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Therapeutic Value of Honey as a Skin Healer

by Maurice McKeown, BDS, PhD
(our New Zealand correspondent)

Mainstream and alternative medicine frequently confront one another in many areas of health care. Sadly such confrontations rarely result in any clear-cut victory for either side. That could, however, be set to change.

Researchers in New Zealand and Australia are currently building a strong case that some of their local honeys can promote wound healing which is vastly superior to that provided by mainstream medication; indeed even superior to traditional honeys. Healing of persistent leg ulcer is for example, a major problem. The treatment of damage to skin is after all, a field in which the results are clearly visible. There is a substantial body of medical literature, which has investigated the potential beneficial effects of honey in recent years. Professor Peter Molan at the University of Waikato in New Zealand has reviewed 73 published articles on the subject. Professor Molan has been a key figure in the research on Manuka honey in New Zealand. (Primary Intentions 1998 Vol 6 (4) 148-158).

One such study involved the investigation of superficial burn injuries published in the British Journal of Surgery in 1991. One hundred and four patients were included. Fifty-two were treated by conventional medical methods and the remainder with honey. Of the wounds treated with honey 87% healed within 15 days as against 10% in the conventional group. (Subrahmanyam 1991 Topical application of honey in treatment in burns. Vol 78: 497-498).

Honey has provided a therapeutic ointment from time immemorial. It is only recently however that we have been able to explore the biochemical mechanisms which are involved. Any ointment applied to damaged skin whether it be burned or cut, has a legion of tasks to perform. It has, above all, to maintain the integrity of the skin involved, expel noxious invaders and promote the healing process. It seems that some honeys can supply such benefits and may in addition be able to defeat even dreaded antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

New Zealand folklore has fostered the belief that some types of honey have substantial curative powers. This led to the investigation of honey produced from bees that fed upon our native tea trees here in New Zealand. The trees were so named because early explorers, desperate for a decent cup of tea, were forced to use their leaves to produce a drinkable beverage. (I have to say that having tasted the beverage, I would definitely prefer water.)

It should be pointed out that the early discoverer/explorer Captain Cook did not precisely differentiate all the plants that he discovered around the world. Thus in both Australia and New Zealand we have plants called 'Tea' trees. Many readers will be familiar with tea tree oil. The first oil to be marketed originated in Australia. It is derived from the plant Melaluca, while New Zealand tea tree oil - a much more recent commercial product, comes from a different plant Leptospermum. The oils produced from each are dramatically different in their chemistry. To add further confusion to the matter Leptospermum also grows in a small part of Australia. It is Leptospermum that we are concerned with here, as bees in New Zealand and a few of their Australian cousins produce their honey by feasting upon Leptospermum. In Australia the honey is called Jelly Bush honey and in New Zealand it is called Manuka honey. It appears that of the many varieties of Leptospermum in Australia only one produces the therapeutic honey considered here.

This Leptospermum derived honey is now believed to have healing properties far beyond the traditional healing power of other honeys. Research in New Zealand has led to the marketing of a special honey, which is claimed to have specific curative powers. It carries an identification label specifying the strength of the antibacterial component; similar to the protective gradation applied to sun protection formulas. The reason is that the curative factor is present in uncertain quantities in any specific batch of honey produced by bees feeding upon Manuka bushes. The reasons are unclear, either the bees or the bushes are inconsistent. The product claims to provide a guarantee of anti-bacterial potency.

Interestingly the precise component present in this honey is currently unknown and the designation on the product label reflects that. The term UMF factor 15+ for example means that the Unknown Manuka Factor present in the honey is designated as level 15. Batches of honey are tested to determine anti-bacterial potency. Manuka honey is available in a range of different potencies. The most potent is sold in a tube. The key anti- bacterial (and possibly antiviral) components in the honey which are believed to be extremely potent, have eluded researchers to date but recent research at the University of New South Wales in Australia has thrown important light on both the anti-bacterial mechanisms involved in honeys generally and on Manuka-type honeys in particular.

How does ordinary honey help wound healing?
Honey helps to keep a wound moist. Research in the early 1960s confirmed that wounds kept moist, heal quicker. Unfortunately a moist environment also promotes bacterial growth; thus a successful dressing material must also be anti-bacterial.

Standard honeys are mildly anti-bacterial. One reason is that they are high in sugars, which bind to water molecules denying bacteria the moisture which they need to grow. The main anti-bacterial action in honey is the result of the production of hydrogen peroxide by the action of the enzyme glucose oxidase, an enzyme which bees add to honey. Unfortunately the valuable anti-bacterial effect of hydrogen peroxide is limited by the fact that the body has an enzyme which breaks it down rapidly.

Jelly Bush and Manuka honeys
Shona Blair, a PhD student at the University of Sydney, has been researching the virtues of such honeys for some years. In a radio interview on ABC (the Australian Broadcaster) on 31 October this year, she disclosed the findings of her latest work.

She has determined that honey kills bacteria by turning off genes that "allow the bacteria to reproduce and - the honey seemed to be activating huge numbers of the bacteria's defence genes (over 100)." She believes that the honey was in effect overwhelming the bacteria by attacking it on many different levels at once.

Shona looked at many genes and concluded that "about 70% of the genes looked at were up-regulated, which meant that they were turned on more by the honey, and about 40% were down-regulated so that they were in effect made less effective by the honey."

It has also been found that the UMF factor is not broken down in the same way as hydrogen peroxide and is thus more persistently antibacterial. In addition UMF factor is claimed to be able to penetrate skin easily, thus being capable of reaching deep-seated infection. Ms Blair's research has also uncovered a variety of other likely mechanisms, which are involved.

She has found that honey stimulates white blood cells to produce cytokines, particularly interlukin-1, interlukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor. She believes that applications of honey speed up healing and reduce scarring.

Her research has included laboratory studies in which differing concentrations of honey were applied to E Coli bacteria in a culture medium. Preliminary results of her work, published in a news release by the University of Sydney in Australia, provide evidence that these special honeys may be vitally important in the fight against antibiotic resistant organisms.

She commented "I found honey diluted to one percent inhibits the growth of drug resistant staph aureus for approximately three hours, a two percent honey solution inhibits growth for five hours, three percent for 10 hours and there was no detectable growth in four percent solution over a 24-hour period."

It appears that bees and nature in general, still have a competitive edge over the medical miracles of our latest medical science.

It is quite simple to use such treatment. Honey should be applied to a wound and covered by a band aid for practical reasons. It should be replaced once a day, or more often in cases of serious or persistent injury.

The New Zealand version of the honey discussed above is marketed internationally by Comvita New Zealand and on the Internet at The standard product of uncertain potency does not have a label indicating the UMF value of the product. The special version has the designation - for example - Active UMF 15+.

Note: Some honeys are artificially heated to promote fluidity. It is best to buy honeys at a reputable health food store.

Honey is not patented - yet! It is unlikely, one hopes, that the drug industry will leap on the commercial bandwagon. In the meantime a tube of Manuka honey might be a valuable addition to your medicine cabinet.

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