not.”
Many honeys had anti-microbial properties but not the same shelf life as Manuka honey.
“It will retain its activity over time and it doesn’t matter if you heat it, cool it, whatever — it’s still good, whereas the other stuff is much more fragile and tends to go off over time.”